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We Know Jay Leno's Next Move -- Now How About David Letterman's?
January 22, 2010  | By David Bianculli
late-show-w-david-letterman.jpgWe now know that Conan O'Brien's era as host of NBC's Tonight Show is at an end, and that Jay Leno will resume his former late-night throne in five weeks. The next question to ask -- and it's an enticing one, regarding CBS's David Letterman -- is "WWDD?"

As in, "What Will Dave Do?"...

The last time Letterman and CBS squared off against a reboot of The Tonight Show, it was June 1, the launch of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. O'Brien didn't have Leno as a prime-time lead-in then -- he had the premiere of a new NBC reality series (actually, a horrid revival of an equally bad ABC series), I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!

(Insert your own joke here. Make sure to include irony.)

[Note: For the rest of this story, the late-night hosts will be referred to by their first names. Since this entire battle has been personalized beyond belief, it seems only fitting.]


For Conan's first night at the helm of Tonight, he wanted to signal that his was a younger, different Tonight Show. His guests: Will Ferrell and Pearl Jam.

Seven months later, Conan's guests on his final show (Friday at 11:35 p.m. ET) are scheduled to be Tom Hanks and, once again, Will Ferrell.

When Conan premiered in June 2009, what did Dave do to counter-program?

He could have scheduled a week of reruns, let Conan have his day (and his week), then come back swinging after the initial curiosity had abated. Instead, he led with his best punch, programming for his own demographic by presenting Bill Cosby.

By night two, Dave had more overall viewers than Conan -- fewer in the coveted younger demographic, but nonetheless a victory Dave hadn't notched against Jay's Tonight Show in about a decade.

So the question now becomes "What Will Dave Do?"

On March 1, will Dave play opossum, or play hardball?

My guess: hardball.

No one knows, at this point, how many of Jay's formerly loyal Tonight viewers have been disenfranchised by this latest late-show mess, and defected to Dave for good. It's a good guess that Jay's first night back on Tonight, like Conan's first night there, will be victorious. But why make it easy? Why doesn't Dave give his newly won fans, and especially his old ones, reasons to stay tuned?

So whom should Dave counter-program, against Jay's March 1 NBC return, as his special guest on CBS?


Conan O'Brien.

Think of it.

Given the choice of what would count as Must-See TV that night -- Jay gloating over his Machiavellian return to late night, or Dave and Conan swapping razor-sharp barbs about it -- whom do you think would have more viewers on Monday? And, at least equally important, more YouTube hits the next day?

Skip the rerun option. Give Dave a fresh opening monologue, a Jay-related Top 10 List, and Conan as the first guest, and that's a show almost impossible to reject.

Dave vs. Conan? That lasted seven months.

Dave PLUS Conan? That's a one-night stand for the ages...




Gregg B said:

Unfortunately as I have read they have a gag order on Conan until after March 1 when Leno reappears. They obviously knew that Letterman would want Conan and made provisions for that.

Comment posted on January 22, 2010 10:22 AM

Ryan Sartor said:

That's a brilliant suggestion. If someone at CBS doesn't follow through with this they're idiots.

Comment posted on January 22, 2010 10:33 AM

Pedro said:

Too bad this can't happen because of the gag order on Conan.

[But that shouldn't be a game-stopper. Imagine how funny it would be for Conan to guest, and NOT say anything. He's certainly allowed to LISTEN, and Dave would have plenty to say. Or, they could rip a page from the old Steve Allen playbook, and do MAD LIBS... substituting blanks, then other words, for such legally verboten nouns as "NBC" and "Jay Leno." -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 22, 2010 11:08 AM

Kevan said:

That would probably be the most Worthy TV since... well, since this current late-night snarkfest!

(My favorite moment from last night actually came from Jimmy Fallon of all places, when he rightly observed that hosting "Late Night" is a one-way ticket to not hosting "The Tonight Show.")

But doesn't one of the details of the Conan/NBC settlement prohibit Conan from disparaging the network or discussing the settlement in detail, at least for a while?

