Here’s the best way to define the current parameters of late-night TV: The Chris Rock Show is exciting because its host aggressively ignores the rules of the game; Late Show With David Letterman is back on a roll because its host understands those rules — and gives them a good yank.

This season’s Chris Rock has found the young comic capitalizing on his buzz as the most maverick conceptualist among African-American performers right now. His HBO show features standard construction — opening monologue, interview session, musical guest — with novel content, including stinging jokes about the ”Million Woman March” and Tiger Woods’ multiracial identity (”Tiger’s getting death threats — oh, he knows he’s black now”).

Rock’s pointed exhortations — delivered in the hoarse cadences of an exceptionally witty preacher — would seem distinctly uncool on the party shows hosted by Keenen Ivory Wayans and new Vibe-rator Sinbad, but Rock’s insistence on cutting deeper brings out unseen sides of his guests. It led Whoopi Goldberg, for example, to chastise him with noticeable anger for what she thinks is Rock’s tendency to put celebrities down; it led Jesse Jackson to get into a debate with him over the usefulness of black social protest.

Unlike cutting-edge hip-hop artists, who mostly ignore the millions of whites they attract, Rock wants to be an Afrocentric comedian who speaks for and to everyone. Such an ambition may account for his material’s scattershot quality — Rock hits higher highs and lower lows than any other comedian around. But even when a joke or sketch flops, the energy and ideas underpinning his material keep the show strong and funny.

Pushing a social agenda just slightly to the left of the neoliberalism of one of his admirers, essayist and columnist Stanley Crouch, Rock won over a lot of whites for criticizing some blacks in his Emmy-winning HBO stand-up special, Bring the Pain. As he’s demonstrated recently, Rock now correctly perceives his current challenge to be to educate his diverse audience in the notion that he can have equally valid, even ruthless, opinions about everything from the welfare system to John Denver’s death.

By contrast, Letterman’s current challenge is considerably less idealistic: to win back the fickle millions who abandoned His Royal Sourpuss for Jay Leno, Comic of the People. Thing is, these days, Late Show is more people-friendly than The Tonight Show‘s oiled joke machine. In a career arc that’s gone from wiseacre underdog to Carson’s heir apparent, from King of Late Night back to wiseacre underdog, Letterman’s always done best when people aren’t watching too closely.

He’s emerged from a fallow period, having spent the past year or so tweaking Late Show and weeding out tired routines — save the apparently unkillable Top Ten list. Currently, Dave cultivates a beguiling air of befuddlement (”More and more, I’m not sure I get my show,” he said after reading some absurd punchline) mixed with mock world-weariness. ”A lot of people in show business — you’ll learn this when you get to be my age,” he lectured a blank-eyed Pamela Lee, ”are parasites.”

Being parasitic himself enabled Letterman to turn his Nov. 12 grilling of Marv Albert into a crackling talk-show event. Faced with a grim, often defensive guest (”I was set up”), the host’s tone was pitch perfect: skeptical, incredulous, concerned, stern (looking Albert in the eye, he said scoldingly, ”We don’t want Marv biting women”). And in freely admitting that for months he’d been dying to do jokes about what Albert kept calling ”the situation,” Letterman punctured the pious media notion that he’s been taking what is invariably called ”the high road.”

As utterly different as their styles may be, both Letterman and Rock understand that when it comes to roads high, low, and middle-of-the-, the best thing a talk-show host can do these days is to veer off and explore fresh territory. Chris Rock: B+ David Letterman: B+

Late Show With David Letterman
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