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Forget the Talk Show Wars - It's Time for an Official Late-Night Feud
January 21, 2008  | By David Bianculli
The writers' strike has made late-night TV more interesting to watch these days than prime time. Most talk shows have found increasingly inventive, or bizarre, ways to fill time without marquee guests - while David Letterman and Craig Ferguson, whose special agreement with the Writers Guild of America allows actors to visit without facing picket lines, have begun to stack their decks with big names.

Letterman was positively piling on last week when he had Sylvester Stallone as one guest, on the same night Bruce Willis sat in with Paul Shaffer and the band. Letterman may as well have been taunting his competition by shouting: "Look, ma, no strike!" - and tonight on Late Show, he plays host to a former Beatle, Ringo Starr. (Ferguson, on his , is happy to employ the same strategy, even with some of the same guests: Stallone appears on his show tonight, with an all-Starr show set for Thursday.)

The other hosts, and shows, are doing what they can. Jay Leno, who has generated his monologue single-handedly (to the chagrin of WGA officials) for almost three weeks now, has stretched his behind-the-desk minutes by presenting and ridiculing items purchased at a local 99-cent store - seemingly every item in the inventory. ABC's Jimmy Kimmel shows TV clips whenever he can to eat up some time, and Conan shows his own clips, repeating footage from previous days' "highlights." He's also assembled a cardboard maze through which guests must pass befoe making their way to his desk.


Recently, though, O'Brien may have stumbled upon a late-night, time-eating gold mine. (No, I'm not talking about his zip-line antics, though the stop-Lincoln's-assassination enactment gets high marks for surrealistic silliness.) After both O'Brien and Stephen Colbert claimed to have "made" Mike Huckabee, Colbert used The Colbert Report to refute O'Brien's claim and address his directly Thursday, threatening "to kick your translucent white ass!" - adding, "You got that, Irish?"


O'Brien, on Friday, replied by defending himself ("My ass is not translucent; it's chalky white with streaks of pink") and ridiculing Colbert's French heritage, donning a beret and moustache, holding a loaf of French bread and pretending to pedal a bicycle in front of from a green-screen shot of the Eiffel tower. Pure silliness - but also, potentially, pure brilliance.

Kimmel and Leno appeared on each other's shows - partly in a show of mutual support, partly to eat up as many minutes as possible - but that's a crossover stunt that can be done only once, or rarely. A feud, with two funny men firing jokes at each other in an ongoing battle, is a comedy well that can draw headlines, consume hours of air time, and never run dry.

Fred Allen and Jack Benny, good friends in real life, started a similar feudon radio in 1937. It lasted more than 10 years.

Surely, a TV equivalent, if handled and fed properly, could last at least as long as the strike. Conan vs. Colbert... take your corners!




Sean Dougherty said:

Jack Benny and Fred Allen were more professional acquaintances than friends. The lived across the country from each other for most of their careers and Fred's generally dour attitude didn't mesh well with Jack Benny's optimism.

They were friendly and both got a lot out of their professional association (especially Allen, whose brainy, topical show was more a favorite of the college crowd and other comedians than the broad American radio audience of the time - an "Arrested Development" kind of thing) but don't overstate it.

Sean Dougherty
International Jack Benny Fan Club

Comment posted on January 21, 2008 11:07 AM

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