David Letterman vs Jay Leno


For almost two decades, it’s been a simple question with a deceptively revealing answer- Jay Leno or Dave Letterman?

If you answer David Letterman, I can assume for the rest of the conversation that you appreciate things like laughter, honesty and a particular respect for the hard work and dedication to unpaid interns (heyo!).

If you prefer Jay Leno, I can safely assume that A) Your 65 years old or older, B) You  chuckle at Kate Gosselin jokes or C) You are actually Jay Leno.

Harsh, yes, but with the recent decision by NBC to move Leno back to his old spot at 11:35 at night and in the process booting current “Tonight Show” host Conan O’Brien back a time slot, the ghosts of Leno’s back stabbing past are resurrected.

For those not familiar, in 1992 Johnny Carson left his post at the “Tonight Show” after being host since the early 1960’s. Carson was a legend and became a national barometer of culture and current events as the years past, along the way making the “Tonight Show” an NBC cash cow. So his retiring and and successor was a big deal at the time, and a lot of people assumed David Letterman, host of the show directly after Carson’s, would get the nod. Letterman and Carson shared a lot of similar traits- both mid-west born and raised, possesing a natural TV host personality and a wicked sense of sarcasm.

According to most sources, including the great book The Late Shift, Carson personally liked Letterman and thought he would be a natural fit as the new host of the “Tonight Show”. It also helped that Dave all but worshiped Carson and out of respect for him did not actively campaign for the job. But Jay Leno had other ideas.

Rather than continue to hone his actually pretty-sharp stand-up act, Leno decided the path to the “Tonight Show” was to broaden and smooth out his comedy, foregoing Letterman’s edge and Carson’s wit and instead becoming something of a bland imitation of both of them. He also worked behind the scenes at NBC and his take-no-prisoners manager made sure that a whisper campaign was started with rumors swirling that David Letterman was resistant to NBC executive’s advice and that his show just would not work at an earlier time slot.

So NBC chose Leno over Letterman and Dave, feeling betrayed by an old friend, bolted to CBS.

As A.V. Club writer Amelie Gillette put it,

“Letterman is the hero of The Late Shift—the guy who doesn’t want to kiss asses in order to get The Tonight Show; the guy who, rather naively in retrospect, believes that his merit and hard work will eventually be rewarded; and the guy who, after being passed over by his network, stands up for himself and leaves to make his own, better version of The Tonight Show on another network”.

So this leads us to the recent news that NBC, in it’s infinite fourth place vision, got tired of Conan O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” getting beat in the ratings and is moving Leno back to his old home at 11:35 for a half hour show.

This is stupid and wrong for so many reasons. NBC moved Conan out to L.A., built him an expensive new studio and gave him the keys to the biggest show in late night and they don’t even give him a YEAR to find his audience?

Granted, O’Brien’s humor is a little off-beat but his self-deprecating jokes and lightning sharp timing should gradually find a larger audience. This is where I have to admit I have been watching Conan O’Brien for more than a decade and that he forever has my respect for writing the monorail episode of “The Simpsons”.

That’s not to say O’Brien’s “Tonight Show” was perfect.  I think he watered down his humor a bit too much to suit some imaginary mass audience that no longer exists in the year 2010. Any of his shows that don’t include the FedEx Pope, Masturbating Bear or the Sexy Abe Lincoln channel are just missing that certain something.

Ironically enough this whole mess has inspired Conan to do some of his best work, like the monologue clip below.  All of this is a very long way of saying that NBC better not screw a talented performer over again for a second time all to accommodate some pandering, willfully milquetoast act.

Jay Leno is a douche.



About the Author: Mitch is the resident music wrangler, lifestyle guru, and all-around well connected LaxAllStars insider. The lacrosse playing ended but the friendships never did. Known as the prima-donna of the writers. Still not sure about this whole “internet” thing. Would love to be called “Sir” without the following: “You’re making a scene”.

Read all his GetMitchOrDieTryin’ lifestyle articles here.


  1. People of Earth:

    In the last few days, I’ve been getting a lot of sympathy calls, and I want to start by making it clear that no one should waste a second feeling sorry for me. For 17 years, I’ve been getting paid to do what I love most and, in a world with real problems, I’ve been absurdly lucky. That said, I’ve been suddenly put in a very public predicament and my bosses are demanding an immediate decision.

    Six years ago, I signed a contract with NBC to take over The Tonight Show in June of 2009. Like a lot of us, I grew up watching Johnny Carson every night and the chance to one day sit in that chair has meant everything to me. I worked long and hard to get that opportunity, passed up far more lucrative offers, and since 2004 I have spent literally hundreds of hours thinking of ways to extend the franchise long into the future. It was my mistaken belief that, like my predecessor, I would have the benefit of some time and, just as important, some degree of ratings support from the prime-time schedule. Building a lasting audience at 11:30 is impossible without both.

    But sadly, we were never given that chance. After only seven months, with my Tonight Show in its infancy, NBC has decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime-time by making a change in their long-established late night schedule.

    Last Thursday, NBC executives told me they intended to move the Tonight Show to 12:05 to accommodate the Jay Leno Show at 11:35. For 60 years the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn’t the Tonight Show. Also, if I accept this move I will be knocking the Late Night show, which I inherited from David Letterman and passed on to Jimmy Fallon, out of its long-held time slot. That would hurt the other NBC franchise that I love, and it would be unfair to Jimmy.

    So it has come to this: I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it. My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction. Some people will make the argument that with DVRs and the Internet a time slot doesn’t matter. But with the Tonight Show, I believe nothing could matter more.

    There has been speculation about my going to another network but, to set the record straight, I currently have no other offer and honestly have no idea what happens next. My hope is that NBC and I can resolve this quickly so that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work.

    Have a great day and, for the record, I am truly sorry about my hair; it’s always been that way.