Monday, October 09, 2006

The Late night talk show wars

I was watching David Letterman last night for about 15 minutes because Rachel Ray was on, and I wanted to see what she was all about, and I just can’t stand him. It just baffles me that 10 years ago our country was engaged in a debate over who should be the next Tonight Show host and our only two options were Jay Leno and David Letterman, because neither of those 2 are particularly good.

Jay Leno is a pretty good stand-up comic and seems like a genuinely nice guy but when you get down to it, he’s a poor conversationalist. In other words, he’s a boring guy to talk to and an even more boring guy to watch having a conversation. He asks the guests really obvious and boring questions like “how’s your marriage going?”, “how are your kids doing?”, “what do you like to do with your kids?”, “how do you like to spend Christmas/Thanksgiving/The 4th of July/[whatever holiday is coming up]?” He also asked a lot of people when the Olympics were on if they watched the Olympics and what events they liked and stuff (It’s kind of a promotional thing because NBC broadcasts the Olymnpics), which is funny because most of the guests talked excitedly about the Olympics with him, while I’ve heard a lot of celebrities (like Bryant Gumbel and Charles Barkley) speak out about how boring the Winter Olympics are. For the record, I personally like the Winter Olympics, but I’m getting off track.

I don’t really feel a need to attack Leno because, despite the fact that he apparently gets better ratings than Letterman, I’ve never met a single fan of Jay Leno. Theoretically, some people must be watching somewhere, but it doesn’t seem like criticizing Leno is doing anything more than preaching to the choir. Letterman, on the other hand, has a cult following of people who love him. Just turn on his show and you’ll see that the audience wildly applauds at anything he says that’s even a remote attempt at humor. They applaud twice as much as they actually laugh, which says a lot because laughing is a physiological reaction to something funny whereas clapping is something a brainwashed audience does. He also gets claps for things that aren’t funny, but are things he says that the audience agrees with. He might say “New York is a great city” or something and the audience goes off on. (I have that same problem with the Daily Show. Not so much John Stewart but the way audiences tend to hang on every word of his and clap and laugh too much). The problem is the difference between the actual number of funny things he does vs. the number of times they applaud or laugh. My theory is that he used to be funny, and that things like “Will it Float?” or “Is This Something” were at the time revolutionary. They’re both kind of funny once, but he hasn’t changed his act in years. Conan O’Brien does the same kind of acts like “Celebrity Signatures” or “New State quarters” but each new act gives us a new set of state quarters or signatures. That sums up Letterman as a whole: You know how sometimes a funny comedian tells a few jokes to warm up the crowd so that they’ll laugh at anything for later comedians? Letterman warmed up the crowd ten years ago and those people come back to watch him and laugh at what he does now, but for those of us who just turn on his show now and watch, there’s not much to watch. He’s also a poor conversationalist like Leno (slightly better, though) and he is often rude with and disinterested in his guests.

Conan O’Brien, on the other hand, does have the qualities that a talk show host should have and I think that most people my age know it, even if the demographics don’t reflect it. He is genuinely interested in his guests, self-aware, and he works for his laughs every night.

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