David Letterman was on vacation last week, so it wasn't until last night's Late Show that he was able to address the death of his mentor, idol and hero, Johnny Carson. The contrast between Letterman's appreciation for the former king of late night and the one presented last week by current Tonight Show host Jay Leno was an extreme one. Leno came out and turned his monologue into a somber, yet not very personal, reflection on what Carson meant to television. He seemed incredibly uncomfortable, trying to be serious in a forum where he's used to being funny. The rest of the show felt like an outsider interviewing people who knew Carson better than Leno ever did or could. It was a perfectly nice presentation by the show that nominally carries on Carson's work.
But what happened on Letterman last night was a whole different animal; not a period of mourning as much as a celebration. Letterman didn't need to have Don Rickles and Bob Newhart reminiscing about what made Carson so great. Letterman came out and started giving a standard monologue, without mentioning Carson at all, much to my surprise. Yet five minutes later, anyone watching the show knew that he couldn't have honored Carson more . Following the traditional comic monologue, Letterman continued with a magnificent reflection about what Carson meant to him that was funny and touching. After mentioning how he owes everything to Carson, he also revealed, "Every one of those jokes I did a few minutes ago were written for us over the last couple of months by Johnny Carson – a tremendous act of friendship." (Can anyone imagine Leno even entertaining the thought of using a Carson-written joke in his monologue?)
Granted, Letterman is known for having his own insecurities about his own talents. The stories of his post-show freak-outs have been going around since his days on NBC. He's never thought he was good enough; much of his humor on-the-air comes from a self-deprecating place – another contrast to the ever-confident Leno – and he's always projected a degree of awe in reference to Carson. Last night during his interview with former Tonight Show producer Peter Lassally, Letterman even asked if Johnny every lost it or screamed in his dressing room when something went wrong after the show, an interesting question for anyone who ever read Bill Carter's The Late Shift about the "late night wars" surrounding Carson's retirement and Letterman's move to CBS.
Letterman spoke about Carson all night with an adoring sense of awe that would have seemed a bit annoying had it not been so genuine. You could tell here and there that had he not been on camera, Letterman might have broken down crying. During much of his reflection, he had a harder time looking into the camera than normal; in fact, it was almost only during a self-deprecating comment that he would stare straight at the home viewer and flash that toothy smile.
He also managed to give a brilliant analysis of both Carson's contribution to late-night television as well as what's currently wrong with it.
The Tonight Show didn’t really become The Tonight Show until Johnny Carson started to host it. And he created the template for that show, and everybody else who's doing a show, myself included, we're all kind of secretly doing Johnny's Tonight Show. And the reason we're all doing Johnny's Tonight Show is because you think, Well if I do Johnny's Tonight Show, maybe I'll be a little like Johnny, and people will like me more. But it sadly doesn't work that way. If you're not Johnny, you're wasting your time. Really everything -- the band, the chairs, the desk, the announcer -- it's all because we just want to be a little bit more like Johnny.
And he's right. Nobody has been able to redefine that template. Even interview-oriented shows like NBC's Later or the Tom Snyder version of CBS's The Late, Late Show that simply featured two easy chairs eventually morphed into a host behind a desk. Last Call with Carson Daly which started with the same comfy chair set-up put Daly behind a desk some time ago as well, simply retreating to the standard set-up created by Carson. It's unfortunate actually, and as Letterman mentioned on the show, maybe some day, another will come along who will redefine the format, but that's still not the case today.
Last night's Late Show show exposed the primary difference between Letterman and Leno: the current Tonight Show host is much more of a performer than his rival and competitor. The only thing different about Leno's show last week from any other Tonight Show was his attempt at warmth and seriousness in his monologue. He had a subject to cover, and that's what he did. Letterman, on the other hand, has rarely seemed as enthusiastic as he was talking about his idol, even under such circumstances.
Maybe that's because of the personal relationship Letterman and Carson had which never existed with the latter's Tonight Show successor. While NBC was able to shove in a clip of one of Leno's earlier stand-up performances on Carson's show, The Late Show was able to provide a mini-retrospective of clips and sketches featuring Carson interacting with Letterman. What does it mean that the eternal sidekick – Ed McMahon – was the only Carson Tonight Show regular to appear with Leno while Letterman spent a half-hour interviewing producer Lassally and then featured a performance by Carson bandleader Doc Severinsen (along with former Tonight Show bandmembers Tommy Newsome and Ed Shaughnessy) – who conspicuously didn't appear with Leno but was doing interviews on Today the next morning. And then there's the fact that Carson had been secretly writing and feeding jokes – for no reason other than his own amusement – to Letterman for at least the last several months.
The viewership numbers may still show Leno being the current late-night leader, but comparing the two tributes to Carson proves both who really carries on Carson's legacy as well as who his favorite was. If the secret to late-night success – at least artistically – is being yourself, Letterman wins in a landslide, and we should all be thankful that the next host of The Tonight Show will be Conan O'Brien.
Meanwhile, there was a little blurb in the business section of yesterday's New York Times (I can't find the article online) that talked about viewership in late night today versus Carson's last year in 1991-92. Amazingly, the analysis of the numbers is abysmal, paying more attention to Leno's larger lead over second-place than Carson's greater total numbers and audience share in a universe with fewer total viewers (as well as, to be fair, far fewer viewing options). But Carson's dominance in the late-night landscape, even if his lead over ABC's Nightline is smaller than Leno's lead over Letterman, shouldn't be underestimated, especially for its cultural significance.
Of course, NBC and Leno care more about the numbers in today's landscape, which makes sense since they're in the business of audience share. And I suppose that was reflected in the two respective tribute shows. While Leno and The Tonight Show honored a figurehead mostly because he had to, Letterman and The Late Show honored a man and his unique talent – because he wanted to.