The Battle for Carson's Mantle

Chase, Leno, Letterman, and O'Brien point up the skill needed for a talk show to succeed

WHERRRRRE'S Johnny? ``The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson'' might have been going stale there toward the end, but Mr. Carson had a certain carefully cultivated Midwestern graciousness that worked for 30 years.

No one could displace him. His Mighty Carson Art Players skits were seldom very amusing, but no one minded - it was enough to chuckle along with his topical chatter and his mild political satire. His jokes and the skits could be sexist, but were rarely vicious. He never acted star-struck, and his show championed a lot of upcoming talent.

Carson also brought on a lot of interesting ordinary folk - old ladies, bird callers, a pretty zoologist with a variety of odd animals, and more. He never lost the common touch, and he rarely displayed ego or temperament or condescension, though plenty of guests gave him cause.

Now that we have a whole range of late-night talk show hosts to choose from, reflecting back on what Carson did right points up the flaws and strengths among the competitors. No one does the celebrity interview as well as Carson did, and celebrity interviews are what late-night TV is all about.

David Letterman has moved over to CBS from NBC and up an hour in time - in direct competition with Jay Leno on ``The Tonight Show'' on NBC. Both are preceded by ``The Chevy Chase Show'' on Fox, while young Conan O'Brien inherits Letterman's old slot on NBC's ``Late Night.'' Arsenio Hall is still running in syndication. But Hall is kind of a maverick, so the late night ``news'' is really about the contest pitting Chase, Letterman, and Leno against one another in roughly the same time slot. A more genial Letterman

Letterman has changed his act a bit from the late-night persona that always seemed a bit dour, a tad mean-spirited, and more than a little cynical. His abrasive style, seen on ``Late Night with David Letterman,'' was based on sarcasm and self-deprecation. It always seemed to mask a cold ego. He was witty, but often somewhat nasty. Maybe it was all an act - or maybe the new Letterman is.

Letterman opened his new show at CBS last month looking more confident, more sophisticated, and more genial than he ever looked on NBC. A terrific montage of old Ed Sullivan clips inaugurated his stage, the refurbished Ed Sullivan Theater, and set a classy, agreeable tone for the new show - a tone that has more or less continued.

His jokes now rely less on sarcasm and more on wry observation. He cleverly skewered NBC, rather than blasting them, taunting them a little with his defiance of their ``ownership'' of his former routines. He still nurses the ``hip'' routine, only now he moves into his material with a more amiable grace.

Like Johnny before him and Jay Leno now, Letterman goes for the news and other topical material in his monologue. He's not terribly good at political parody, though. He doesn't get the humanity of politics, the ironies and foibles of newsmakers the way Carson and Leno do. Still, the writing has improved dramatically. He's a terrific, natural interviewer. Snappy questions and split-second retorts make him interesting and fun - even when he makes big blunders. He told actor Jeff Goldblum how much he liked him in ``The Accidental Tourist,'' but Goldblum wasn't in the movie. William Hurt starred in it with Goldblum's ex-wife Geena Davis. Oops. Never mind, Letterman recovered hilariously. Leno puts guests at ease

Jay Leno remains low-key, sweet-faced, and good-natured. Like Johnny, he keeps up the parody of politics, a constant stream of current affairs. His monologues are smarter and more amusing than Letterman's and he seems more genuine than any of his rivals. He's hired a better band than Carson, Chase, or Letterman, too. He's not as snappy an interviewer as Letterman, but he gets his guests to relax so much in the easy, friendly atmosphere of the show that some very good material rolls out. With Jerry Seinfeld the other night, for example, Leno was so at ease, so warm, he elicited a veritable stream of amusing anecdotes from his guest. Even while badgering Burt Reynolds about his recent marital split, Leno remained warm enough to make the intrusion seem all right.

So far this season, Leno has cornered the best guests (with the possible exception of Vice President Al Gore on Letterman the other night). Bill Cosby and Michael J. Fox have come prepared to amuse. Leno's strength lies here - in making his guests so comfortable that witty exchanges are readily forthcoming. How not to do a talk show

As it turns out, running a successful late-night talk show does require skill. It may look easy for any good clown, but not everyone can do it: certainly not Chevy Chase. As talented as he's always been with the planned wisecrack and the pratfall (remember his ``Saturday Night Live'' openings?), he's not clever at extemporaneous retorts. Awkward, silly, and ill-at-ease, Chase relies far too heavily on scatological and libidinal jokes, few of which are even remotely funny.

Chase has been so busy behaving like a freshman on the school magazine that he hasn't elicited a clever remark, much less witty repartee from any of his eager guests. He dogged Tom Selleck with bizarre sexual innuendos about his daughter and made crude gestures with a pool cue when he hosted two female pool pros. Leno and Letterman can be very crude, too. But Chase seems unable to stop when he goes too far. His ``News Update'' segment, a holdover from his old ``Saturday Night Live'' routine, has been so lame that not even his wildly enthusiastic and energetic audience can help it. He's a better movie star than talk show host. O'Brien on the right track

Young Conan O'Brien has a lot of charm. If he lasts, he'll make a very good host. Right now, he's awkward, and he knows it. He keeps joking about how uneasy he is, how new at the task he is, how he doesn't know what he's doing. He's at his best in this boyish mode, and eventually he'll learn to shut up and let the guests finish a sentence. But his humor is kinder and cleverer than Letterman's ever was. He may prove to be a real star.

The viewing public watched Carson for 30 years because he was like an old friend, the guy next door, who happened to be amusing. His boyish appeal never changed, though his hair turned gray before our eyes. The show was never deep, but it was often inventive. The question is, will Leno, Letterman, or O'Brien find a similar niche at dream time?

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