My favorite internet show, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, has started branching out with mini versions of the show. Over the Super Bowl they aired an episode where Jerry Seinfeld picked up his old TV friend, George Costanza. The two re-inhabited their Seinfeld characters for a hilarious conversation about mumbling and over-cheering. This 6 minute vignette made you remember how we miss these two characters pointing out the little things in life.
This week, another one airs comparing but not contrasting the two main figures of late night over the last 20 years, David Letterman and Jay Leno. In an interview with the man who literally wrote the book on the late night wars, Bill Carter, Jerry claims that these two talk show hosts are similar. The 4 minute video shows them both mentioning Richard Pryor and both using a joke about the Board of Health. There is no doubt that these two men came up through the comedy ranks at the same time. There is no doubt that they studied at the feet of Johnny Carson. But to me, that is where the similarities end. I just wouldn’t say that they both learned from Carson. Interviewing someone is a really hard skill to learn. In fact, season 3 of Comedians is showing that Jerry lacks that skill. He struggles with being interested in his guest. (See the Tina Fey episode for proof.) Leno struggles with listening to his guest. Letterman has always been the actual heir to Carson. He forces the guest to say something and to follow up on it. If the guest obliges then a conversation is born. On this latest video, Jerry edits back and forth between his episodes with Dave and Jay. All of these clips are taken from their separate interviews with Jerry. What this new edit doesn’t show are the differences.
In Leno’s version, he drinks coffee for the first time. He has never had a cup of coffee his entire life but decides to try it for the show. First, I don’t believe him. I know I should. When has Leno ever done anything against his word? Maybe I will ask Conan. Secondly, the fact that he has never drank coffee for sixty years but would break that streak just for an internet video, says everything about Leno. Contrast this with the Letterman interview. In his, he watches Jerry add cream and sugar to his coffee. Any regular viewer of Late Night knows Dave loves his coffee and demands it to be black. He admonishes Seinfeld for “monkeying around” with his coffee. To me, this is why I have watched Dave every night since 1989. Dave doesn’t conform to his guest, his network or his interviewer. This makes for great television. Leno would conform in a second not just to his network but most likely to any stranger.
I have watched the Late Night wars with Leno and Letterman and then Leno and Conan in a way that real men watch sports. I love following it and I love Bill Carter’s books on the subject. On Friday, they end. There will be no wars between The Jimmy’s because that brand of television doesn’t exist any more. You don’t have to choose. You can watch them all on you tube, Hulu or anywhere. In the end, they will say Leno won. He did win the ratings war for most of the 20 years they battled. I say Leno lost because no one will ever write a story about him with out saying he stole The Tonight Show from Letterman by hiding in a closet and signing back room deals with NBC. He stole The Tonight Show from Conan because he just didn’t know when it was time to leave. For history, it won’t matter how many cups of coffee he tries to please people, everyone will remember the type of person he was. His desire to please makes for the most bland type of television there is. I think the technical name for this kind of television is called NBC.
Check out the Comedians In Cars compare video here.
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