(weeknights, 11:35 pm, NBC)
The Late Show with David Letterman
(weeknights, 11:35 pm, CBS)
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & f you can make it through the car chases and pet stories that round out the late news, there's a prize: the late-night talk show. Created by Steve Allen and Johnny Carson and perfected by Jay Leno and David Letterman, it's a nightly habit for millions of Americans -- in fact, according to the latest numbers, 5.1 million tune into Jay each night, while 3.9 million choose Dave.
But which to choose? I'll break it down:
MONOLOGUE I like Dave's dry wit, but Jay has the polish from his stand-up comedian days, his writers are sharper and his jokes are just funnier. EDGE: Jay
GUESTS On a recent evening, you could listen to Howie Mandel tell Jay about his dog's pooping habits, while Dave had Bob Woodruff talking about nearly getting blown to bits in Iraq. That kind of captures the difference: Jay tends more towards whoever has a movie out that week, while Dave likes the offbeat guest -- like Charles Grodin, who was hilarious on a recent visit. But as evidenced by the ratings, America likes the fluffier stuff -- and it translates into more money, too. The Tonight Show earns NBC $141 million a year in profit, according to the Media Business Report, while The Late Show clears $93 million a year for CBS. EDGE: Dave
INTERVIEWING SKILLS Jay just can't do an interview. Too often, he kicks things off with a variation of, "So how's your summer going?" Dave, by contrast, knows when to throw in a joke and when to be serious. His post-Super Bowl interview with Peyton Manning got into all kinds of things sportscasters have missed. EDGE: Dave
SIDEKICKS It's funny how the role of human laugh track pioneered by Ed McMahon has, in this generation, been filled by guys who seem like they're high all the time. Kevin Eubanks has an easy charm to him, while Paul Shaffer is the Ironman of the genre. It's about a draw between those two; the best in the biz, I think, is the quirky Max Weinberg.
EDGE: Conan O'Brien
SUPPORTING CAST Jay has the occasional Hollywood B-lister (Fred Willard) come on for bits, while Dave uses his production crew (Biff Henderson) and his Broadway neighbors (Rupert Jee). It's kind of like their home cities: New Yorkers are real, while L.A. guys are superficial. EDGE: Dave
RECURRING BITS Both shows have their staples, like Jaywalking and Headlines on The Tonight Show and The Top Ten and Stupid Pet/Human Tricks on The Late Show. I love Headlines and The Top Ten, but in general, Jay seems fixated on how dumb we are, while Dave likes to explore how peculiar we are. EDGE: Dave
HUMANITY QUOTIENT This is pretty important to viewer loyalty -- it's why Ellen and Oprah are so crazy popular. Jay sticks to the business of comedy, while Dave seems to have settled into a more three-dimensional persona. Just this week, he gave a touching tribute to the late Calvert DeForest, who recently passed away. He did the same for Tony Randall and Warren Zevon. And he even went after Bill O'Reilly one night. Jay, on the other hand, can seem aloof -- it's hard to know if you're ever getting the real Jay. And he has a bit of a mean streak, often relying on cheap Ryan-Seacrest-is-gay and Camilla-Parker-Bowles-is-ugly jokes for laughs. EDGE: Dave
So overall, I give the clear edge to Dave -- yet I consistently find myself tuning into Jay's monologue. The solution? Start with Jay, and switch over to Dave. That'll really screw up the ratings system, too.