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Late-night heavyweights squared off to find best host

Molly Griffin | Thursday, September 25, 2003

The college circadian rhythm tends to be a bit out of whack, meaning that night no longer carries with it a responsibility of sleep. Without parental constraints or curfews constantly looming, students tend to return to their inherent animal instincts and become nocturnal. Suddenly, 2 a.m. seems like a reasonable, if not early, bedtime and pulling all-nighters is a badge of honor. Rarely does the real world acknowledge college sleeping patterns, and this means that your vampiric ability to stay awake all night and sleep all day will be useless when you don’t have finals to cram for or parties to attend. What is there to do when the world sleeps? Aside from returning to the drudgery of study, not much.

Fortunately, television has heard the cries of disgruntled college students and insomniacs everywhere and answered with quality, late-night programming and an increase in the number of witching-hour talk shows. No longer is midnight the entertainment monopoly of Johnny Carson; it has grown into a full-fledged comedy democracy composed of comic hosts such as Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Conan O’Brien and Craig Kilborn. Considering this newfound variety of late-night entertainment, the fact that the human body does need a minimal amount of sleep to survive, and the unfortunate fact that most of these shows are on at the same time, it can be difficult to experience all of these late-night personalities, their special guests and their unique brand of risqué late-night comedy.

This article is a condensation of hours and hours of television, making it convenient for the average watcher to either choose which late-night show to spend their precious time watching or be well-informed enough to pretend to be one of the other bleary-eyed, borderline insomniac college students when, in reality, you go to bed peacefully at 9 p.m. every night.

So where does one begin the journey into late-night talk shows? Is it really as simple as picking up the channel changer and proceeding to flip mindlessly? Well, only if someone has a great deal of time and patience. Late-night is no longer the simple, friendly landscape it once was; there is now a plethora of shows, on multiple channels, with endless gimmicks, sidekicks and all sorts of flashy tricks to win Nielson ratings.

Late-night talk shows have a long and sordid history, beginning with programs that were not much more than televised vaudeville routines. Steve Allen first used the format that is seen today, but the most famous innovator of night television was, of course, Johnny Carson. Whether the quality has gone up or down from the era of Carson is something few college students could really debate; most weren’t alive during many of his broadcast years. It is very clear, though, that the late-night playing field has expanded greatly.

Now it seems that anyone who’s anyone either has a talk show on the air or has a cancelled one in his or her past. The typical format of Monologue, First Guest, Skit, Second Guest, Band, Finale is still used by most shows, but a few have worked to change it or have chosen an entirely new means of presenting entertainment.

The best way to evaluate the merit of these shows may be every college student’s old friend, the frequent savior of essays, Compare-and-Contrast. For the sake of simplicity, and because there is only so long one can read about talk shows, we won’t look at every late-night show. Only the biggest, best or at least most notorious makes the list: “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on NBC, “Late Night with David Letterman” on CBS, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on Comedy Central, “The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn” on CBS, and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” on NBC. Tom Green was considered in this array of hosts, but his talk show, like so many before him, was cancelled. Jimmy Kimmel and Carson Daly both have their own late night shows as well, but they, like Tom Green, have yet to show their ability to survive in this cutthroat time slot.

Before we start, here’s a very brief description of each show/personality for those readers who may not have ever stayed up that late before. Jay Leno took over for Johnny Carson and has an impressive car collection and is famous for his large chin. David Letterman was unhappy that Leno got Johnny’s old job, had a heart attack and is from Indianapolis, Ind. Jon Stewart, former stand-up comic who took over “The Daily Show” from Craig Kilborn, was a professional tap dancer with the New Jersey Soft Shoe Club. Craig Kilborn left “The Daily Show” for his own eponymous late-night show, played college basketball and was in the movie Old School. Conan O’Brien went to Harvard and wrote for both “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons.” Now that we know who these hosts are, we can begin to compare.

The natural place to start the comparisons may be at the beginning of each show: the opening monologue. This segment lets the host make a few jokes, introduce his band and/or sidekick, mention the guests are for the evening, and then make a few more jokes. This round has to go to the heavyweights of late-night: Leno and Letterman. They have plenty of experience under their belts, and both have almost perfected the monologue format. They rarely deviate from the jokes-introductions-“go to commercial” format, but it works for them. The other hosts aren’t quite in the same league, but they are by no means all failures. Conan doesn’t quite have the ease of the other hosts, but he does win points for creativity and a likeable nature. Jon Stewart has the impediment of not really doing an “opening monologue” in the strictest sense, but instead presents the day’s headlines, so he is, in a way, disqualified. Craig Kilborn is the late night greenhorn, so he hasn’t quite mastered the subtle intricacies that differentiate the good opening monologue from, well, his own introductory speeches.

