Thursday, January 03, 2008

Late night returns, part 1: Dave vs. Jay

Sorry for the delay on this. Was in the drippy/sneezy phase of a bad cold last night and realized I needed to sleep about five minutes into Letterman. So I'm going to be working my way slowly through all the late night shows as the day goes along. First up, after the jump: Letterman and Leno...

I don't think it's any secret that I'm pro-WGA on this strike. I was happy to see Letterman get the waiver to bring back his writers and hoped that his guys would wipe the floor comedically with Leno to prove their value.

That having been said, I hate to say it, but Leno flying solo was probably more entertaining than Letterman fully staffed.

Jay wasn't spectacularly funny with his monologue, or his audience Q&A (a bit that Dave also resorted to, albeit with some weak writer-provided punchlines), but there was a liveliness and spontaneity to him that you don't get from Scripted Jay. Some of the punchlines failed, some landed (the riff about why women would want to join Al Qaeda was nice), but for the first time in a long time, Jay reminded me that he once was (and in some ways still is) the hardest-working stand-up in the business. Too often, the Leno version of "Tonight" tries too hard to please everybody, but Jay seemed to leave the focus grouping behind, particularly during the Q&A segment, when he didn't try to hide how silly he found most of the questions.

Dave, meanwhile, came back and did basically the same show he always does. There were some pro-writer touches like the kickline of dancers holding picket signs, or "Late Show" writer Bill Scheft interrupting a prop gag at the tail end of the Q&A to deliver a rant aimed at "the arrogant media moguls who've gotten so fat on our sweat-soaked toil that they can no longer fit behind their mahogany desks," but for the most part, it was "Late Show" as usual. The monologue was the standard meta-commentary about how bad the monologue is (this time punctuated by Biff coming out to ask when the writers would be coming back), and if there were great punchlines in the Top 10 list of striking writers' demands, the halting delivery by 10 of those striking writers stepped on them.

Really, "Late Show" didn't come to life until Robin Williams sat down for the first guest segment and began riffing on Dave's strike beard. Not a bad episode, but also not a clear-cut "This is why the writers are so important" statement.

Back in early afternoon, hopefully, without thoughts on Conan, Kimmel and Ferguson.


Tom said...

Spot-on regarding the monologues and audience Q&A, Alan. I was surprised at my reaction, as I generally prefer Letterman to Leno.

Can't say that I agree that the Williams interview brought Letterman's show to life. It was entertaining enough, though I thought Leno's interview with Huckabee was better television. And I must point out that an improv comic as the highlight of the "written" show is not good karma for the writers' strike.

J said...

I flipped back and forth for a bit before running with Letterman. I thought it was interesting Leno mentioned the fact Letterman wasn't scabbing (and interesting to hear Huckabee backpedalling (again) about crossing the picket line after-the-fact).

I thought the Letterman show was a real blown opportunity. All the warm publicity coming off the negotiated deal might have brought them extra eyes, but his show felt just like it would have had they done a writer-free ep: Hal Gurney's Time Wasters, Know Your Staff. Irony backfires on Letterman because his shows have, since their inception, been about wasting network time. Which is great! But Conan, killing air by spinning rings on his desk, ultimately felt like he was out-Daving Letterman.

A bigger problem? 90% of the show felt like a WGA infomerical. And I get why, and bless the writers, and good for Worldwide Pants. But I'd bet it turned off the new viewers who just want to stop hearing about the strike and be entertained.

Not that Dave cares. He'll just keep being Dave and doing what Dave wants and ultimately I'll still love him for it.

Anonymous said...

I TiVo'd all four of the CBS and NBC shows, and they all had a strange feeling of being "unpopulated" -- even Dave and Craig with their writers back.

As for Letterman, I'd say that when you're on top -- the one show with all the biggest advantages -- it's time to drop the self-deprecating "this show is crap" jokes. Why not just put on the best show you can? I was disappointed that after two months off, the writers couldn't come up with something more special.

Jay, on the other hand, really did seem to benefit from a lack of confidence. He didn't push his punchlines over and over as he usually does -- he just told the jokes and let that be that. And when he told a story from his life, it actually made me laugh for a change.

And maybe it was the beards, but Dave, Conan and Craig all looked appreciably older last night. Has the strike really been that stressful on them?

Anonymous said...

That having been said, I hate to say it, but Leno flying solo was probably more entertaining than Letterman fully staffed.


Diane said...

Letterman didn't get a waiver -- Worldwide Pants signed an actual deal with the WGA.

Anonymous said...

Letterman's been phoning it in for YEARS. I understand why people think of him as hipper than Leno, and no doubt his battle with NBC makes him a hero to people who love giving "the Man" the finger (I am one of those people).

But those things don't make him funny. The Q&A session with the audience blew (Dave could barely be bothered to look up from his cue cards at the obvious plants in front of the mic), jokes got stepped on by both Biff and Paul, and while I appreciated both the kickline and the "strike captain's" rant, from what I've read about the other late night shows, Letterman actually did the worst job of explaining what the strike's about. There was an implicit assumption that everyone's been following this as closely as the media and the industry have and know what the issues are. If the show couldn't be funny, could it not at least have been educational?

(As for the guys going back without writers, it seems to me one of the best things the WGA could do is ask those who support them to start targeting the advertisers. Write letters to corporations that advertise during struck shows, telling them you won't buy their widgets until there's a fair deal.)

Anonymous said...

We'll see how it goes in a couple of weeks when Leno has used up all his spontaneity and Dave still has his writers backing him up.

I'm thinking Dave will turn out as the "winner" eventually.

Anonymous said...

I'm a huge Letterman fan, can't even stand the sight and sound of Leno, but I thought Letterman was off last night, like he was sick or something.

LDP said...

I'm old enough to remember when Jay Leno was funny -- really funny. He killed as a guest on David Letterman's Late Night.

Now, Letterman on his worst night is better than Leno on his best.

Undercover Black Man said...

I didn't see Leno's strike shows, or Conan's. Only Letterman's. And I'm afraid his weren't very funny. His strike jokes weren't even funny.