Ken Tucker says, You've gotta love a talk-show host who's smart enough to poke fun at the stars who need it

By Ken Tucker
Updated March 11, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

David Letterman parodies ‘N Sync

Before Craig Kilborn sets off a small media blaze when he takes over for Tom Snyder next month, let’s give some props to a colder talk-show dude, David Letterman. By ”cold,” I jest, sort of: Dave’s Ed Sullivan Theater is infamous for its frigid temperature, a frosty climate dictated by the boss himself, who likes to keep his studio audience quiveringly alert. And, come to think of it, I could fairly describe Letterman’s style as colder than that of his competition, if the word didn’t carry a negative connotation. For one of Letterman’s finest characteristics is that he’s not an excessively warm host, given to faux-effusiveness whenever a guest comes on to plug his/her latest movie/TV show/book. Instead, he is the last of his breed: The skeptical, informed host, always ready to puncture the star pretensions of a sappy seat-warmer, or, in turn, to appreciate the genial skepticism of a smart guest.

And right now — to drop the “cold” metaphor cold — Dave’s on a hot streak: His show is as funny and intelligent as it’s ever been. His monologues are pricklingly droll; he’s developed a new non sequitur catchphrase (“I wouldn’t give that guy’s problems to a monkey on a rock”); and he and his writers have come up with a clever stunt: They’ve invented an ‘N Sync-ish boy-pop-group, called Fresh Step. Fresh Step’s two appearances thus far have been deadpan masterpieces of parody, as the fake teen idols croon exaggerated R&B and give out with those white-boy hip-hop hand gestures that make watching ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys such a groaner of an experience.

With Snyder heading for the exit sign, Letterman is the last of the true talk-show hosts, an upholder of the traditions of Johnny Carson and Steve Allen. Conan O’Brien is certainly mindful of that tradition, but he doesn’t yet possess Dave’s finesse (here’s hoping by the way, that Conan beats the stuffing out of the smug Kilborn). And what’s that you say? I’m forgetting Jay Leno, the late-night ratings leader? Well, let me give him his due: Jay is not only hot, he’s ”warm.”