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Late-Night: Later Than You Think

By Tom Shales

Jimmy Kimmel still comes across like a guy who crashed a party and got caught at it, yet adamantly refuses to leave. He has no real business being there -- hosting a late-night network talk show, that is -- and may even know in his dark little heart that he's out of his depth, but he's gotten away with it for ten years, so why pull out now? Since he's probably making $25 million a year or so, and ABC has agreed to underwrite the subterfuge, it's hard to imagine Kimmel voluntarily getting the hell out of Dodge.

In his old just-past-midnight time slot, Kimmel was easily ignored, but then ABC programmers went and did a bad, bad thing; apparently responding to demands from Kimmel, they moved his show to the 11:35 p.m. berth, requiring the relocation of "Nightline" from the spot it has occupied since 1980 (technically 1979, when it began as "America Held Hostage") and insulting not only "Nightline's" staff and all of ABC News, but insulting viewers as well.

ABC had offered a distinct and distinctive programming choice by putting "Nightline" up against Jay Leno on NBC and David Letterman on CBS. Now the network takes a giant step backward with a program and a star that are wan, anemic copies of the competition. Letterman, who's at the very least the Curly of these Three Stooges (or the Diane Ross of these Supremes, or whatever), joked about the sad sameness of the "new" three-network set-up on the first night of Kimmel's relocation, and "Late Show's" writers decorated commercial breaks with clips from failed late-night talk shows of the past -- among them the notoriously humdrum "Chevy Chase Show."

Humdrum or not, Chevy Chase's show was "Masterpiece Theater' compared to Kimmel's. There's not a fresh idea evident anywhere. When Letterman himself ill-advisedly appeared on Kimmel's show at the end of October (Kimmel and his program were visiting Brooklyn for a week), Kimmel's alleged interview with Dave consisted mainly of joshing the reclusive Letterman about their becoming pals, hanging out together, sharing a house -- precisely the kind of jibes with which Regis Philbin has been teasing Letterman for years. It's been a running gag, until Kimmel grabbed it and wrestled it to the floor.

Now it has stopped running, but the indefatigable Regis will be able to pick it up and get it back into circulation the next time he guests with Dave.

As for the criminally mistreated "Nightline," it has already been through one death, in a way -- in 2005, when long-time host and impeccable interviewer Ted Koppel left the program, having weathered a previous storm during which ABC threatened to do what it finally did, bump "Nightline" to a later hour (or even cancel it altogether). Koppel, borrowing a classic line from Dan Aykroyd on "Saturday Night Live" many years ago, has begun every telephone conversation he and I have ever had with, "Shales, you ignorant slut," no matter who called whom. Naturally I love the guy, as who wouldn't?

To widespread considerable surprise, the revised "Nightline," minus Koppel, turned out to be not such a bad show, and certainly not without honor. Martin Bashir, a self-promoting snoot from British television, slowed things down as one of its three co-anchors, but Cynthia McFadden and Terry "Lips" Moran proved capable and compelling. Bashir has since migrated to MSNBC.

On Tuesday night (Jan. 8), Kimmel crawled out of his man-cave for his first show in the new time slot. No matter how low one's expectations, Kimmel came up short, stooping to a Kardashian-Kanye joke almost the instant he retook the stage. His "monologue" also included a curiously lengthy clip from "Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo," the cable "reality" show about wacky Georgia riff-raff. He wasn't satirizing or maybe even ridiculing "Honey Boo-Boo" so much as simply stealing laughs from it.

As it happens, the relocated "Nightline" had a guest list for its later-hour, latter-day bow that included Leonardo diCaprio, Jamie Foxx and Quentin Tarantino, a show-biz trio that would definitely have been at home on any of the late-night entertainment shows. Kimmel's only major guest was Jennifer Aniston, usually a welcome delight but here put up to such laborious gags as taking an axe to Kimmel's prop desk and demolishing it. Later, she gave Kimmel a hair cut (huh?), unfortunately replacing the axe with a mere pair of scissors.

To be fair, Kimmel has a likeable streak or two hidden in his drab and dolorous demeanor (he's in 3-D, ha ha) and his irreverence sometimes seems expertly deployed. But he's a living monotone in most conceivable senses of the word -- not just the way he sounds, but the way he looks, moves, behaves. He's Monotony itself. There's no appreciable sense of mischief to him, nor even a trace of Letterman's clever wickedness.

Indeed, Letterman is such a giant compared to his two major competitors in the arena that he may look more out-of-place these days than even the underachieving Kimmel does. The worst possible outcome of the new three-way war would be for Letterman to decide he's had enough and that the race just isn't worth running any more. Sometimes there'll be a long pause between or even during jokes in Letterman's monologue, and his most ardent fans may detect more than a hint of disillusionment there, as if a voice in Dave's head had told him the fun has gone out of the game and that there is little point in continuing. And it wouldn't be that shocking if he just stopped talking, walked off, and never came back. Unbearable but not shocking.

