Return of the Kings (of Late Night)

Return of the Kings (of Late Night)

Well, they’re back. And two, at least, are bushy.

David Letterman and Conan O’Brien returned to the air Wednesday night, each sporting a strike-beard, which apparently is a thing. Why, exactly, I don’t know. On Conan, it actually worked—it lent him a sort of gravitas, sort of a young Obi-Wan thing. The beard aged poor Dave about twenty years. He said it himself: “I know what you’re thinking: Dave looks like a missing hiker.” Or, perhaps, the grizzled old insane guy who lives in the woods who finds that hiker.

But the shows were the thing, and the big three—that’s Dave, Conan, and Jay Leno—outfitted themselves pretty well, all things considered. But the winner of the night—I hate to say this, mind you—was Leno. Even without writers, his Tonight Show was pretty tight, and Jay himself pretty funny. He was glib and energetic; he did an off-the-cuff monologue that was funnier than Letterman’s scripted one. He had the benefit of Mike Huckabee as a guest--a presidential candidate who’s currently riding a wave of popularity—even if he then had to resort to cooking a pepper steak onstage for a bit. A smart, strong show. The Tonight Show question is this: can he sustain it?

Conan’s Late Night, also pushing on without writers, was a little rougher around the edges. Maybe this is his relative inexperience flying solo showing. After all, Conan comes more from a writing background, not stand-up, as Jay and Dave did. So some of his absurdist stuff was just that—absurd—and never really crossed over into the realm of funny. Of course, the same can be said for a lot of the stuff Letterman tried back in the 1988 strike, and this was only their first night back on the air. Not a bad first night, but not a great one, either.

Letterman, on the other hand, was a little more tired. (And his beard wasn’t helping in this respect, either.) Late Show is back writers, having made a side deal with the WGA to allow their return. But they made the curious decision, despite this advantage, to still use writer-less tactics. Letterman interviewed a member of his staff (a pleasant enough interview, but definitely not fascinating TV) and even did a bit with his old producer Hal Gurnee, bringing back his Network Time Wasters (which didn’t waste much time at all—that act was onstage for about ten seconds, tops). Letterman even had to laugh at himself when he flubbed the staged audience participation part of the show, and snickered “Maybe I’m not ready to come back after all.” And I don’t think that was so much the joke he meant it to be.

This is do-or-die time for Dave. Letterman has the advantage of writers, sure, but he also has the disadvantage of high expectations. And it’s not just the writing—Dave’s guests won’t have to cross a picket line to be on the show, so he can expect a far better crop than can Leno and Conan. Dave needs to pick up the pace a bit, get sharp, really grab the audience while he has the chance. Try some new stuff, push the envelope, find the 21st century version of the monkey cam or the Velcro suit. And maybe, despite his allegiances, get a shave. -- Teague Bohlen

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