Jay may score bigger ratings, but Dave's got passion going for him, says Josh Wolk

By Josh Wolk
Updated April 04, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Magic Johnson, David Letterman, ...
Credit: David Letterman: Barbara Litke/CBS/AP World Wide

Why Letterman is superior to Leno

When watching NBC, I heard the announcer touting that later on ”The Tonight Show,” host Jay Leno would be ”Jaywalking.” That’s his ”people am dumb” staple where he stumps bystanders with simple current events questions. Although the network’s intent was to make me say, ”Jaywalking? Tonight? What god do I have to thank for this?” it had the opposite effect, reminding me of what makes David Letterman unmatched in late night TV: his passion.

When Leno watches people sweat over questions like ”Who is our vice president?” it’s purely for the giggle factor: Hee hee! This guy’s stupid! But Letterman doesn’t brook morons. When they amble in front of ”The Late Show”’s camera during a live remote — say, playing ”Can we see your photos, please?” — and has nothing to say, they’re quickly dismissed, because Letterman can not abide a blank slate.

To earn Letterman’s interest, you have to be furiously interested in SOMETHING. It’s not that the CBS host likes only geniuses: Back on his NBC show, one of his frequent guests was the Nut Lady, a daffy old woman who ran a museum devoted entirely to nuts (she even wrote poetry about them). Letterman was obviously entranced by her inexplicable, infectious dedication. So some Manhattan pedestrian who has no interest in anything — judging by his or her apparent pride in not knowing where the nation’s capital is — has nothing to offer Letterman.

During a recent ”Know Your Current Events” segment, Letterman pulled a woman out of the crowd who turned out to be a classical pianist from Ireland. He did a huge double take upon learning her profession, and then began grilling her about it: How many keystrokes were there in her longest piece? Would she play for him? Was it tough for her to play without being warmed up? It was engrossing watching HIM be engrossed, because I was watching a talk show host with a sudden, surprised interest, as opposed to just yanking out anecdotes from celebrities.

Leno, on the other hand, never seems to be invested in any interview. Whether it’s George Clooney or Timmy the Pig Caller, he acts like he’s working from a generic flow chart, letting his guest prattle on, interrupting only to inject a planned punchline. Granted, there are times Letterman, too, seems to be merely working the clock, flinging out non sequiturs from his note cards, just waiting to go to commercial already. But when someone he does care about sits next to him, the difference is palpable.

The fact that Letterman has his own passions only infuses his show with more personality. He loves racing, which is why you see NASCAR drivers as guests even though much of the viewing audience would probably prefer seeing something — ANYTHING — else. And while I love ”Survivor,” I delight in Letterman’s obvious contempt for what he calls the show’s ”parade of losers,” because at least you know where he stands, and he isn’t just pimping for the network. Then, of course, there was his George W. Bush interview last year, in which he asked the then candidate more tough followup questions than any network news reporter had during the entire campaign. Compare that with Bush’s amiable visit to Leno, where Jay prepared him a harmless skit and everyone left friends.

Leno has his passions, too. We all know about his autophilia, for example. But on the ”Tonight Show,” he seems to bury any of his authentic interests, perhaps in fear of alienating any viewer who might NOT like what he likes. I used to work on a television show where a producer always told me, ”If you try to appeal to everybody, you risk appealing to nobody.” Granted, Leno’s ratings still beat Letterman’s, so THAT theory is officially shot to hell; maybe it explains why our show stank, too.

But I would bet that few of Leno’s viewers have any particularly fond recollection of one ”Tonight Show” over another. His interviews vanish from memory as soon as Conan O’Brien begins. But I can remember Letterman’s interviews from when I first started watching him, in 1985 (ironically, many of his hilarious chats with Leno are indelible). Because Letterman allowed his own interests to inform his show, he’s made sure that many viewers like me will have a passion for his late night history their whole lives.

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