As the century draws to a close, the warring late-night titans known as Jay Leno and David Letterman continue to do their clashing best to defeat each other. They attempt distinctive talk shows, yet there is one thing these lordly scions share an admiration bordering on worship for: the unassailable King of Late-Night Television, Johnny Carson. One need only look to the index of the New Testament of Talk — Bill Carter’s 1994 book The Late Shift — to find pages of Johnny worship (Jay: ”As much as I liked Johnny, I was intimidated…I would call him ‘Mr. Carson”’; Dave: ”I don’t know of a person in comedy or television who didn’t sort of grow up with Johnny Carson as a role model”).
For Leno and Letterman, obeisance to Carson is instinctive; for all their studied differences, they are both perpetually ready to wrinkle their Armanis in formal genuflection to the Man Who Was Aunt Blabby. So why, one marvels, do these boys not partake of even the most obvious lessons to be learned from Mighty Carson, Art(ful) Player? Having recently watched some old tapes of Johnny in his prime to refresh my memory, I humbly offer these observations and suggestions.
1. Listen to the guest. Whether it was genuine or not, Carson seemed to hang on every word uttered by the biological specimen seated to the right of his desk. He understood that even if, say, Zsa Zsa Gabor was going to tell the same damn stories about her multiple husbands she’d told a hundred times, it made him look mannerly to pay attention and shrewd to pick up on some straw-thin Zsa Zsa remark that he could spin into comedic gold. With Leno and Letterman, you get the feeling that they know from their producers’ pre-interviews every word that’s going to come out of each guest’s mouth; far too often, a star is there merely to set up a punchline for the host.
2. Relax. One reason viewers loved Carson was that he radiated calm and confidence: You’d worked hard all day; now you could lie back and let Johnny take over. Compare that attitude with those of the Laurel and Hardy of hamminess. There are nights when you can almost see the sweat on Dave’s brow, he’s working so hard, so obviously, to extract humor from a spinning-out- of-control show. And is there ever a night when you don’t want to apply electrician’s tape to Jay’s mouth and say sternly: ”Calm down, Mr. Leno; you’re a nice, smart guy. Stop feeling you have to prove it every second with nonstop yammer.”
3. Bring on the comedians. Carson could preen and become self-indulgent, but he was also generous with his own breed. He didn’t merely launch the careers of people like Garry Shandling, Drew Carey, and the then Roseanne Barr; he nurtured them with appreciative laughter and repeated guest shots. To Letterman, a stand-up comic is the guest hastily penciled in for the last three minutes of the show, the first jerk to be bumped if Stupid Pet Tricks goes overtime. Leno’s a little better — he still evinces a working club comic’s pleasure in watching a new kid ”kill” — but both he and Dave are less interested in promoting others’ talent than in emphasizing their own.