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Talk show showdown

Talk show showdown — We rate David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and more

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It was just like the first day back to school. Everyone had scrubbed his face, put on his best clothes, and carefully decided which image to present to the world this year. While kids across America prepared for their annual Darwinian struggle, the competitors in the mother of all TV battles also began their own popularity contest.

In week one, big men on campus David Letterman and Jay Leno squared off at 11:35 p.m. for the first time, with Letterman in his new CBS homeroom at the Ed Sullivan Theater. And Dave aced the Aug. 30 entrance exam: He scored a 13.4 overnight Nielsen rating, versus Leno’s 5.6 and Ted Koppel‘s 6.3.

Letterman’s one snafu came when guest Bill Murray‘s can of black paint jammed while he was spraying DAVE on the brand-new desk. ”There was a little humorous head-shaking over that one, but it went well,” says Late Show writer Steve O’Donnell. ”That’s why Letterman is so good at what he does. He keeps on going.”

Leno himself praised ”David’s ability to ad-lib — I liked the little gun thing with (surprise guest) Paul Newman.” Jay’s buddies pointed out that he didn’t really lose viewers to Dave — Leno’s ratings were slightly above average; his own debut last year earned a whopping 13.8 overnight rating. ”Everybody here is a big Letterman fan, but we didn’t think the show got off on its best foot,” says a Tonight Show staffer. ”Letterman seemed to lose control of the show with Bill Murray.”

As Letterman, NBC’s Leno, ABC’s Ted Koppel, and syndication’s Arsenio Hall are joined by Fox’s Chevy Chase (see story on page 28) on Sept. 7 and NBC’s Conan O’Brien on Sept. 13, each is polishing a marketing strategy to strengthen his clique and win new friends — not to mention $600 million in ad revenues. Here’s how the Late-Night High class of ’94 stacks up after the first week:

The Rebel He’s the antihero, the brooding, sarcastic guy in the leather jacket. There had been ominous signs that Letterman, 46, sated with a reported $14 million per year, was going soft, with Paul Shaffer‘s band renamed the CBS Orchestra and Neil Diamond booked for Sept. 27. But Letterman’s still-warped humor, his continuing potshots at NBC, and his list of future guests — Jeff Goldblum, Sarah Jessica Parker, Carrie Fisher, and the Stone Temple Pilots — should calm any worries that Dave is going the way of Merv Griffin. Far from being coddled, writer O’Donnell jokes, CBS’ older-skewing audience can look forward to ”lots of jokes about incontinence.”

Despite the impressive start, Letterman’s longtime executive producer Robert Morton insists the show is still behind the eight ball. ”We’re going after a titan — The Tonight Show, which has been unchallenged for 30 years,” he says. Indeed, ratings mavens predict Letterman will be behind Leno (though with more desirable demographics) after the initial curiosity wave-partly because only 70 percent of CBS affiliate stations are running his show at 11:35 p.m. To win over the holdouts, Dave needs to take lessons from the…

Student-Body President When it comes to glad-handing and spreading network spirit, Jay Leno, 43, is your man. But with the success of Dave’s irreverent, take-no-prisoners approach, Leno is getting a little defensive. ”I’m made out to be weak-kneed,” he complains. ”People say you can’t be too nice. Well, I got here, didn’t I? I’m hosting The Tonight Show, aren’t I?”

A Tonight Show staffer says Leno hates the corny ”America Is Standing Up for Jay” campaign. ”People here tease him about it,” says the source. ”It makes Jay seem as if he’s fallen and can’t get up.” Leno mumbles only, ”I wasn’t crazy about it. Let’s move on.” Leno is relying on a snazzier opening, a new backdrop, and big-time guests — Kathleen Turner and Jamie Lee Curtis will drop by this week — to keep his audience. But if the affiliate playing field levels, Letterman could come out ahead. Industry analysts say that because Letterman’s is a host-driven show, viewers will tune in no matter who the guests are, whereas Leno will hit it big only when big names are on.

The New Kid Can Conan O’Brien, 30, escape the inevitable hazing that comes with being the new guy? His tactic, as his Sept. 13 Late Night debut on NBC at 12:35 a.m. nears, is to keep his head down. He has refused magazine cover stories in order to lower expectations; his commercials have painted him as a floundering host-in-training. The star-from-nowhere talks reluctantly. ”I’d be crazy if I wasn’t a little nervous,” says O’Brien. ”I’m realistic. It takes a little time. Not everyone is going to love me.”

But then he shifts quickly into monologue mode. The biggest adjustment so far? ”The adoration of millions of women. I just can’t handle it.” The perks? ”Free NBC merchandise. Tote bags, hair-care products, visors, you name it.” How is his family handling his sudden fame? ”They’re trying to cash in on it. They’re quickly marketing a lot of stuff. We’re suing and countersuing each other.” He has been fortified with good-luck calls from Letterman, Leno, even Johnny Carson. What advice did Carson give him? ”Live in Malibu.”

Class Clown He can be a little annoying, sure, but maybe Chevy Chase, 49, just needs some attention. To that end, he’s scrambling up the rocky path forged by Joan Rivers (whose 1986 show lasted just seven months) as host of Fox’s new late-night show. ”Chevy’s track record has been somewhat erratic,” says Betsy Frank, senior vice president at advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi. ”People who remember him so fondly on Saturday Night Live forget he was only there for a year.”

While he is reviving his patented slapstick (as in his Doritos commercials), Chase’s official attitude is one of studied indifference. ”[Late night] is competitive but more on the business end,” he says. ”I’m not involved in that. I’m an artist.”

The Outsider After four years in syndication, staring down the network boys and threatening in Entertainment Weekly last year to ”kick Leno’s ass,” Arsenio Hall, 37, is now strangely silent. Refusing to comment on his talk show, he is hinting that it is less important to him than producing movies, like Bopha! (starring Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard and opening Sept. 24).

In light of his sliding ratings (which have dropped 30 percent from his peak), could he be setting the stage for his own departure? ”He’s going to get crushed,” predicts Paul Schulman, whose eponymous company buys network-TV time for advertisers. C’mon, Arsenio — how ’bout some kicking now?

The Brain Some eggheads with bad haircuts find themselves sitting alone in the cafeteria and going stag to the prom. Not Ted Koppel, whose 13-year-old Nightline just might end up King of the Hill: His 1993 average ratings beat Leno’s in their common half hour. Like Leno, Koppel is famously smooth and diplomatic. And like Letterman, he knows how to throw his weight around: At one point, some ABC affiliates were refusing to air Nightline at 11:35 p.m. but gave in after Koppel threatened to quit.

To keep Koppel and the show fresh, Nightline is solidifying changes that began two years ago — more documentary-style segments and investigative pieces. Starting this month, the program will devote every Friday night to long-form reports, like one on street kids in Seattle.

The Graduate Don’t look for late night’s most famous grad to comment on the new, high-stakes tussle. But when pressed, Johnny Carson, through his spokeswoman, may have given the best indication of who will go to the head of the class: On Aug. 30, Carson watched Letterman.