We Were Young Once: Letterman, Leno & The Tonight Show

February 6, 2014 — 2 Comments

Jay Leno is David Letterman’s guest on one of the many nights Letterman guest hosted The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. (photo: 1979 by Paul Drinkwater NBC)

The Tonight Show starring Jonny Carson still occupies a big place in my memory and my heart. My parents were avid fans of the show. Dad watched most of the Tonight Show every night before bed. Like pencil marks on a doorjamb tracking my height, I could measure my advancing age by how much of the Tonight Show I was allowed to watch. As a pre-teen I could watch the monologue on Friday night, then straight to bed. In junior high I could watch the whole show on Fridays and the monologue on weeknights, then straight to bed. By the time I’d reached high school I was allowed to watch the whole show every night if I wanted but had to be in bed before Letterman started. That was a problem for me because Letterman was my generation’s Carson – we couldn’t get enough of him or his show.

The first time I ever saw Jay Leno was on Late Night with David Letterman (NBC). Kids who only know Leno from the Tonight Show of late might be shocked at how edgy and out there Leno was back then. He and Letterman were the elder statesmen of the stand up comics and they worked well off each other. The bitter break in their relationship in the post-Carson Tonight Show shake up may have been inevitable but it seemed so unnecessary.

I’ve curated some of what I think are the most interesting, compelling artifacts of the Letterman/Leno/Conan epic tale. These are ultimately very human stories woven through incredible plots of corporate intrigue in the world of big time entertaiment. If such things interest you, you’ll enjoy…

Three books…


Bill Carter wrote the definitive book on the battle for The Tonight Show in the unprecedented “The Late Shift”. There was no way he — much less anyone else — could have imagined that an eerily similar scenario would play out years later. He captured it all again in “The War for Late Night”. William Knoedelseder’s “I’m Dying Up Here” captures the Los Angeles Comedy Club scene and Stand Up Comic culture of the 70s and early 80s in vivid detail. Letterman and Leno are right there — on the cusp of their incredible success. It’s a rare, heartbreaking and fascinating look at that world.

One doc…

CONAN O’BRIEN CAN’T STOP gives the viewer an unrelenting look into the pain, sorrow, anger, creativity, acceptance and opportunity that came in waves after Conan left his dream job following one of the most bizarre series of events in network television history.

And something much better than a footnote…

Perhaps no one has done more to celebrate, mediate and demonstrate the comedic bond and unique fellowship of Jay and Dave than Jerry Seinfeld. Most recently Seinfeld has posted a stand alone video from his outstanding series COMEDIANS IN CARS GETTING COFFEE that features side by side observations about Leno & Letterman by Leno & Letterman. The video reminds me that if we’re fortunate enough to live through our petulant youths and past our know-it-all early adulthoods, we have an opportunity to remember what’s truly meaningful in our lives and who was there when we first were discovering it. Check out Seinfeld’s video here.


2 responses to We Were Young Once: Letterman, Leno & The Tonight Show


    You and Letterman were always attached in my mind as a kid. I remember there was a “dress Letterman” feature in a Seventeen Magazine issue when I was about 12, and I chose his outfilt based on what I thought you would think was cool. You were the “cool” uncle afterall. I also remember you and mom staying up late to watch Saturday Night Live together during one of our visits – you couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16, so I would have been 6 or 7. I had no idea what SNL was, but I figured if you AND my mom liked it, it must be fab.


Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. The Last Days of David Letterman | Rev. Hollywood - May 19, 2015

    […] but it still felt like alternative programming to what became of the The Tonight Show post Carson. (And I’m not a Leno hater.) Following 911, Dave’s heart attack, the birth of his son and the public humiliation of a […]


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