When I was a younger man I regularly watched Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. Then, one day, a new show came on after Carson…Late Night with David Letterman. I watched it a few times…it was sort of weird, and the host was a gap-toothed former weatherman from Indiana with a very skewed, strange sense of humor, an acerbic manner, and a very low tolerance for self-important celebrities and BS, which was a very new (and seemingly counter-intuitive) concept for a talk show host.
He did strange things, like drop stuff off of buildings, run over stuff with steamrollers, and he put on a Velcro suit (and used a trampoline to launch himself up and stick to a wall), a suit of suet (and went into an enclosure and let birds feed off of him), and a suit of Alka Seltzer (and was lowered into a tank of water). He did segments from the perspective of his dog Bob, and he strapped cameras to monkeys and let them run loose in the studio. He had the show’s writers and crew members, who were obviously not polished performers, participate in skits and segments with varying (but almost always funny) results. He had weird recurring segments that only became funny after several repetitions, like “Camping with Barry White”, where the R&B legend would be onstage in a mocked-up campsite, and Dave would join him and get sage outdoor advice. It was weird, it was funny, and it was un-Carson-like.
And I found that I began watching Letterman more regularly than Carson. It eventually became obvious that Johnny was winding down, only hosting a few times a week, and although he was one of the greatest talk show hosts of all time, you could tell he had hit the wall and was just going through the motions. Meanwhile Dave was getting funnier, smoother (for Dave), and more creative. It looked like a shoe-in for Dave to take over the Tonight Show, as he was the natural heir to the late-night throne.
Changing of the Guard
At this point Jay Leno had been installed as Johnny’s permanent guest host, and his ratings were good. Jay was (and is) one of the great stand-up comedians, and he seems like one of the few genuinely nice people in show business. When Johnny finally announced his retirement, NBC was faced with a decision — Jay or Dave. As we all know, they picked Jay, so then Dave moved to CBS to go head-to-head with Jay. I followed Dave over to CBS, but I also would check out Jay from time to time, since I was a fan of his stand-up comedy.
And what I found was that Jay usually had a strong opening monologue, and it was usually longer than Dave’s, and often funnier, in a “stand-up comedy” sense. However, Dave’s monologues were usually wittier and more sublime/absurd, as opposed to punchline/rimshot funny. And for me, ultimately, Dave’s sensibilities stood the test of time and also held my attention and my interest.