Friday, February 21, 2014

Friday Face Off - The Tonight Show vs The Late Show

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A new era is upon us.  The dark reign of Jay Leno is finally over.  Unfortunately for us at Fission Spaghetti Enterprises that means that we’ve got two late night talk shows* we’re interested in that are scheduled head to head…starting next week. 

So you know what that means; the return of the mythical Friday Face-Off.  It’s The Late Show with David Letterman vs The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon.

We know it’s been awhile, we’ll be gentle. 

So the two shows will be judged on the following criteria; Monologue, Comedic Bits, Interview, Band and, if necessary, Theme Weeks.

First up, naturally, is the Monologue.


The monologue is such vital part of the late night tradition.   In many case it can make or break a show; if the monologue is bad people aren’t going to stick around to see things through. 

Letterman is an old pro.  He’s literally been doing the late night thing for decades.  He’s got writers on staff that have been with him for decades.  In case you miss my subtlety, he’s a guy who’s set in his ways.  He doesn’t care if his jokes fall flat or even if you’re entertained; he’s going to tell the jokes he likes and there’s a chance you might enjoy them.  Dave doesn’t care who he offends, even if it’s the audience. 

Fallon on the other hand is painfully tame.  His jokes are predictable enough that you see the punchline coming from a mile away.  Occasionally he’ll have a joke worthy of a laugh, but generally it’s a monologue that can be best summed up as toothless. 

So it boils down to uncaring and indifferent vs careful and cautious.  It’s kind of a stalemate.  But there is something that tips the scales; Steve Higgins.

Steve Higgins is Fallon’s announcer and occasional sidekick.  But he’s got great chemistry with Fallon and often bails him out in terms of the monologue.  Seeing Higgins and Fallon riff is completely worth sitting through his tame monologue. 

Advantage: The Tonight Show

Up next, Comedy Bits

Comedy Bits

Comedy can be a tricky thing.  It’s very subjective.  What makes you laugh might not make anyone else in your family laugh.  It can be a tough way to go, especially for a late night talk show. 

Fallon has the benefit of coming from SNL, so he’s used to performing characters in front of an audience.  He’s also a natural performer; the guy does impressions, plays guitar and even sings.  Unfortunately his comedy bits are uneven. 

(Really unfortunately for Fallon, I just had to sit through Eww, with the First Lady.)

For every mildly humorous bit, like Tonight Show suggestion box, you get something that’s trying way too hard like History of Hip-Hop Dance or anything with Justin Timberlake. 

His other bits, like his tv show parodies are more obsessive than funny.  His musical numbers range from intriguing to indulgent.  Even things like Thank You Notes or Pros & Cons are predictable at best and Tonight Show Superlatives never should have gotten this far. 

Letterman’s comedic bits are way more absurdist.  Much like his monologue, it’s not for everyone.  Either you’re going to like his comedy bits or you’re not, there’s no middle ground. 

So when Letterman is doing Charts & Graphs and the Press Your Luck game show frame pops up, either you dig it or you don’t.  Graham Fenwick-Jones slays every time he shows up.  And The Weekend Late Show was pure genius. 

It’s no competition; a show that’s still pushing boundaries or a show that’s painfully respectful of them. 

Advantage: The Late Show

The Interview

Interviewing celebrities every day can’t be fun.  Feigning interest in whatever they’re promoting has go to be a chore.  Yet these two hosts have made it their career to do just that. 

Letterman doesn’t feign interest.  If you watch long enough you can see which interviews he has zero interest in and which celebrities actually have his attention.  It’s fun to watch Letterman derail his own interview because he’s got no interest in what’s being promoted. 

By the same token, his brutal honesty makes for great interviews with subjects that he’s either known for a long while or are equally honest.  When Jennifer Lawrence pops up on anything it’s memorable, but when she’s on Letterman it’s epic.  Julia Roberts also had a great recent interview.  And Alec Baldwin and Dave barely seem to be aware that there’s a camera or audience present. 

And think about those infamous late night moments, which always seems to involve Letterman.  When Madonna showed up.  When Andy Kaufman got into with Jerry “The King” Lawler.  When Joaquin Phoenix was nonresponsive. 

Fallon is an incredibly enthusiastic interviewer.  He’s always excited about whatever project is being promoted.  It’s always the best movie he’s ever seen and that scene was “so intense” and “crazy.”  Unfortunately celebrity fawning doesn’t make for particularly compelling television. 

To make matters worse, Fallon has the habit of trying to steal the spotlight from whoever he’s interviewing.  If the person Fallon’s interviewing is telling a story that involves another celebrity that Fallon can possibly do an impression of, he’ll do it despite possibly derailing the interview.  If Fallon has a story about someone who worked on the project being promoted, he’ll tell it.  His anecdote about working on Band of Brothers and messing up has been told numerous times. 

That said when Fallon has someone from Saturday Night Live, past or present, it’s usually a pretty solid segment.  It works because the interview evolves into two people sharing stories about SNL, which are always fun to hear.  It’s also Fallon when he’s at his most natural. 

Which interview sounds better; a perfunctory one or one with the “anything can happen” electricity in the air?  It’s Letterman all the way. 

Advantage The Late Show

The Band

The CBS Orchestra deserves respect.  They’ve been together for years and they’re an incredibly tight and versatile band.  Paul Shaffer is not only a character, but the guy’s got comedy roots.  They are a great band. 

But no one’s toping The Roots.  Not only are they a truly dope band, but Fallon incorporates them into the show.  On any given night you can expect Black Thought, Questlove, Kamal, Captain Kirk, James or Mark to be utilized in some comedy bit.  And when he was with the band, former member Owen Biddle was used in a recurring sketch. 

Also, they’re The Roots.  There’s no question. 

Advantage: The Tonight Show

Since it’s a tie, it’s time for the tiebreaker;

Theme Weeks

Theme Weeks don’t happen regularly.  In fact they’re pretty rare.  But they do occasionally happen on both shows, so they’ll be judged accordingly. 

Fallon enjoys doing theme weeks.  He’s had weeks where every musical performance was a tribute to the Rolling Stones or Bob Marley or Pearl Jam.  It’s always interesting to hear other artists interpret classic songs.  Of course as a matter of inclusion Fallon generally has at least one country artist on, to add it bit to twang to the proceedings. 

Fallon also has Video Game Week and Perm Week.  These are less successful.  Perm Week is pretty much the joke you expect it to be while Video Game Week is largely uneven. 

On the other hand Letterman rarely does theme weeks and when he does they’re strictly music related.  Recently, in honor of the 50th anniversary of The Beatles making their debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, he had Beatles Tribute Week and it was pretty dope.  Broken Bells with Ringo Starr and Sting with Ivy Levan quietly killed.  Before that Letterman hosted a couple of Drum Solo Weeks. 

Wrap your head around that; Letterman hosted weeks where the musical guests consisted of awesome drummers.  How dope is that? 

So you’ve got one host who uses theme weeks sparingly and always delivers while the other host isn’t as careful and the resulting product is uneven. 

Advantage The Late Show

Well, the results are in.  Despite having a stronger monologue and band, Fallon loses out to Letterman as the “must watch late night talk show at 11:35 pm.”  Not only does The Late Show have our hearts and minds, but most importantly the eyeballs of Fission Spaghetti Enterprises. 

Plus we can always watch The Tonight Show the next day on Hulu.  

The Winner: The Late Show with David Letterman

*I don’t acknowledge Jimmy Kimmel Live.  He’s always going to be that guy from The Man Show who enabled Bill Simmons to think that he’s funny. 

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