Bandleaders are key for a late-night talk show because the host has to have an actual person to tell jokes to, and this person must be someone who is required to laugh at said jokes. Paul Shaffer, David Letterman’s band leader, is possibly the most famous of the talk show musicians, but famous doesn’t always equal the best. He causes very polar reactions in viewers; either you love him or you hate him. Leno’s band leader, Kevin Eubanks, isn’t particularly memorable, but he does fulfill the duties of the bandleader and that’s all he really has to do. Conan O’Brien emerges as a player in this competition by virtue of the fact that his band leader, Max Weinberg, is a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Conan is the only host with some band street credit in his corner, and he gets an added bonus in the fact that Max is funny. Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” are, once again, left out from the competition because the show has no band. Some credit must be given to the program, though, because it has a cool theme song. It isn’t a good sign when the leader of the band is not only not memorable but is not to be found on the Internet as well, so Craig Kilborn is not doing too well in the bandleader category. In the case of the band leaders, it comes down to David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, with Letterman winning the most recognizable and O’Brien taking the prize for best overall band leader.

Special segments are the meat and potatoes of the late-night talk show, as there has to be something slightly interesting to fill the gaps between the celebrity guests. Leno requests that viewers send in humorous news clippings, which he presents on the show. This works well, because the jokes basically tell themselves, so everyone wins. Jay also has a segment where he asks simplistic, obvious questions and records the answers people on the street give. Funny, yes, but it is also a sad commentary on America’s education system and the basic knowledge that the general population possesses.

Letterman may possess one of the most notorious segments, his infamous Top Ten List, but he also has his weekly clips roasting daytime talk show therapist Dr. Phil and stupid human and pet tricks. Conan O’Brien has a surprising array of stupid, yet brilliant, segments, including Triumph the Comic Insult Dog, In the Year 2000, If They Mated, Clutch Cargo and Pimpbot 5000. Jon Stewart only really has news segments on “The Daily Show,” but with the distinct difference marking it from real news of being intentionally funny. The news segments usually focus on some strange and obscure situation or individual and making their story sound eerily like the real news, and there are also daily segments like Lewis Black’s “Back on Black” or the “Moment of Zen.” Kilborn’s show has a segment entitled “5 Questions,” which originated during his stint on “The Daily Show” in which he asks five random questions to his guests. He also reviews movie posters, and has a troupe of actors for skits that act as filler between guests. Looking at the shows in terms of their random skits, Leno and Letterman both have a solid repertoire, but Conan wins this round by virtue of the sheer number of memorable skits and because he is not afraid to do stupid and juvenile things to himself or others on his show. Maybe that’s what they teach you at Harvard.

The final factor we’ll look at is the guests on each show. It isn’t really effective to look at who has “better” guests, as celebrities are by their very nature media hounds and will go on anything if they have a movie to promote, so instead we’ll focus on the interview style of each host. Leno plays the personable, clean-cut host who shies away from really controversial questions, but in a way that means the celebrities feel comfortable on the show. Letterman is equally personable, but has a little more edge, so his questions are a little hit-and-miss. He has some truly memorable moments with guests, including Madonna swearing on air, Drew Barrymore stripping and Farrah Fawcett rambling incoherently. In this respect, he has a huge advantage. Conan will do anything for a laugh, including trading clothes with a much smaller Roberto Begnini, but this can in a way distract from the guests themselves. Conan is the focus of his show, not his guests. Jon Stewart’s interviews are smart and funny and are elevated from the typical banter of Hollywood in that he gets to talk about politics and gets actual politicians on the show. This may not always guarantee a laugh, but it is always fascinating and proves that some people who may appear to have no sense of humor are hilarious, like Former Senator Bob Dole. Craig Kilborn uses his “5 Questions” segment to his advantage, but his lower position on the late-night totem pole does limit his roster of big name stars, so he simply can’t compete with the other hosts. Letterman and Stewart take the cake as far as guests, though; Letterman for his memorable past incidents and Stewart for the sheer variety of guests that differentiates his show from the others.

In looking over this analysis, it becomes clear that Leno and Letterman are still at the top of the talk show food chain, but they have a few new boys, namely Conan O’Brien and Jon Stewart, nipping at their heels. Craig Kilborn must pay his dues in the late, late time slot before he can really be a competitor for the big-time ratings. Ultimately, though, the real choice is much simpler than picking between shows. It really boils down to: Is this worth missing sleep over? I only hope this analysis can help lead you to the right choice. Good luck, and good night.