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It's Not Just 'Tonight.' It's Every Night.

COVER STORY

He's heard the critics carp and the rival comics grouse. But it's mere noise to Jay Leno. His only concern is the next joke.

July 09, 2000|PAUL BROWNFIELD | Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

Some of "The Late Shift" themes about Leno--that he's a ceaseless worker, canny when he needs to be but emotionally absent--resurfaced in a May Esquire cover story about Letterman and his return from the brink of a medical crisis. Written by Bill Zehme, who collaborated with Leno on his 1996 road memoir "Leading With My Chin," the piece was another media testament to Letterman's superior show and intact legacy, and a firm, backhanded slap at Leno and his pyrrhic ratings victory and Letterman inferiority complex. "Life for him is a contest and a tote board," Zehme wrote of Leno. "He breathes largely to compete . . . , which is to say, he lives to keep tabs on Letterman with every fiber of his being bent on out-muscling him and outdistancing him."

Leno dismisses the article as another media blindside. "I have no problem with Dave; there's room for both of us," he will tell any reporter who asks. If Leno says next to nothing publicly about their cold war, the reclusive Letterman says nothing at all--not to the media that worship him or to Leno. The two supposedly haven't spoken in eight years. Leno, says a source, wrote to Letterman during his recovery from heart surgery but heard nothing back (another source says yes, Leno got a letter). Most likely it was terse; during this time, Leno also received a call from "Late Show" executive producer Rob Burnett, asking him not to mention Letterman on his show or to the media, leaving Leno in a public relations bind, adds the source. And on and on it can go.

*

There has been another development of late, and this one more public: Letterman, since returning from surgery, has taken several potshots on the air at Leno. About a month ago, during a Top 10 list, he called Leno a "hump" and joined the legion of Leno impressionists. Leno laughs it off as good-natured ribbing. Sort of. "The Late Show" official line, courtesy of executive producer Maria Pope, is: "Basically, this is not a big deal for us. We joke about everybody."

Maybe, too, Letterman and Leno are glad they can still stir things up. "You're sort of grateful that people are still writing about this story," NBC's Ludwin says of "The Late Shift" postscripts. Indeed, even having the Leno versus Letterman discussion seems out of step, given the disparate voices (Bill Maher, Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, Dennis Miller, Craig Kilborn) in late night these days. The arrival of such shows as Rock's Emmy-winning "The Chris Rock Show" and Stewart's "The Daily Show" have made Letterman and Leno seem like bastions of a format growing a bit hoary. O'Brien, at 12:30 a.m., is widely credited with putting on the freshest comedy, not to mention the freshest stand-up comics. Leno and Letterman? Yes, the gun still sounds at 11:35, but by the time Letterman is into his grab bag of found humor and Leno's into minute nine of his monologue, are you still with them?

For movie stars and the movie studios they represent, meanwhile, the shows are just part of the publicity conga line you dance the week before opening. Leno and Letterman may still fight over big names, but this is not where the war is fought, most in late night agree.

"Leno is like a politician running for president," says a source formerly close to the show. "As soon as he got the job, he moved toward the middle and away from his comedic roots. He's like George W. Bush running on the right in the primaries and then running to the middle in the general election. It may make for good political and TV strategy, but it has lost Jay his early, loyal fans and given him a reputation as a sellout among some of his peers."

Leno is clearer on this subject. "The Tonight Show" ratings turned around precisely when he embraced his stand-up self and changed the set to suggest a more intimate nightclub act. Yes, he went to the middle, but that's what he was hired to do.

"This is a business. I work for Jack Welch," he says. Welch is chairman of General Electric, which owns NBC, and he will always own Leno's devotion: In "The Late Shift's" most infamous scene, Leno hid out in a supply closet, listening to network executives haggle over whether Leno or Letterman should get Carson's chair. It was Welch who stuck his head into this meeting and lent his support to the loyal guy, to Leno.

"G.E.'s edict is, 'We like things to be No. 1, or else we get rid of them,"' says Leno. "My job is to keep this No. 1.

"There's nothing funnier to me than sitting in Jerry's Deli listening to a bunch of guys whine about how clever and inventive they were, and [how] the networks were scared and now they are out of a job. You're either doing it or you're not doing it," Leno goes on, arguing that these critics have turned a deaf ear to the good jokes he tells. ". . . There's a bit of that New England Calvinist thing there [for me], where you just go, 'Shut up and do the job.' "

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