David Letterman looked like "either Dinty Moore or Paul Bunyan's son." Or so recalls Jay Leno from his 1996 book on his first meeting with Letterman in 1975. It was a fateful encounter that formed an initial partnership and friendship. But now, in retrospect, it's a tragic relationship in which the repercussions from the fallout between the two are still being felt 35 years later, changing late night television forever. And, unknowingly, altering the fate of a then-12 year-old boy living in Brookline, Massachusetts -- Conan O'Brien. Letterman, on a January 19 episode of Late Show, referred to Jay Leno in a discussion about the current late night television battle as "vintage Jay." What does "vintage Jay" mean, and why does Letterman feel this way? Allow us to break down exactly why Jay and Dave have come to despise one another, both in real life and for our television enjoyment.
Letterman, not surprisingly, was never completely comfortable as a stand-up comic. His initial dream was never to host 'The Tonight Show.' What he wanted was to write for 'The Tonight Show' and his idol, Johnny Carson. In William Knoedelseder's fantastic account of the 1970's stand-up comedy scene, 'I'm Dying Up Here,' he recounts those initial early days of Leno and Letterman's friendship. Letterman was impressed with how comfortable Leno controlled the stage; in turn, Leno thought Letterman possessed the most original material on the comedy scene. The two were soon hired as a team by future husband and wife Jerry Kushnick and Helen Gorman (hold this thought) to write current 'Good Times' star Jimmie Walker 15 jokes a week.
On April 9, 1979, Letterman guest-hosted 'The Tonight Show' for his first time (Carson was hosting the Academy Awards that evening). This was 12 years before Carson would announce his retirement but, in Carson's mind, he had just appointed the next host of 'The Tonight Show.' Letterman would guest host the show 50 more times.
Letterman and Leno would remain friendly over the next few years. Leno would often be booked as a guest on 'Late Night with David Letterman' but, as far as anyone seemed to know, that was the extent of their friendship through the 1980s. In 1987, after Carson had a falling out with then-permanent guest host Joan Rivers, Leno was picked to replace her. This move never wavered Carson's feelings on Letterman's eventual role as the host.
As documented in Bill Carter's book, 'The Late Shift,' Leno's manager, Helen Kushnick (née Gorman; Letterman's former boss), made a power play for 'The Tonight Show' once Carson announced his retirement. An extremely loyal Letterman desperately wanted the show, but would never go behind his friend Leno's back. Leno had no problem making secret deals and, influenced by Kushnick (who was so unpopular, Leno soon had to fire her), proceeded. NBC had their reservations about the lanky, off-beat, quirky comedian hosting his show in New York (sound familiar?) and eventually decided Leno would make the extra effort to make the affiliates happy -- something Letterman had really no interest in doing -- and Leno positioned himself with the network brass as the heir apparent. So, in 1992, with no mention of Carson on his first show, Leno became the host of 'The Tonight Show.' Letterman and Leno would never speak again.
Carson became a deeply private person, granting only two interviews between leaving 'The Tonight Show' and his death in 2004. It's telling Carson never appeared on Leno's show, but his last television appearance was a walk-on appearance on Letterman's competing CBS show, 'Late Show with David Letterman.'
If there's any wonder why, in 2010, it appeared that so many in the industry sided with Conan in this latest late night mess: It's true Leno made his corporate bosses happy -- ratings were sky high -- but this wasn't the case with his fellow comics. Again, as Knoedelseder accounts, Carson was famous for using his 'Tonight Show' platform to launch the career of young comics; Letterman continued this tradition, and Leno did not -- stating the network "didn't think they drew numbers." This didn't endear Leno to the fellow comics he rose through the ranks with, as well as new comics that never had a chance of being on this new incarnation of 'The Tonight Show.' Leno had a history as the guy that conceded to make everyone happy as far back as the late 1970s comics' strike versus The Comedy Store (the basis of Knoedelseder's book). Leno, who was the first comic to voice his displeasure with the lack of pay, was known as sympathetic to owner Mitzi Shore (Yes, Pauly's mother); he was the "let's just make her happy," voice of the group. This was a strike Letterman gave his full support to, even picketing outside The Comedy Store the very same night after he hosted The Tonight Show' for the first time.
It's not surprising that Letterman can see "vintage Jay" repeating and it's even less surprising he would jump to the defense of O'Brien. It should be noted that when the story of Letterman's workplace infidelity broke, Conan refrained from making any jokes about the incident while Leno had a field day. Letterman's full quote during a taping of 'The Late Show' on Jan 19 is telling, "I've known Jay Leno for, what? Thirty Five Years? A long, long time. We used to buddy around in the old days and what we're seeing now is vintage Jay. And it's enjoyable for me to see this. It's like, 'hey, there he is; there's the guy I know.'" Considering Leno returns head-to-head versus Letterman in March, this fight is nowhere near over -- only Letterman's no longer pulling his punches... vintage Jay or not.