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Why Jay Leno is trouncing David Letterman in late-night television wars

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President Barack Obama talks in between segments of an interview at "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno on Oct. 25, 2011.

President Barack Obama talks in between segments of an interview at “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno on Oct. 25, 2011.


The late-night wars are heating up again as Jay Leno prepares to hand the "Tonight Show" reins over to Jimmy Fallon, presumably without yanking them back again the way he did with Conan O’Brien. Personally, I thought Leno would be forever perceived as damaged goods after his graceless return to the job he’d handed off to Conan, yet he’s consistently dominating the ratings in every key demographic.

Now, I grew up as a devoted Letterman acolyte, and for the longest time, I was baffled by the great love for Leno’s generic brand of bland as opposed to Letterman’s quirkier and more cerebral style. But now I find myself, almost against my will, preferring Leno to Letterman, and I’m starting to understand why America does, too.

“Some exciting news from the world of sports,” Leno said in his opening monologue on Tuesday night. “It seems Tim Tebow has signed with the New England Patriots. … So the good news, Tim Tebow got a job with the Patriots. The bad news: now that he's associated with the word 'Patriot,' he's being audited by the IRS.”

Right before this quip, he talked about how the only people who knew about Tim Tebow’s top secret deal were Bill Belichick, Tim Tebow and “of course, the NSA because they were, you know, listening in.” Both jokes were made at President Obama’s expense, and both were received with riotous laughter and applause from an appreciative audience.

David Letterman, with very rare exceptions, steers clear of any President Obama mockery. Letterman himself openly acknowledged this in one of his own monologues:

"People always say this to me: 'Hey, Letterman,' they say. 'Why don't you make jokes about Obama?’ All right, I'll tell you why. I don't make jokes about him because I don't want the FBI tapping my phone, that's why."

That got laughs, too, but it’s also a comedic dodge to a serious question. During the Bush years, Letterman was an outspoken critic of just about everything the White House was doing with no demonstrable fear of official reprisal. He had a long-running bit called “Great Moments in Presidential History,” where he would play clips showing inspirational things like FDR’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” and JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you,” immediately followed by George W. fumbling over his words and saying something stupid.

Like all people in public life, President Obama has said his own fair share of stupid things, but none of them have been highlighted by “Great Moments in Presidential History” because Letterman retired that meme after Obama was inaugurated.

We still live in a nation divided right down the middle in terms of its political preferences. So is it any wonder that the huge block of viewers that doesn’t like Obama much prefers the comedian who isn’t afraid to make fun of him?

There was no love lost between Bush and Jay Leno, either, but the "Tonight Show" isn’t afraid to be an equal-opportunity offender. That’s how it should be. People in power occasionally need to be taken down a notch or two, regardless of their party affiliation.

Right now, the perception is that Letterman and most of the entertainment industry will gleefully pound on Republicans, but they switch to the kid gloves when the Democrats come around. That makes for boring television and fewer viewers, but at least these guys can feel good about themselves. Maybe that helps ease the pain when the ratings come in.

The supreme irony in all this is that even though Leno is the undisputed king of late night, he is the only one of these guys who’s losing his job. I’m sure Letterman can find a good joke in there somewhere.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.