Why Leno Keeps On Winning

Great article by Bill Carter in The New York Times on indomitable Jay Leno. As Carter points out, the late show host critics love to dismiss is as dominant as ever in the ratings a month after he and David Letterman returned to the air–Letterman with his writers, Leno without. How has he done it? Read Carter’s analysis here.
Letterman has had the big name guests, including, in the past week, Paris Hilton, Dr. Phil and Hillary Clinton (tonight it’s Matthew McConaughey and Sheryl Crow), but Leno still clobbers him. He’s doing it with the kind of B-Listers Mike Bullard had to make due with, network newsreaders and animal acts. How can he be winning?
As Leno always says, it’s the jokes, stupid. While the right guest at the right time can spike ratings, people tune in to these shows to laugh. Where ever he’s getting his jokes, Leno the savvy survivor is serving them up and hitting them out.
Letterman, on the other hand, seems let down by his writers. Lame sketches, like that stupid deal with Johnny Dark dressed up as Mark Twain’s brother telling rejected Henny Youngman jokes, are killing his show. A bit where Letterman writer Bill Scheft interrupts something and then says this skit won’t be finished out of sympathy to writers still out on the picket line are a comedy dead zone. You could hear the mice groan when he pulled it at Rupert Gee’s Hello Deli last week.
Nobody wants to see these insider strike gags anymore. They aren’t funny and they make writers seem like they’re self indulgent and overpaid–exactly the wrong message.
It’s almost as if Letterman is the Patriots–expected to win with a deep bench–and Leno is the Giants, finding a way to win against all odds. Make Leno an underdog and he’ll kill you every time.
Maybe, too, there is a sense of a missed opportunity here–the chance to see Letterman perform without his writers. To see him risk the kind of live and dangerous show Conan O’Brien has been pulling out of his butt the last five weeks.
Another good read is the excerpt in the current issue of Time magazine from Richard Zoglin’s new book Comedy At The Edge: How Stand-up In The 1970s Changed America. It recounts another strike nearly 30 years ago–at LA’s Comedy Store–when young stand up lions Leno and Letterman defied club owner Mitzi Shore. That strike put $25 bucks per show into the pockets of young comedians. Leno and Letterman have both had raises since then.

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