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Letterman v. Leno: Super Bowl of TV Rematches

As Jay leaves primetime Tuesday, surprise commercial kicks off the hosts’ final battle

By Jere Hester
|  Monday, Feb 8, 2010  |  Updated 10:45 PM CDT
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David Letterman's Highs and Lows

AP

Which of these people – besides Oprah – will be smiling next Super Bowl Sunday?

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It proved even more unexpected than the third-quarter onside kick: David Letterman and Jay Leno sitting on the same couch, separated by Oprah Winfrey – and two decades of bitterness.

The much-talked-about Leno-Letterman Super Bowl commercial marked an awkwardly funny, if unofficial kickoff to the upcoming grudge-match/rematch of the two comics in their final battle for late-night talk show supremacy.

For Leno, appearing in the spot was a smart and bold move: his likeable, regular guy reputation, fairly or not, took a beating during the messy controversy over his return to late night and the exit of Conan O'Brien. Leno, whose last primetime show is Tuesday, apparently wants the commercial to be the image that sticks with the public until his March 1, post-Olympics late-night homecoming.

What's more surprising about the ad is Letterman’s involvement: it reportedly was his idea. Sure, the 15-second short aired on Letterman's network and was a promo for his show. But his longstanding anger at Leno, which proved palpable during their recent sniping – Leno dealt the lowest blow: “You know the best way to get Letterman to ignore you? Marry him” – would seem to preclude them being in the same city together, never mind on the same piece of furniture.

Finding humor in uncomfortable and odd juxtapositions is pure Letterman. Part of his appeal and driving force is that he's a ball of insecurity, even that after 30 years of late-night success. Letterman must be feeling unusually confident – or fatalistic – as he heads into his last showdown with Leno.

The stakes, for those who care, are high all around. For the networks, money and prestige are just a couple wagers riding on the clash at a time when audiences are shrinking.

For Leno and Letterman, the rematch is more about the past in some respects than about the future. Both have a chance to prove to themselves, to the pundits and to the public who is the true heir to Johnny Carson.

If that sounds like ancient history, well, that's maybe because it is. The Leno-Letterman rivalry dates to the 1992 fight to succeed Carson as host of "The Tonight Show." Letterman, who followed Carson on "Late Night" and was Carson's favorite for the job, was famously outmaneuvered by Leno.

Letterman fled NBC for CBS and engaged in a seesaw battle with Leno for a couple years, until 1995 when “The Tonight Show” host established himself as the consistent ratings champ.

Since Leno left late night last May, Letterman has prospered, his popularity counter intuitively seemingly buoyed by a blackmail and sex scandal.

But late night is a lot more than a two-man show.

Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, George Lopez, Mo'nique and Chelsea Handler are among those occupying the crowded stage of nocturnal laugh-seekers. Lurking in the wings, of course, is O'Brien, who could end up on Fox in September, though affiliates happily airing "Seinfeld" and other reruns could balk. (Meanwhile, The Wrap reports that O'Brien was approached about appearing in the Leno-Letterman spot, but nothing came of the talks.)

The measure of success for Letterman and Leno will not only come in the ratings. Let's see who's sitting on the couch with Oprah next Super Bowl Sunday.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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