Leno Or Letterman? Maybe We Never Had To Choose After All

Greg Hewitt

It always seemed to me that you had to make a choice.

Dave or Jay?

I was, and have always been a Dave Guy.

It was immediate too. When I should have been studying for finals in college, I was watching Late Night With David Letterman on NBC. Remember, there was no internet, no social media, no YouTube videos to share.

You just watched every night and you determined if someone was really cool to hang with based on whether or not they watched. A litmus test of sorts.

Like many kids of that generation, I had grown up with Johnny Carson. I would watch The Tonight Show with my Dad and wonder why Johnny and Ed seemed so goofy.

“They’re drunk,” he would tell me.

So Dave was really the first TV host type who has ever really made me laugh. He was really funny in a way my friends and I could relate to. He turned the entire stale, vanilla talk show template inside out and introduced a new type of authenticity and realness to late night TV that we had never seen before.

Sarcastic, self-deprecating, never taking himself or his guests too seriously. No performer has had a greater influence on my career in media than Dave.

I’m sure he’d be thrilled to hear that.

So when Johnny Carson decided to retire from The Tonight Show to a life of yachting and tennis, it just seemed natural (and correct) that Dave would get the gig. He was the natural choice, the heir apparent, Johnny’s hand-picked successor.

Or so we were led to believe.

Enter an odd looking stand up comedian once described by his good friend (at the time) David Letterman as, “the funniest person I know.”

Jay Leno.

I liked Jay as one Dave’s best and most frequent guests, (and as Johnny’s occasional fill-in ) but never thought he would be seriously considered for the most coveted job in entertainment. He was the safe choice for NBC. That’s probably why he ended up getting the job.

Safe is one thing Dave wasn’t, especially in 1992.

So Dave pouted for awhile and ended up finding a home at CBS as their new late night contender to The Tonight Show and Jay Leno. To the surprise of no one, Dave and Jay’ friendship became strained to say the least.  Letterman fans everywhere were outraged and in no mood to concede anything to Leno.

That was Dave’s job!   It almost seemed like his birthright.

Subsequently, Jay has become everyone’s favorite punching bag, in large part due to Dave’s relentless drubbing.

One of the things I did like about Jay has been his refusal, for the most part, to respond these attacks, some of which (Jimmy Kimmel, some of Conan O’Briens’s minions) have crossed the line in my opinion.   That’s class.

Plus, you know what they say when you’re the top dog?

“Never punch down.”

I admit, my feelings for Jay have softened over the years.  While I still consider myself a “Dave Guy”,  I don’t really watch his show that often anymore.  More often than not, he seems cranky and uninterested–which he probably is  after all of these years.  Who can blame him?  As great of a career as he’s had, he still never got the one gig he desperately wanted.

Jay did.

So when Jay signed off as host of The Tonight Show the other night, I felt empathy for him.  He was emotional and real in a way that we’ve never seen before. You can tell that he really loved being the host of that show.  I’m sure Jimmy Fallon will do a great job as the next guy to occupy that coveted seat, but I’m not sure he’ll ever love it as much as Jay did.

Jerry Seinfeld, who’s close to both Jay and Dave, put it best recently in an interview with the New York Times. (Click on the link to watch a video of the two he put together.)

They’re intertwined as people,” Seinfeld said of the two hosts.  “This is my tribute to everything that was good about their relationship. You see it clearly. I don’t really think there is any place else that you can see it as easily — how much they still think of each other, in a nice way.”

Agreed.  And take this bet.  At some point over the next year or two,  Jay will give Dave his biggest ratings win in years by appearing as a guest on his show.




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