[See my note attached to the comment below. I still think it's doable. -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 22, 2010 11:12 AM

Mac said:

Here's a long rant. I understand if you don't want to print it.
Because I work a middle shift, the 11:30 time slot is actually my prime time for grazing in front of the tube. Being male with a remote and 80 cable channels, it's time to space out. Letterman- sometimes,when I'm lazy. Kimmel is OK, I guess, but (I'm showing my age here) a little bit of Kimmel goes a long way, and never past the monologue. Leno is never an option, save his headline reading while I'm flipping to PBS (and that headline bit, copied from Letterman, is the joke, not the lame reaction). With two PBS choices,it's either Tavis Smiley/Charlie Rose on one or Rose/Smiley on the other. My benchmark here is Terry Gross (honest, I'm not kissing up, David), so Smiley is always an also-ran while Charlie (just a tad behind Terry) is OK while there isn't too wanky a subject being discussed to make my little brain explode. Or else it's begathon time, with Dr. Wayne trying to pull money out of my wallet faster than the Shamwow guy. Sorry, PBS, these intrusions are criminal. Lopez on TBS? Not as a guest, a host, or stand up; I don't wanna party, George. Turner Classics, sometimes- "A Face in the Crowd" the other night- I can watch that at least once a year. MSNBC's left-leaning group -it's gotta be an issue like the Supreme Court issue yesterday that Olberman zeroed in with the right amount of anger, but Chris Matthews gets those op-ed guys talkiing at the same time and he is no referee-all is lost. Fox News- hold your friends close,your enemies closer,now with added Super Sarah Palin factor for amusement. And somewhere,there is a Law & Order, regular, unleaded (SVU) or hi-test (CI, with D'onofrio). Waiting for Ferguson, trying to time it so I miss most of Dave's musical guest (damn, I missed Carole King & James Taylor one night and The Blind Boys of Alabama with Lou Reed the next, but mostly that stuff is so forgettable). Waiting for Ferguson... and, maybe, Wavy.

Comment posted on January 22, 2010 11:17 AM

Curtis said:

Oh, yeah. I'd watch that show. But I'd be watching
Dave anyway.

And I'll miss the Tonight Show because I'll never watch Jay Leno again. Ever. Really. Honest to gosh.

Meanwhile, Kimmel's show last night had the new Ken Burns PBS film "The Late Night Talk Show War" with Ted Koppel narrating. It's almost too bad these episodes are almost over, the comedy's been so good.

Comment posted on January 22, 2010 3:00 PM

Sharon said:

Who cares who hosts on the networks at 11:30? We're all watching The Colbert Report. (And 'we' includes two almost-60 boomers, our 80-something parents, and our 30-something son.) Then we surf--or read--until Craig Ferguson. Colbert is sometimes painful to watch, but he gets great guests who have the chance to show their own intelligence and humor.

Comment posted on January 22, 2010 6:43 PM

David D. said:

Is it an actual gag order? He cannot appear on television AT ALL until September 1? I know it's "You can't start another show of your own until then," but no Larry King, no Tavis Smiley, no Charlie Rose, nothing? And besides, weren't there rumors that Dave would book Jay opposite Conan's first show -- and then the 10:00 announcement was made?

Comment posted on January 22, 2010 7:31 PM

Hoppy said:

You still sound so angry at Leno. Do you have any specific knowledge that he engineered this whole thing? Or do you just like Conan better?

[Dear Hoppy -- Just because Leno is feuding with O'Brien, doesn't mean you have to try and pick a fight with me. I'm not biting. Ha! -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 22, 2010 7:56 PM

Sally W. said:

David - your idea of Conan being a silent guest or using Mad libs on David Letterman's show on the night of Leno's return to the Tonight Show is terribly clever and funny. It kind of reminds me of the gag on the Emmy show 2006 (I checked Google to confirm - that was the year!), where Bob Newhart was contained in a vacuum tube to deprive him of air to end the show on time (Conan had hosted it that year too - a very funny Emmy show...).

If Letterman and Conan can pull something off (while complying with the settlement agreement) - it would be a comedy gold mine and priceless television, I must say.

Comment posted on January 23, 2010 12:16 AM

Gregory Kibitz said:

Conan went out with the greatest of grace and right now Will Ferrell is playing him out. Truly a TVWW night to remember! (Almost brought as many a trear to my eye as the Haiti Telethon - That was quite the telethon, to be sure. I hope they raised 10's upon 10's of millions!)

