Tonight Conan O'Brien takes over the reins of the Tonight Show and he'll probably score huge ratings because it's his first show and everyone will be curious to see what the new show looks like. But who are you going to watch at 11:35 after all the hoopla dies down?
That's a question we've been asking ourselves a lot over the last few days. We love Letterman. We also love Conan. We've never really been forced to confront this sort of dilemma previously. In the past the question of who to watch at 11:35 was a no-brainer—-Johnny Carson was the only show in town during his era, and Letterman was always matched up against Leno, his comedic antithesis in just about every way, so usually we watched Letterman on CBS at 11:35 and then switched over NBC to catch Conan at 12:37. It was all so fantastically fine.
But now there's this new thing and we don't know quite what to do. This is like that time Hulk Hogan squared off against Andre The Giant for the WWF title when we were kids—-We didn't know who the hell to pull for!
We can, however, take solace in knowing that we aren't the only ones confused by all this. New York has a feature in their new issue by Sam Anderson addressing the same subject.
Now we have to adjust to a new binary: Letterman versus Conan. (Leno will take his show to prime time, where he enters into a new binary with a bunch of sausage-grinder franchises like Law & Order and CSI.) On the surface, Letterman-Conan is infinitely less dramatic than Letterman-Leno; the intensities have all dropped out of the equation. They are not peers-when Letterman started his first late-night show, O'Brien was at Harvard studying Faulkner and writing Lettermanesque humor for the Lampoon. There's no obvious bad blood-Letterman was an early Conan supporter, and, just as Letterman once paid tribute to the retiring Carson ("Thanks for my career"), Conan spent much of his recent Late Night farewell speech gushing over Dave ("David Letterman invented this Late Night show … He set the bar absurdly high for everybody in my generation who does this"). Their stylistic differences will create very few rifts between friends and neighbors. Conan speaks fluently in the late-night language Letterman invented: cerebral non sequiturs; field trips in search of real-world absurdities; forays through the bowels of the studio to interrupt other shows. Both hosts morph into clingy nerds when faced with beautiful actresses. (Conan once screamed like a linebacker and threw his chair after Rebecca Romijn kissed him.) Conan is in many ways a mini-Letterman: tall, lanky, red-haired, stunty, smart. If Letterman-Leno felt like a decades-long slow-motion death match, Letterman-Conan threatens to be its opposite: sweet, cute, possibly even boring.
The most tantalizing possible outcome of the Letterman-Conan binary is that it will force Letterman, at this late stage in the game, to get better. To stand out against the background of Jay, Dave just had to be Dave. To compete with a younger, hungrier version of himself, he might have to do more than that, for the first time in years. The similarities might turn out to be a blessing: Their stunts will cross-pollinate, their jokes will play against each other. To differentiate themselves, they may even have to launch an arms race of total absurdity.
We'd like to just state here and now that we have no issue whatsoever in "an arms race of total absurdity." In fact, we encourage it. Please fellas, indulge us. And as for who to watch, we suppose that we can just DVR one or both shows and watch one at 11:35 and the other at 12:37, because we usually have to be kinda stoned to get into Craig Ferguson and Jimmy Fallon's show just, you know, fucking sucks.
Letterman vs. Mini-Letterman [New York]