Last week, David Letterman signed a new contract with CBS that will extend The Late Show at least through 2014. Since Late Night With David Letterman premiered on NBC in 1982, this will officially make Letterman the longest-serving late night TV host in history: Johnny Carson left The Tonight Show after 30 years in 1992. So how do the two hosts stack up against each other?
It's All In The Delivery
Johnny Carson epitomized affable cool, and the material for his jokes -- martinis, golf (he famously ended his monologue with a pantomime tee shot), buxom starlets, sports -- matched the interests of his generation's suburban smart set. David Letterman's more sardonic style has always had a sharper edge: On his first week of shows back in 1982, actress Nastassja Kinski appeared on the set sporting an avant-garde hairstyle, about which Dave asked "Do you have a barn owl on your head?" Kinksi reportedly left the studio in tears.
Carson had a handful of stock characters, such as late-night TV pitchman Art Fern and psychic Carnac The Magnificent. Since Letterman's entire on-air persona is in many ways a character -- by all accounts, he's an extremely shy and reserved person offstage -- he's always his alternately amused and cranky self on camera. His recurring bits are extensions of his on-air persona rather than character sketches: most notably the nightly Top 10 List, but also elaborate sight gags like the time he put on a suit made of Velcro and trampolined himself onto a wall.
Carson's affability reportedly masked a somewhat darker off-camera life. But aside from occasional self-deprecating cracks about his four marriages, Carson rarely discussed his private life, even when one of his children was killed in a car accident in 1991. On the other hand, Letterman's life is pretty much an open book. From his efforts to quit smoking and his many speeding tickets to more serious matters like a mentally unbalanced stalker, open-heart surgery, and most recently, scandalous revelations that he had been having an affair with a Late Show staffer, Letterman has talked openly and often quite seriously about his personal life.
On The Side
Carson's stalwart sidemen were Ed McMahon and Doc Severinson, likable but essentially bland sidekicks who never took the spotlight off the star. Letterman's bandleader Paul Shaffer takes Severinson's sartorial flamboyance to an extreme and adds a put-on persona of Vegas-style smarm to the proceedings, giving him a much bigger role in the show. Crucially, Letterman also flies solo at the desk, and when he does bring a sidekick on -- be it the late Calvert DeForest, who played the perpetually bemused Larry "Bud" Melman, or stage manager Biff Henderson -- Letterman always likes it best when things get awkward between them.
David Letterman is a self-aware, self-referencing comedian for a more meta age. It's telling that the hosts who have come after him on Late Night, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon, share his absurdist sensibility. And yet, Dave's own protege, Craig Ferguson, has a laid-back, cool vibe that's strongly reminiscent of classic Carson. There's room for both styles. Although the less said about Jay Leno, the better.