Comment posted on January 23, 2010 12:52 AM

Gregory Kibitz said:

As to Dave Plus Conan, Sheer Genius.
As to Jay being Machiavellian, not really.
I think Jay is just a pawn/stooge and did not have the backbone to stand up to NBC like Conan.
If Jay had not played King Lear and given up his kingdom early to avoid future conflict, none of this would ever have happened. And like Lear, no future attempts to set things right will change his inevitable demise. Sadly, Jay is the corporatist type that bends over for whomever,
whenever, and because of it he will ultimately be the big loser and Dave the BIG Winner and when Conan eventually takes over for Dave when Dave finaly retires (or dies in the chair) it will all be sheer genius yet again! (just as when Conan last took over for Dave).
[Nice sentiments -- but don't expect CBS to make the same succession mistakes NBC has. I suspect it'll be an orderly transition from Dave to Craig... and a well-received one. -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 23, 2010 1:05 AM

Greg Kibitz said:

As much as Craig is also my all time favorite of Late Night personalities, I don't know (actually I am quite certain) if he will ever be the one to take over the 11:30 helm. Though his show is uber great entertainment, and it is the one I would miss more than any other, Craig really is not what the corporatists like as in one who will play ball by behaving "in a reasonably moral and upstanding way" and being "little more than a vessel for guests to sell their wares". Sorry to say it (sorry for us all) but I don't think that would ever fly with even CBS (or the vast majority of guests and/or their publicists and oh so many corporate backers) at 11:30.

Like Dave, Craig is the great master and newest re-inventer of the anti-talk show (but now one where goods and wares are hardly ever even plugged except by mistake). Amazingly, Craig is allowed to take it so far that if you think Conan was a niche player (mostly appealing to only the better educated, youthful progressive, enlightened audience - college students and former ones that never grow up, like me) then Craig is at best only a slit player (no pun intended but I'm sure he would appreciate it). Craig mostly only appeals to the most purient, flirty and anti-corporatists of us all (like myself) and, as I am sure you know, that sh-t just don't play in middle America like Jay and even Dave do (and even Conan sometimes did).

Do you really think that all of Craig's honest talk of sex and drugs and use of constant profanity would even be permitted at 11:30? If so, think again. And if you think Craig will ever agree to be anything but his blatantly honest self, then think again too (and that is why I love him, but he will never be the guy, for them at least but, yes, I too would love him @ 11:30).

That said, I too think CBS will some day have (or try to have) a nice orderly Late Show transistion but it might just be like the one where Craig #2 got his job, a many week period of live interviews & on-air screen tests to find out who really is best, can behave, and be the irreverent anti-host while all at the same time really being the total corporatist stooge that 11:30 pm requires (much as Jay so masterfully achieved - for them, but not us).

[Well reasoned throughout, but I have more faith in Craig's appeal to the regular 11:30 audience than you do. We'll see... and I suspect we really WILL see. -- David B.]

Comment posted on January 23, 2010 2:08 PM

Rich said:

I'd like to see Dave take this chance to re-invent himself. I've said this before about "Being Hungry" - Dave isn't. I'd like to see him just so biting comedy for everyone. Not just attack Sarah Palin or NBC or Paris Hilton - They're easy targets.

Conan invents stuff out of nothing - Dave used to be that 'Plucky'. I can say Dave has earned his current place in the limelight and I think his delight in the NBC vs Jay debacle is well deserved and awesome to watch....I'd Love to see him continue to Heckle Jay even weeks and months after this ends! - Why? Jay's a 'nice guy' (snort) I'm sure he won't mind.

And a sarcastic biting Dave is always good TV.

Comment posted on January 23, 2010 5:11 PM

Chris Collins said:

There's a great idea...Jay starring in a version of King Lear with Conan as the jester...that'd be totally worth watching.

Comment posted on January 25, 2010 1:46 PM

mark t said:

I've been telling people the same thing...
Conan on Dave during Leno's first night back.
Talk about Must See TV !!
Man, that would be classic !

Comment posted on January 25, 2010 2:40 PM
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