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Another Dave 'n' Jay Post

Oprah Winfrey has this show on her network called Oprah's Next Chapter. The premise, I guess, is to do a more in-depth, audience-free interview with some biggie and they're rerunning all or most of them on Sunday, January 6, culminating in the debut of a new one with David Letterman. If you get that channel, I'd recommend the conversation with Stephen Colbert and I'll be setting my TiVo to snag the Letterman one, assuming I'm able to turn anything on here with my Harmony Remote One by then.

Oprah's folks released — and some sites are treating it as Breaking News more important than the predicted (by some) impending collapse of our economy — that Dave Letterman said the following of Jay Leno…

I've never met anyone quite like Jay. And I will say, and I'm happy to say, I think he's the funniest guy I've ever known. Just flat out. If you go and see him do his nightclub act — just the funniest, the smartest, wonderful observationist and very appealing as a comic. Therefore, the fact that he is maybe the most insecure person I have ever known — I could never reconcile that.

I stared at that quote for a few minutes to make sure it wasn't Leno talking about Letterman. Reverse the names and take out that part about a nightclub act and it would be at least as applicable. I suspect a lot of folks who've had brushes with either man or both lately would consider it an act of projection.

It is also worth remembering that apart from an hour or so together spent doing that Super Bowl commercial with Oprah, Dave and Jay have not spoken in something like twenty years. And those are twenty years during which both have been through a lot of successes and failures of varying magnitude and have had ample reasons to envy and/or resent each other.

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I do not pretend to know either man like a personal friend…but via brief encounters and watching them for afar: Well, I have to say Leno has struck me as one of the most secure people in show business. Financially, he's set for many lives. Personally, he seems to have a famously happy marriage. In terms of employment, there's a real question as to how much longer he'll be hosting The Tonight Show but (a) that's been true at times for two decades now and he's usually triumphed and (b) it's not like when it does end, he'll be ashamed of his short run and then have nothing lucrative to do that he loves doing.

Moreover, Jay strikes me as a pretty secure guy in an area that I think explains a lot of his success on the Tonight Show. He is unthreatened by other comedians. He loves to see other performers do well. He is comfy doing a sketch where he plays straight man to someone like Fred Willard or Gilbert Gottfried, and is willing to hand large chunks of his show over to "correspondents" (other comedians) to, hopefully, soar. A friend of mine who was involved with both shows once remarked to me that when it came time to send someone else out on stage or on a remote to be funny, Jay would want the funniest guy they could get and Dave would want to use one of the stagehands.

There's a story about Jerry Lewis that may be apocryphal but the lesson is not. Supposedly, a writer (supposedly Neil Simon in his TV-writing days) writes a ten-minute sketch for a Jerry Lewis TV special. The writer hands in the sketch early in the week and Jerry says he loves it and doesn't need any rewrites. But as the week of rehearsals goes on, Jerry begins dropping out many of the best lines and trimming it down…and in some versions I've heard of the tale, the sketch gets turned into three minutes of Jerry making funny faces. In others, it's eliminated in its entirety.

The writer goes to Jerry after the show and asks what was wrong with it: "Didn't you think the writing was funny?" Jerry replied, "Hysterical. That was the problem. I don't want to go out there and have the writing be funny. I want me to be funny."

I heard that story several times from comedy writers of Simon's generation, usually in tandem with tales of Milton Berle cutting everyone else's best lines out of a script. They'd say, "Berle isn't satisfied to be in a routine that the audience is laughing at. He has to be the only person in it they're laughing at." Berle was famously threatened by other comedians. So was and is Lewis. And I think one of the reasons Letterman's show has suffered over the years is that it's become all about Dave and no one else.

This is a complaint I've heard from some of his writers. They all write reams of material that goes unused. Some nights, Dave would rather repeat recent monologue jokes than use new ones. Scripted bits are discarded in favor of Dave just sitting there, rambling about whatever he's pissed off about that week. He's sometimes very funny doing that but the buzz from inside is that's not why he's doing it. He keeps a good, well-paid writing staff because he knows a successful series requires a good, well-paid writing staff. But when it's time to decide what to do on the show tonight, he doesn't want someone else — even if that someone else is an unseen, unheard writer — to be the funny one out there.

(And while I'm judging talk show hosts from afar, I might as well mention that I think this is one of the problems Conan O'Brien has had the last few years. He has on some very funny people and then when they're in his guest chair and scoring, he tends to try and top them or at least turn their hilarious anecdote into a two-person routine. Leno has many shortcomings as a talk show interviewer but one he doesn't have is stepping on a guest's punchlines or trying to pull focus away from them. Jay seems to appease any need he has to be the funny one out there with his monologue and then the rest of the program can showcase others. And Craig Ferguson is better at this than any of them. He knows how to be funny without taking anything away from a guest.)

So I guess I'm just fascinated that David Letterman thinks Jay Leno is so insecure. There may be some sense in which that is true and I'm eager to watch the whole interview and hear the context of that remark and any supporting evidence. I'm not saying he's wrong so much as I'm curious as to in what sense he might be right. Maybe it is just a twenty-year-old observation that isn't as applicable these days or maybe Dave sees something that isn't evident to us.

Word from inside the Leno Camp is that Jay isn't going down (i.e., off) without a fight. All the audiences for the late night shows are at levels that would have gotten them cancelled ten years ago and the demographics — appealing to younger audiences — are therefore becoming more critical. Leno at worst can just go on the road and make tons o' cash doing something he loves — stand-up — for the rest of his life. One of his writers said to me not long ago, "Jay used to say his mission in life was 'tell joke, get check, tell joke, get check…' Now it's more like 'tell joke, get Maserati, tell joke, get Porsche…'" So even if Jay does get thrown over again for a younger guy, he'll do fine. Dave on the other hand doesn't seem to have anywhere to go, at least professionally, once his show ends. Maybe that has something to do — either way — with this whole subject of insecurity.