Tube Talk: Late-night wars: O’Brien, Letterman and Kimmel

Now that Conan O’Brien is settling in as the new host of The Tonight Show, it’s time to weigh in on the fabled late-night wars.

I never hid my feelings about Conan’s predecessor, Jay Leno. In my opinion, Leno isn’t the least bit funny unless you happen to like sophomoric one-liners. He’s also a train wreck of an interviewer. Even Larry “I wasn’t listening to your response, so I’ll ask five questions you’ve already answered” King is a better interviewer than Leno. So, of course I’m thrilled Conan and his quirky brand of humor has finally taken over The Tonight Show. “Twitter Tracker” is about 10 billion times funnier than “Jay Walking” ever was, and the return of Andy Richter was long overdue.

My friends and family all know I’m an obsessive knitter who often stays up late trying to finish just one more row, a section of a pattern, or an entire project while watching late-night TV. I’ve always preferred The Late Show with David Letterman to Leno (or even Conan). Letterman can be a masterful interviewer, and while notoriously private, he isn’t afraid to share his feelings with viewers, as he memorably did in his first post-9/11 show, or when he returned following bypass surgery. Eloquent even when choked up, he doesn’t pretend everything is right when it’s not.

But in the past year or so, most nights I’m watching Nightline. Yes, Nightline.

At least twice a week, I wind up telling someone about a great segment I just saw on Nightline. It combines good reporting and timely subjects with a needed dash of humor every so often. The other night I watched The Daily Show, followed by Nightline, with side trips to Letterman, Conan and The Jimmy Kimmel Show. (Sorry, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Fallon and Carson Daly—I didn’t have that much knitting to keep me up late enough to watch your shows. But Ferguson’s The Late Late Show is my favorite among the later late-night programs.)

Kimmel is perhaps the most underrated of the current crop of late-night talk shows. He’s funny, and a decent interviewer, but I often find the Uncle Frank, Cousin Sal and Guillermo bits painful to watch. Then again, some folks tune in specifically for those sketches.

Men aren’t the only ones with late-night talk shows. Another favorite of mine is E!’s Chelsea Lately. The show’s nightly panel, led by host Chelsea Handler, mercilessly skewers the very pop culture “news” E! is known for. Politically incorrect at nearly every turn, Handler somehow gets away with it. Her interviews can be surprisingly good, too. Unconventional, sure, but she cuts to the chase, often stunning her guests, who seem to be thinking, “Did she just say what I think she said?” Chances are, she did.

With so many late-night shows on the air, there’s something for almost every taste, from cerebral to silly. Usually, the guest stars determine which shows I’ll watch, but on nights when no stars really stand out, I’ll flip from one show to another to yet another.

E-mail Paula Hendrickson at

from the July 29-August 4, 2009, issue

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