Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Battle for Carson's Mantle Chase, Leno, Letterman, and O'Brien Point Up the Skill Needed for a Talk Show to Succeed

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Battle for Carson's Mantle Chase, Leno, Letterman, and O'Brien Point Up the Skill Needed for a Talk Show to Succeed

Article excerpt

WHERRRRRE'S Johnny? "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" might have been going stale there toward the end, but Mr. Carson had a certain carefully cultivated Midwestern graciousness that worked for 30 years.

No one could displace him. His Mighty Carson Art Players skits were seldom very amusing, but no one minded - it was enough to chuckle along with his topical chatter and his mild political satire. His jokes and the skits could be sexist, but were rarely vicious. He never acted star-struck, and his show championed a lot of upcoming talent.

Carson also brought on a lot of interesting ordinary folk - old ladies, bird callers, a pretty zoologist with a variety of odd animals, and more. He never lost the common touch, and he rarely displayed ego or temperament or condescension, though plenty of guests gave him cause.

Now that we have a whole range of late-night talk show hosts to choose from, reflecting back on what Carson did right points up the flaws and strengths among the competitors. No one does the celebrity interview as well as Carson did, and celebrity interviews are what late-night TV is all about.

David Letterman has moved over to CBS from NBC and up an hour in time - in direct competition with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" on NBC. Both are preceded by "The Chevy Chase Show" on Fox, while young Conan O'Brien inherits Letterman's old slot on NBC's "Late Night." Arsenio Hall is still running in syndication. But Hall is kind of a maverick, so the late night "news" is really about the contest pitting Chase, Letterman, and Leno against one another in roughly the same time slot. A more genial Letterman

Letterman has changed his act a bit from the late-night persona that always seemed a bit dour, a tad mean-spirited, and more than a little cynical. His abrasive style, seen on "Late Night with David Letterman," was based on sarcasm and self-deprecation. It always seemed to mask a cold ego. He was witty, but often somewhat nasty. Maybe it was all an act - or maybe the new Letterman is.

Letterman opened his new show at CBS last month looking more confident, more sophisticated, and more genial than he ever looked on NBC. A terrific montage of old Ed Sullivan clips inaugurated his stage, the refurbished Ed Sullivan Theater, and set a classy, agreeable tone for the new show - a tone that has more or less continued.

His jokes now rely less on sarcasm and more on wry observation. He cleverly skewered NBC, rather than blasting them, taunting them a little with his defiance of their "ownership" of his former routines. He still nurses the "hip" routine, only now he moves into his material with a more amiable grace.

Like Johnny before him and Jay Leno now, Letterman goes for the news and other topical material in his monologue. He's not terribly good at political parody, though. He doesn't get the humanity of politics, the ironies and foibles of newsmakers the way Carson and Leno do. Still, the writing has improved dramatically. He's a terrific, natural interviewer. Snappy questions and split-second retorts make him interesting and fun - even when he makes big blunders. He told actor Jeff Goldblum how much he liked him in "The Accidental Tourist," but Goldblum wasn't in the movie. …

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