June 18, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Craig Ferguson doesn’t want anyone to think he’s engaged in a nasty battle for late-night supremacy, so he’s waving the white flag — actually, the white glove — to prove it. On June 8, the Late Late Show host decided to end the ”madness” by donning a Mickey Mouse mitt and waving gleefully at his time-slot competitor, NBC’s Jimmy Fallon. Twenty-four hours later, Late Night‘s Fallon returned the gesture on air, waving back with his own puffy white glove and describing his CBS counterpart as ”a good dude” to viewers.

You call this a late-night war?

”With Jay and Dave, it’s very identifiable, you pick a side,” explains Ferguson, 48. ”I don’t know if that exists at 12:30. I don’t subscribe to the notion that it’s a competition. If you see a war between me and Jimmy Fallon, it’s kind of like saying there’s a war between Huckleberry Hound and Foghorn Leghorn.”

Ferguson might not want CBS or his boss David Letterman to hear him say that. Late-night shows are cash cows for broadcast networks — and if a show starts slipping in the ratings, those networks have been known to do drastic things (like NBC yanking Conan O’Brien after only seven months of hosting The Tonight Show). Competing for ratings is not only expected among late-night hosts, it’s encouraged — if only for the viciously funny jokes and ”Did you see that?” moments a rivalry can yield. But while Leno and Letterman were busy exchanging barbs over O’Brien’s surprise departure last winter, Fallon and Ferguson — along with ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, whose Jimmy Kimmel Live! airs at 12:05 a.m. — have managed to garner ratings and morning-after buzz simply by having a good time.

”We have our own audiences. That’s the fun of having choices,” says Fallon, 35, whose show premiered last year. ”You can switch around. These are totally different shows.” All three hosts have skipped the backbiting and focused on cultivating small but rabid fan bases: Ferguson, who debuted in 2005, has generated the largest audiences (averaging 1.87 million per night) with his heartfelt monologues and loosey-goosey approach to interviews; 42-year-old Kimmel, who’s been in the late-night game since 2003, averages 1.67 million viewers and is slightly up among male viewers since last year thanks in part to his clever viral videos (from the ”Handsome Men’s Club” to his alternate endings for Lost); and despite NBC’s Tonight Show mess, Fallon has landed on top in adults 18-49 (and averages 1.56 million) with inspired moves like his Saved by the Bell reunion campaign and his impersonation of Neil Young singing ”Pants on the Ground.” (The guys will get a new competitor in George Lopez once O’Brien’s show debuts on TBS in November. Currently Lopez pulls 1.1 million viewers at 11 p.m.)

And unlike Leno and Letterman, who have a stormy history at NBC, Ferguson, Fallon, and Kimmel have been cordial since day one. ”Jimmy Kimmel was very nice to me when I started,” says Ferguson, who in turn implored TV critics in January 2009 to give Fallon’s show a chance. ”Jimmy Fallon is terribly sweet. I like that I like these guys.” (Kimmel declined to comment for this story.) Though the networks may not relish this ongoing wave of goodwill — there is, after all, a finite number of viewers in the wee hours of the morning — the fans are the ultimate beneficiaries. ”The networks are really allowing this younger generation [of hosts] to play and experiment, which has created little stunts that become part of the pop culture conversation,” says Brent Poer, managing director of the media-buying group MediaVest. ”Anything that promotes conversation, whether it’s a Mickey Mouse hand and a wave or even them ribbing each other in a positive way, is building the [late-night] category.”

Okay, so it’s all hearts and rainbows now, but what happens when David Letterman finally decides to retire or Jay Leno leaves The Tonight Show — for real this time? Fallon, who’s hosting the Emmys on NBC Aug. 29, says he’s keeping his expectations low (his contract expires in 2014): ”If I learned anything from David and Conan, it’s that hosting Late Night is not a one-way ticket to hosting The Tonight Show. I have no expectations. I don’t want to change a thing.” Ferguson, meanwhile, maintains that he’s never looked at The Late Late Show as a stepping-stone to replace Letterman or anyone else (Ferguson’s contract, like that of his boss, extends through 2012). ”I don’t have quite the same career goals as perhaps the rest of the guys do,” says the Scotland-born host. ”I don’t want to be the king of late-night because it doesn’t mean anything to me. I came to America to avoid kings.” Anyhow, it’s clearly more fun to be a jester.

The Best Late, Late Laughs
Can’t stay up past midnight? Check out these choice bits from Craig and the Jimmys online.

Craig Ferguson
In one of his signature impromptu moments, Ferguson got Kristen Bell all giggly by mocking Wolfgang Puck’s obsession with ”stiff” egg whites.

Jimmy Fallon
For his Glee parody 6-bee, the host scored another viral video by recruiting Amy Poehler and friends to cover Twisted Sister’s ”We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

Jimmy Kimmel
Kimmel’s Hollywood connections helped him lure Matthew McConaughey, Patrick Dempsey, and Rob Lowe for the ”Handsome Men’s Club” skit.

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