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Dave, Jay and the paternal shadow of Johnny

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

February 02, 2005|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Comedy and caring don't easily mix, so you knew Jay Leno and David Letterman -- who are professional rivals but also, you sense, the same removed, iconoclastic human being -- were going to be out of their element paying tribute to Johnny Carson on their respective shows.

Still, what was revealing, watching Leno's on-air memorial a week ago and then Letterman's Monday night (his show was dark last week) was how much the shows betrayed the comics' personal relationships with Carson. That is to say, Leno had none, while Letterman was still getting monologue jokes from the man.

For Letterman this, clearly, has been a quiet consolation for not inheriting "The Tonight Show" and then having to get used to losing to Leno in the ratings wars -- Jay got the set and the audience, but Dave still got the approval from Malibu, Carson's faxed-in love.

Though Letterman didn't reveal until later that his "Late Show" monologue consisted of jokes written by Carson in the months before his death, you could tell because some of the references were a little outdated. Still, it was touching, as if Letterman were playing his dad's musical instrument at the funeral.

"Well, here was a sad story, I hated to hear about this," Letterman-as-Carson said. "Paris Hilton, you know Paris Hilton? Paris Hilton has a dog named Tinkerbell, and Tinkerbell was missing for a while. Don't worry, they found Tinkerbell. They found the dog. Tinkerbell was with the Taco Bell Chihuahua making a sex video."

After the monologue Letterman went back to his desk and called Carson a "public utility" and, as other famous comedians have done, spoke of Carson's profound impact on his career. He said everyone now doing a late-night talk show was essentially doing Carson's, "because you think, 'Well, if I do Johnny's old 'Tonight Show,' maybe I'll be a little like Johnny and people will like me more. But it sadly doesn't work that way. It's just, if you're not Johnny, you're wasting your time."

It was hard not to wonder whether, say, a 20-year-old, unschooled in the oeuvre of late-night talk, could make sense of all the somber fuss. But Letterman, who on TV is aging into his essence, all zero body fat and bone-dry wit, was speaking, as Leno had done, for a generation of comics who'd been given their breaks by Carson and were now mourning their own mortality, showbiz and otherwise. They'd watched Carson during the 1960s and 1970s, during Vietnam and Watergate, comforted by his constant presence.

Letterman could have booked anybody for Monday's show, but he chose to go with a noncelebrity, Peter Lassally, a longtime producer of Carson's "Tonight Show," with music provided by Doc Severinsen, who with Carson band members Tommy Newsom and Ed Shaughnessy played "Here's That Rainy Day," an old Carson favorite.

The whole thing, in the end, was more show than tell. Leno's tribute, by contrast, was a cavalcade of stars. Ed McMahon, Don Rickles, Bob Newhart. Just seeing Rickles and Newhart made you feel better, although Drew Carey had the line of the night. "You know," he told Leno, "when you die they're not going to do all this for you."

In the race to be regarded as Carson's heir apparent, Leno has never been able to win for losing. He failed to acknowledge Carson the night he took over "The Tonight Show" and has been trying to pay back that monumental show business faux pas ever since. While Letterman saluted Carson with a monologue of his jokes, Leno did his own kind of humbled homage -- he told no monologue jokes. It was only the day after Carson died, and so he muzzled himself.

"After all these years I still feel like a guest in his house," Leno said. You wanted him to expand on that thought, to unburden himself, but he wasn't going to. He was only going to give a workmanlike eulogy about a guy he never really knew. Give the people what they want: Leno knows this at his core.

"You know, I was thinking about what I could say about Johnny Carson," Leno said, to a studio audience that had gone completely silent, "and I kept trying to search for something new that hadn't been said before. And after a couple of hours I realized that was impossible. Maybe that was the greatest thing about Johnny Carson. Imagine getting to the end of your life and there's no compliment you haven't been paid."

That night, Leno drew more than 11 million viewers, double his average. Letterman's show, according to preliminary estimates, did half that but still was the highest-rated "Late Show" of the year. The only thing left to ponder was which one Carson would have watched.

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