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FILE UNDER: WRITTEN BY XANDER

With the LATE SHOW in reruns last week, I decided to take a gander at the competition including the premiere week of JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE.

TAKING IT ON THE CHIN

I don't know when it happened or what circumstances cause it to occur. Somehow, I have become a 'but' person. Let me explain: I have a lot of friends. And they all seem to get a kick out of telling each other "Xander" stories. They all begin: "Look, I love Xander. He's smart. He's funny. I love him. I love him I love him-BUT..." Then they proceed to tell of some embarrassingly horrible social gaffe I supposedly committed.

Something like: "Hey, Xander's a great guy and all-BUT HE KILLED MY CAT." "Xander's a great boyfriend and he really has happening hair-BUT I THINK HE GAVE ME CRABS." I mean kooky stuff like that.

So, it is with some trepidation that I take on this assignment. I will be reviewing all of the late night talk shows-BUT I AM A COMMITTED DAVEOPHILE. I make no secret of that fact or any excuse for my bias. Letterman is and will always be THE MAN for happy misanthropes like me.

That being said, I do have a great deal of admiration for the four men I'll be reviewing in this column. After all, they don't give these shows to chimps, y'know. Hosting a late night talk show has been likened to the triathlon of the most painfully difficult show biz feats. The job encompasses stand up comedy, celebrity interview, and live theater, all performed before a studio audience consisting of tourists and broadcast to a home audience made up of insomniacs.

It's a tough gig. There's no doubt about that. It takes real cojones to go on tv night after night, year after year, not playing a character but essentially playing yourself (or at least a crazy, funhouse mirror version of yourself). The rewards may be great but it has proven to be the downfall of many. (Adios, Arsenio. Dennis Miller, you're outta here. Chevy, we hardly knew ye).

As Zen Master, Johnny Carson so eloquently put it: In late night television, it's all about the guy behind the desk. The simple truth is that some hosts are more up to the task than others. In the following, I will attempt to estabish, dear readers, who has the mojo and who hasn't.

THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO

Oh, the horror.

I like Jay Leno. Honest, I do. I like it when ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT corners Jay at some celebrity event for a 30 second sound bite. I liked Jay when he appeared on BATTLEBOTS on Comedy Central. I really like Jay when he appeared with Dave on the old LATE NIGHT.

THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO? It's like a comedic snuff film.

We must be living in some kind of creepy Bizarro World scenario. That's the only reasonable explanation for Jay outrating Dave's show night after night. After enduring a week's worth of Jay's super-sized monster truck monologues, I don't think I laughed once.

Even more incredible, it seems like Jay's been lifting material from Dave's play book. That, in and of itself, isn't so bad. Comedians pay 'homage' to their contemporaries and most especially, to their elders all the time. But when Jay tries some thing Lettermanesque, he completely misinterprets the funny.

Last week, Jay sent one of his roving comedy correspondents (stand up comic Mitch Fatel...who???) to the Super Bowl. It was the roving comedy correspondent's job to goof with the players and the fans. It's a surefire way to get some choice sight gags and non sequitur. After all, Dave does this with Biff Henderson all the time.

In fact, Biff WAS at the Super Bowl doing exactly the same thing. In a clip, you actually see Jay's roving comedy correspondent (stand up comic Mitch Fatel...who???) bumping into Biff and trying to enlist Biff's help in some of Jay's kooky komedy. To quote:

WHO: (to Biff) Why don't you interview me and then I'll interview you?
BIFF: (getting the hell away from Who) No. I don't think that would be good.

You gotta give it to Biff. He was right on the money. Dave's audience knows Biff and they've known him for years. There was a real (and easily understood) reason for Biff to have been at the Super Bowl. He was there for Dave. Why DID Jay choose Mitch Fatel (a.k.a. as who???), of all people, to be his roving comedy correspondent at the Super Bowl? Could Jay's audience even pick the guy out of a police lineup? So many questions, one really lame
routine.

Xander grade: D+

LATE NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN

Our Conan has really grown up nicely, doncha think?

Conan's version of LATE NIGHT has steadily evolved into a wackily surreal burlesque of a late night talk show. If Letterman excels at the found humor of real life, Conan trades on the loopy.

Much of the humor on LATE NIGHT relies on Conan playing it straight or behaving like a self deprecating Everyschmuck. Is it entirely plausible for this Harvard grad who's occupied a steady series of comedy dream jobs to play the part of the schnook? No. But the illusion works beautifully. We believe because we want to believe. I consider Conan's show to be the best written of the late night shows.

Xander grade: B+

LATE LATE SHOW WITH CRAIG KILBORN

Ken Tucker in this week's ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY called Craig Kilborn "The Guy Seventeen People In America Thinks Is Funny." I guess I am a part of that elite group. I like Craig a lot. But I don't watch him every night.

You may recall I said talk show hosts are essentially playing themselves. Kilborn is deftly playing a character. The smirky, snarky 'Craiggers' persona is as much a fiction as Martin Mull/Barth Gimble was on FERNWOOD TONIGHT. You gotta give the dude serious props for creating a put-on that many find off putting.

After a creatively bumpy couple of years, Kilby has really strengthen the comedic aspect of his show. Last week, in fact, he devised a mind blowing conceit. In his continuing (if satirical) effort to develop a stock character, he came up with SEBASTIAN, THE ASEXUAL ICON. It was a hoot (and an acting tour de force) to see Craig in full Craiggers mode pretending to be the hopelessly fey Sebastian, all the while, winking at the audience as the aforementioned Craiggers. He deserves credit for taking more chances.

Xander grade: B-

JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE

Watching Jimmy Kimmel's premiere week, I couldn't help but recall a sketch Conan did last fall. In it, Conan's aggressive, cell phone brandishing uberagent approaches his client whom he calls "C-Dawg".

CONAN: What's up, Ari.
AGENT: Your career, my friend! You've got a red hot show on NBC. Plus you're hosting the Emmys. You're on fire, baby! Now, get up, you're quitting the show.
CONAN: I'm not quitting the show. I love it here.
AGENT: You're like a sperm whale in a trout pond. And I'm here to airlift your fat ass to the ocean!

Do you think Jimmy Kimmel's agent laid out a similar scenario to his client. THE MAN'S SHOW, for all of it jugginess, was actually pretty smart. And it was a good vehicle for Jimmy Kimmel. But I'm afraid Jimmy felt like the proverbial Sperm Whale in the trout pond called basic cable.

I can't fault the guy. He's a smart, funny performer who can think on his feet. He's clearly ambitious and knows the terrain. He is network material (is ABC still considered a network?) I just can't figure out why he seems so defeated. Already.

The format of the show clearly works against him. The live aspect just makes the production look sloppy or haphazard. The studio audience is way too large and way too raucous. I think Jimmy would feel more comfortable in a smaller studio. His writing staff (headed by former Dave headwriter Steve O'Donnell and includes Joel Hodgson of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fame plus Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy from ESPN.com) hasn't, so far, supplied anything resembling comedy.

But I like Jimmy. And I think, with a lot of seasoning, he has real potential. With so many things going wrong (from audience members vomiting to poisonous fake snow to the pairing of Snoop Dogg and Tammy Faye Bakker) he still manage to make me laugh. That was more than Jay Leno did.

And I can't wait to see what happens this week. I guess that's the real true measure of late night success.

Xander grade: C+

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