Letterman has Writers, Leno Doesn’t (Sorta). An obvious difference?

Filed Under Comedy Writers, Late Night

With David Letterman having a deal for his writers and Jay Leno having to go without, I’ve been hopeful that it’ll become clear what writer-less television is like. An obvious gap in quality would do a lot to end the strike.

The first night, I don’t think that gap was there. As Johnny Carson said, talk shows are really about the guy behind the desk. That’s the center of the show. Letterman, though he obviously supports the writers, doesn’t necessarily need them. He has the energy to respond to the unexpected, explosively dropping an equally surprising line immediately after. A little bit like Carson, there some fun in watching him recover from a bit gone awry. The writing for the show naturally matches these gifts of Letterman and is sometimes, a bit looser to allow Dave be Dave.

Leno, on the other hand, is a gag man. He obviously reveres the art of joke writing. If only he had the same respect for joke writers. Much of his monologue was, self-admittedly, written by himself. As a WGA member, Leno is not supposed to be writing. I’ll be charitable though, perhaps the rules from the WGA are a bit unclear. But even so, if you’re in favor of the strike and support your writers and their cause, it seem to me that you would err on the side of no prepared material. The uncharitable parts of me wants to draw Leno’s monologue up to ego and competitiveness; he can’t stand to have Letterman have a leg up on him. The comments about “one man against the CBS machine” - it sounds as if he only thinking of himself here, rather than the writing team who works very hard for him. This is what the Late Night ratings competition does to people.

Leno also mentioned about coming back to support the other staffers, upon which the camera cut to a person who supposedly handles the lighting - a slovenly guy sitting in a chair holding up a flashlight. It’s the sort of joke that a lot of comedy writers have made about the make-up of other unions for a long time. A joke is a joke, but I found it bizarre to stick in an anti-union joke in there when you’re supporting the rest of your staff. Is that just me?

With Letterman’s performing style and Leno’s WGA rules flaunting (or unawareness), I’m not sure that the public will be able to tell the difference between a show with writers and one sans writers. Again, I hope it becomes more apparent. Was there enough of a difference? Will there be one?

Update: The ratings are in and Leno beat Letterman last night with a rating of 5.3 to Letterman’s 4.3. I don’t think the strike-aware population is large enough to credit that to “wanting to see a train wreck.” However, I think maybe - maybe - my question is being answered as, according to some earlier notes on Hollywood Reporter, Leno’s numbers fell off as the show went on in some markets and Letterman’s went up. A good sign for television created by writers?

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Posted by Sean L. McCarthy on 01/03  at  06:02 PM

Hey Todd,

I had a similar reaction to Leno’s monologue, that it seemed odd for a guy who made a big show of handing out treats on the picket lines would make jokes about his co-workers and ultimately make the show and the strike all about him. Oh well. Hopefully he reads our blogs and gets the hint, right?

Happy 2008! I look forward to seeing you out and about in the very near future.


Chase Roper
Posted by Chase Roper on 01/03  at  06:33 PM

I’m a long time supporter of Letterman, but I had to watch Leno’s monolouge last to see what he could come up with. I’m not certain, but I think Leno might be allowed to write material for himself, but can’t actually have it on a teleprompter or some crap like that. Either way, I agree with your points. I didn’t get the joke when he cut to the Lighting Guy, but that lighting guy was Bob Bledsoe who is a really funny dude that you can see in most all of the Kyle and Kevin Cease shorts on FunnyorDie.com and tons of other tv appearances.

I’m completely on the fence when it comes to the ethics involved in going back on the air. But I think it all comes down to the fact that the major networks just don’t NEED the writers to come back yet. I think they still have new content in the can and won’t sweat it until next fall when there are no new seasons being taped.

Also, where was Leno’s beard??

Posted by Nate on 01/05  at  12:50 AM

Not a fan of the train wreck theory? The high ratings prove that the message got out all the shows were coming back that night. It seems like there was more at play than an audience simply starved for entertainment. 

On a side note, I love seeing Dave on this power trip—it’s hilarious.

Posted by JackSzwergold on 01/05  at  09:16 PM

Here are my thoughts: Leno is a liar; nothing more and nothing less.  His whole position on the Tonight Show was based on deceptions and manipulations and it truly hurt David Letterman.  When I saw him hand out food to people working the line, all I could think about is how patronizing that was.  The guy is a millionaire.  He could have easily paid staff salaries and not have to loose any of his cars he so loves! He eventually did paid but (key point) only after being publicly humiliated by his own staff. He’s simply playing games and not much else.

The joke at the expense of production staff was quite pathetic also.  The guy is simply the worst kind of weasel and when he’s off the air in 2009 most people will not care.  Keep in mind also NBC’s announcement of that Conan deal was pretty much a slap in the face to Leno as well.  My gut tells me NBC isn’t too happy with Leno for reasons beyond ratings and sees Conan as someone who can truly re-legitimize the Tonight Show again.

Now Letterman, I respect him.  He fought for what he has and his control is based on talent, tenacity and a COMPLETE RESPECT for all those around him. Sometimes he can be cantankerous, but ultimately he cares for his staff and takes care of them. His love for local NYC characters and his ability to make them minor stars by visiting their deli or souvenir shop is really a good thing.  And a sign that he’s truly a “Mensch” more than anything else.

Letterman cutting a deal with the WGA makes sense.  Can anyone think of anyone else in comedy in the past 25 years who has fought so hard for creative vision and has done something with it?  Letterman is a friend of the writers and what the WGA gets for Letterman cutting a deal is a strong ally and vocal friend. And he’s truly risen to the occasion.

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