Late - night war: CHAMPS and CHUMPS Dave's familiar dazzle sets the curve among hosts

September 15, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

When did being host of a late-night talk show become brain surgery?

First, the Chevy Chase debacle on Fox last week. And, now, Conan O'Brien's opening night Monday as David Letterman's replacement on NBC, which was almost as bad.

Nervous and jittery to the point where it's painful to watch, he plied guests with questions that ran the gamut from "So, what's up?" to "So, how's it going?" Then he was too distracted by nerves and cues from his director to listen to the answers.

Even considering opening-night jitters, O'Brien shows very little promise of ever being able to deliver a monologue or engage the audience in any kind of conversation.

And, just in case you thought you'd never see anyone look more uncomfortable dancing than Chase did on his opening night as the band played "La Bamba" and Goldie Hawn shook her booty, there was O'Brien showing all the moves of Martin Short's Ed Grimley.

Joan Rivers, Dennis Miller, Garry Shandling, Dick Cavett, Pat Sajak -- sure, none of them blew the doors off late night in the ratings or they'd still have shows. But all of them -- and a half-dozen others -- have sat down at late-night desks in recent years and not embarrassed themselves this way.

Several things make these last two debuts seem so awful.

One involves an entertainment press corps that has grown exponentially in recent years and can generate incredible media heat (though little light) when it focuses the spotlight on a story.

The resulting pressure on producers and performers of these new shows, as well as a magnification of first-show problems, weren't factors when David Letterman started. What's happened entertainment reporting is similar to what's happened in recent years with reporting on presidential primary campaigns.

A high standard

But a more important factor in Chase and O'Brien looking so bad is simply Letterman himself. He has done almost everything right since his return Aug. 30. He has been nothing short of terrific. And he is the standard by which they are being judged.

"This is not a sprint, it's a marathon," says Rick Ludwin, the senior vice president for late night at NBC, reacting to Letterman's great launch and the suggestion that there's a winner and plenty of losers in the late-night wars.

"We all predicted Dave's opening would be strong and it was," Ludwin says.

L "We also said let's see what's happening in a month or two."

In the meantime, Letterman's new show seems to have fulfilled his summertime promise that it would not be so different from his old NBC show.

In fact, the late-night wars were probably over by the time Paul Newman, in a cameo appearance, stood up on opening night and asked, "Where the hell's the dancing cats?"

What did it mean? Who knows exactly?

But it defined being cool and coming through in the clutch -- the opposite of what you felt watching Chase and O'Brien in their initial shakiness.

Weak local showing

Letterman's ratings have exceeded CBS' expectations. Nationally, the show is averaging about a 5.3 rating (5 million homes) for its first two weeks, placing it consistently at No. 1 in its time slot. Locally, it's not doing quite as well, often finishing second.

But Baltimore never liked Letterman. Jerry Springer really did consistently beat him last year. The only show Letterman beat locally when he was on NBC last year were infomercials on WBFF (Channel 45). And, in some cases, according to Nielsen ratings, the infomercials beat "Late Night With David Letterman."

It looks like CBS came up a winner when it rolled the dice and spent $42 million for three years of Letterman. "Late Show With David Letterman" is to baby boomer guys what Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" was to their fathers. That's his core audience.

Letterman is the arbiter for cool male behavior at a time when a lot of boomer guys are feeling insecure about whether they're rTC still cool. He's what Esquire magazine used to be -- and then some -- to the American male.

Kudos for 'Arsenio'

As for "The Arsenio Hall Show," it scores high locally in the ratings, running neck and neck with Letterman and often beating him. It's hard to get a clear picture nationally -- because the show is syndicated and on at different times -- but, overall, "Arsenio" finishes second to Letterman in most of the key cities and often does better here.

Hall's forte is bringing in new people and lending a desperately needed diversity to late night. Last Friday, for example, one of Hall's guest was Melanie. No, not the '60s "I've got a brand new pair of roller skates" girl, but the young, African-American comedian. If you didn't know that, you need to tune in Arsenio every now and then -- you're getting too far away from the edge of late night.

"The Tonight Show's" biggest problem is this: Jay Leno lets NBC ram too many stars from its shows down his throat. Friday night, Roy Scheider took up almost half the hour showing clips from "seaQuest DSV," a bomb.

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