Kimmel has tried to ally himself with Letterman first by having Dave as a guest on the show and then by carrying on a mean-spirited, mostly one-sided feud with Leno, who at least deserves respect for hanging in there -- albeit ruthlessly -- and proved some sort of mettle when he agreed to appear in a promo with Dave (and Oprah Winfrey) that aired during the 2010 Super Bowl. Who could really feel much animosity toward Jay after that? Who? Well -- Conan O'Brien for one, and all Conan's fans. But that's another story, and a long one. And a sad one.

How hard is it to imagine Letterman finding all this stuff to finally have become tiresome, more tsouris than it's worth, and electing a quiet retreat? The one bad thing about his receiving one of this year's Kennedy Center Honors is that those things have a career-capping aura to them. Dave will be 70 in a few years; Johnny Carson, understandably his idol, once told me he thought he'd be too old to host the "Tonight Show" when he turned 55. Fortunately, he stayed on well after that, though not long enough. No, not nearly long enough.

(Some grudges are worth keeping. David Geffen, the elfin mogul recently paid near-sickening homage in a butt-kissing PBS "documentary," took out an ad in the trade papers when Johnny left the "Tonight" show saying how wonderful it was that Neanderthal rock acts like some of those Geffen promoted would now be booked on the program; Johnny clung mostly to the music of his generation, music often as great as the generation was, and wasn't that fond of shriek-and-scream stuff).

Letterman, incidentally, apparently still suffers from his overstated inferiority complex where Carson is concerned. "Johnny Carson really was something, and I'm not much of anything," he told Kimmel after Kimmel declared that Dave's appearance on the Kimmel show was reminiscent of Johnny's now-legendary appearance on Dave's show. Of course Kimmel was full of crap as usual, comparing himself to Letterman. The very idea! The gall of the man!

We who have long adored Dave feel as though he's part of our lives in the way television stars, much more than movie stars, can be. We've been through a lot with him, including his own dizzying confession about amorous affairs in the office and a bungled blackmail attempt by a disgruntled producer; "Yes, I have sex," Letterman said, as an aside, to his seemingly incredulous studio audience.

On a far more serious level, his wrenching soliloquy in the aftermath of 9/11 has proven more memorable than almost anything said by "officials" or journalists at the time. He put into painful words what all of us were feeling. In his first 11:35 monologue, Kimmel allowed as how ABC's having moved "Nightline" out of his way was not exactly without controversy. "Some might even say it was a stupid decision," he said. Yes, "stupid," and that's putting about the best possible face on it. Then he went on to ridicule one contestant on ABC's new edition of "The Bachelor" because she was born with only one arm; this was the kind of cheap junk Howard Stern used to do on the radio, before poor old Howard sold out big to NBC and its ludicrous "The Voice."

They all sell out eventually, don't they, and how could they not in a medium that all but demands that they do? Jimmy Fallon, whose still-later late-night show on NBC is easily funnier than anything Kimmel has done, is whoring it up not only in commercials for some vicious bank's credit card operation (thus helping to lure still more millions of Americans into unmanageable and hopeless debt -- and with a cute little baby as his accomplice!) but in the forthcoming ad campaign for a revamped Lincoln "motor car" brand. At least Fallon won't be the on-screen shill this time; he's just helping out with the "creative" aspects.

Imagine the millions and millions that this engaging, versatile little ho is socking away from his commercial gigs alone. It must make Kimmel's eyes water in envy. Don't expect to see David Letterman in any ads for anything, however; CBS even has to chase after him to get him to do promos for his own show.

For the first 40-50 years of its existence, television was ruled by a tyranny of talent. Yes, it took talent even to come up with "Gilligan's Island." Perhaps there is some sort of talent behind "Honey Boo-Boo" as well, but not real talent -- just fluency at tape-editing. Letterman is a brilliant remnant of the Talent Age, the time when determined professionals ran the shop as much as they could and despite the limitations imposed by commercialism and greed. Jimmy Kimmel is part of a new age, when all it takes is nerve.

It's supposed to be funny that Kimmel has a monosyllabic half-wit named Guillermo as a sidekick on his show. There's supposed to be a perceived contrast between the amateur Guillermo who has no real business on television and the professional Kimmel, who thinks he does. I just don't see much difference between them, do you?

In fact Kimmel's whole show is so haunted by ineptitude that on re-opening night, in a dark suit, the "star" seemed to bleed right into the cheap-looking backdrop of Los Angeles at night and disappear.

You can't ask for metaphors more apt than that.

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