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'Night' Shift: Late TV

We review ‘Late Night With Conan O’ Brien’ and ‘The Late Show With David Letterman’

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So far, Chris Rock has come up with the best idea yet for an Andy Richter replacement on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. Visiting the show last month, Rock told the pale, string-bean host that he needed ”a big fat black woman sittin’ here,” gesturing to Richter’s empty court-jester perch — someone, Rock said, who’d admonish any rude guests with ”Don’t you talk to my Conan like that!”

This was an excellent suggestion, since, despite the fact that O’Brien’s show has been on for seven years now, he still behaves as if he could use some mothering — some gentle scolding when he uses the word cool too many times to refer to his guest lineup, or a prim dressing-down after hauling out the beautifully pointless, appalling, and hilarious Masturbating Bear.

I’ve been watching O’Brien assiduously since Richter’s May departure and can report that the oatmeal-skinned Irishman is doing just dandy. He’s forthrightly addressing the Andy Absence by occasionally picking some unlikely-looking fellow out of the audience for a spontaneous tryout. He and his writers certainly prepare the best post-monologue sketches these days; a recent ”If They Mated” segment including a morphed-photo speculation on the baby Calista Flockhart and Garry Shandling might have was thrillingly grotesque, and the introduction of a crooning R&B couple clearly modeled on Ashford & Simpson, who appear occasionally to sing about current events, is positively inspired.

Good as Conan is, however, he’s still a stripling in the talk-show family tree when compared with that giant oak of a man, the Paul Bunyan of bypasses, David Letterman. One aspect of The Late Show With David Letterman‘s almightiness is that he makes a virtue of that pitfall for every long-running TV show: repetition. Beyond the nightly Top Ten lists (which audiences still love but which clearly bore the host), Letterman loves finding some silly phrase, pet peeve, or unrehearsed embarrassment caught on tape that he can refer to or play over and over. Letterman is like a funk bassist, repeating the same riff while finding infinite variations on it: Papa’s got a recyclable bag.

Thus the jag he was on for a while about what a ”rip-off” the Internet is (”It took me six hours to get the weather in Milwaukee!”). And thus the endless replaying and mythologizing of that moment on June 16 when a dog accidentally bit Dave’s face during Stupid Pet Tricks; 10 days after the glancing scratch, Letterman had inflated it into an attack by a ”wild dingo” and was still getting fresh comic nourishment out of it.

While O’Brien, Jay Leno, Craig Kilborn, Jon Stewart, and Bill Maher have all settled on the tame political stereotypes they’ll joke about — Bush is a dumb party animal; Gore is a stiff — Letterman is the only late-night host to suggest something a little more substantive: that Bush is a dangerous dumb party animal; that Gore is a worthless stiff. Letterman has been relentless in his contempt for Bush’s aggressive use of the death penalty (”It was so hot in Texas today, Bush fried a guy in the sun”; fake commercial: ”Vote Bush: he’ll give ya a ride on Ol’ Sparky”).

Conan seems to steer clear of political guests (just having author Tom Clancy on recently, during which the pulp patriot made a pitch for the National Rifle Association, left O’Brien looking as if he needed a sidekick mommy to soothe his willies afterward). Letterman, by contrast, loves to spread absurd rumors, insisting that Joe Lieberman ”had a brief, stormy marriage to Melanie Griffith,” and he’s invited Gore and Bush on his show for a debate. Gore has accepted; as I write this, Bush hasn’t yet, and he’s being heckled almost nightly for his reticence. Gee, I can’t imagine why the man whom the invitee described as being ”as dumb as a box of tools” would be hesitant.
Late Night With Conan O’Brien: B+ Late Show With David Letterman: A