Leno may have a brand new set, but it's Letterman who has the funnier show, says Bruce Fretts

By Bruce Fretts
Updated July 20, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Jay Leno: Paul Drinkwater/NBC

Late Night With Conan O'Brien

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EW.com rates the late-night TV wars

Boy, that new ”Tonight Show” set sure is loud, isn’t it? And what’s with the big Las Vegas sign that peeks over the guests’ shoulders? Here’s a better question: Why couldn’t Jay Leno quit while he was ahead? I’m not sure why the NBC host thinks installing a distracting new purplish backdrop will keep viewers from switching over to CBS’ ”Late Show with David Letterman.” Eight years after the Leno-Letterman ratings war began, the behind-the-scenes battles rage on. Here are more dispatches from the late-night front:

”THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO”
Shockingly, Leno’s jaw-droppingly unfunny gags continue to outrate Letterman’s fresher-than-ever antics, although Dave has been closing the gap a bit lately. At least the TV Academy isn’t fooled: Last week, Letterman’s ”Late Show” was nominated for best variety series, performer, writing, and direction Emmys, while ”Tonight” was justly shut out in these categories. Leno needs better material than his incessant ”Jaywalking” segments (am I the only one who thinks some of those morons he interviews on the street are feigning ignorance?) if he wants anyone other than toadying bandleader Kevin Eubanks to keep laughing with him, not at him.

”LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN”
While Leno tries to distract his audience with bells and whistles (e.g., zooming camera angles), Dave has kept his show charmingly simple. With the aid of such gifted sidekicks as stage manager Biff Henderson and Hello Deli owner Rupert Jee, Letterman wrings high comedy out of low-concept bits like ”Pay Phone Trifecta” (in which Dave, Rupert, and bandleader Paul Shaffer each call a public phone outside the studio, and the first person to answer wins a mock million-dollar gift certificate to the Hello Deli). Following Letterman’s return from heart surgery last year, Shaffer often said Dave ”didn’t give a damn” anymore, and that’s exactly why his show has been so damn funny lately.

”LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O’BRIEN”
The carrot-topped cutup’s NBC laffer has taken an ever-so-slight dip in quality since the loss of a key player last year. No, not sidekick Andy Richter — he hasn’t been missed, and ”Late Night” wisely hasn’t tried to replace him. It was the departure of head writer Jonathan Groff (who left to develop a primetime series for NBC) that coincided with the onset of more predictable punchlines and less precise phrasing in the monologues. Still, O’Brien consistently leads his time slot thanks to his winning mixture of affability and absurdism.

”THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH CRAIG KILBORN”
After a creatively shaky startup two years ago, the ex-”Daily Show” anchor has settled into a nice groove. His ratings are slowly building, especially among young men, and the writing — especially of the ”In the News” segment — has dramatically improved. Kilborn also seems more comfortable with guests (he’s dropped some of the silly games he used to play with them, aside from his patented ”Five Questions”). If I’m not mistaken, I’d say our little Craiggers is all grown up, comedically speaking.

Who’s your favorite late night host?

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