Johnny Carson vs. Leno & Letterman--Who's the Best?

Warning: This may end up a battle of opinion between Baby Boomers and Generation Xers/Ys, but here’s MHO–and I’m between Boomer and Xer.

Leno and Letterman are funny as hell, but Carson was IMHO the King of Comedy. Not only did Johnny have a style and inimitable panache that the other two simply don’t, but he also didn’t have to stoop to the vulgarity that is becoming Leno’s trademark. For instance, Carson would never–or, perhaps, could never–have said the things that Leno has said of President Clinton.

Don’t get me wrong, Leno can tear up a house, and Letterman (and creative team) breathed life into the genre. But when I watch old Johnny Carson monologues, it’s like watching magic. I’d also say Carson’s timing was better than Leno’s and Letterman’s edginess and borderline creepiness really rub me the wrong way after awhile. Letterman’s always had a reputation as being cantakerous and difficult. Last, Carson seemed a better listener than Leno who, IMHO, while listening to his guest is actually trying to set up his next joke. Johnny Carson still rules!

Corrado’s First Law of Moderating:

When an OP contains the phrase “IMHO” more than twice, generally it belongs in the IMHO forum.

[To explain the apparent non-sequitor: This OP was originally placed in GQ. Sorry for the ommission. -JMCJ]

[Edited by John Corrado on 01-26-2001 at 03:29 PM]

Jack Paar.

(Carson and Letterman are okay. But I’d like to get ahold of that Leno guy and make him eat a shit sandwich.)

Letterman is king. Leno is horrid. Carson is somewherez twixt the two.

Carson did better with guests. Neither Leno or Letterman seems comfortable with that part of the gig.

Carson also had a way of shrugging off a lame joke or a bit that that didn’t click with the attitude of “hey folks, if it’s funny laugh, if not, I’ll move on.”

Leno does a better monologue. He’s sharper, funnier and more on top of things. But his style is standup. If you think that’s shtick, you won’t think he’s funny.

Letterman comes up with bits that are comedic legneds. His only rival in the history of television is Ernie Kovacs. If I could only watch five minutes, it would be him. But he gets on my nerves over the course of an entire show, much less an entire week.

I’d give the first 10 minutes of the show to Leno, the second 10 to Letterman and the last 40 to Carson.

While I’ve never seen Carson, I agree that Leno is a great opener. Usually I watch him until the guest comes on, then I switch to Letterman (or go to sleep).

BTW: I have a soft spot for Leno since he was in that movie with Mr. Miyagi. So I’m slightly biased.

I liked Johnny Carson’s monologues, but hated the sketch comedy he did (like the Tea time movie–yuck.) I also liked his interviews and agree with those who said he is a better interviewer than Leno or Letterman–especially with “real people” instead of celebrities. When he was younger, he did lots of great physical comedy with the guests. One in particular I remember was him rolling around in this giant wheel, and his bits with Joan Embry and the animals are also good examples of this. On the whole, though, my vote goes to Letterman. Yeah, he is edgy, but he is funny. Stupid pet tricks never fails to crack me up and his opening is usually very good. Leno is ok, IMHO, but Letterman is better.

Jack Paar?

I think you meant Steve Allen.

No one has touched him, yet.

Er, how about Conan O’Brian?

Though I’m a bit young to really have watched Carson in his hey-day, I know I liked what I saw growing up.
That said, I used to like Letterman, very early on, and I never liked Leno. Who finds this man appealing? When can you not predict his punchlines far before delivery?

For my tv watching dollar, I’m a Daily Show/ Jon Stewart fan.
By comparison, this man’s a god send.
Leftist leaning, smart, and willing to cover material not touched by the other talkshows and more than willing to avoid the obvious ones.

And by obvious, I mean pretty much every Leno monologue. I especially cringe whenever Leno brings up Clinton.
Every joke:
So Bill Clinton (blah, blah, blahed) today.
(Blah, blah, blah)-his pants down!

Har har. How fresh. Gosh. Now that you mention it, I guess he WAS rather promiscuous… Gee whiz.
Hey, know what I hate? Airplane food!
And who understands what they say through those drive through windows, anyways? Oh, man!
And did you ever notice black people and white people dance different?
Whooo. Killer material.

And if I wanted to rant about Letterman, I’d just re-post the same thing like 8 times in a row to illustrate my point. I just don’t dig the comedy by repetition/ catchphrase thing.
And while I don’t find him much more fresh then Leno, at least he comes off as less smarmy by comparison.

And Conan? Well honestly I haven’t watched him enough to really have much of an opinion to offer, except I know the few times I watched, I didn’t laugh.

By comparison, almost everytime I watch The Daily Show, I’m sure to have many, good, solid belly-laughs.

Carson was the king of deadpan humor. A single withering glance could get more laughs than the entire opening monologue of his latterday counterparts. Leno relies upon shock value and salacious content. To give Letterman his due, yes, he does write his own material (good news/bad news). Still, no one currently in the business touches the likes of Carson, Allen or Parr.

All you need to do is look at the current crop of sidekicks to get an idea. The glaring lack of chemistry between Leno and his cohort-of-the month, O’Brien and his now absent Andy or Letterman and bandleader Paul is testimony enough. Feh!

[Johnny Carson]

I was in New York the other day. I asked this guy how to get to Bellvue Hospital… and he broke my nose!


[/Johnny Carson]

with the other two. He bloooooooooows. For reasons brought up by others already. God, he is SO bad I am consistently stunned that the man has a job, much less THE job. Who the hell is watching this guy?

In the big picture, looked at from all angles, I guess I’d have to give it to Carson. He was funny, he was smooth, he was a masterful reacter, he was a good interviewer and gave his guests the space to be funny and entertaining. Very, very smooth.

But I much, much prefer Letterman. Carson was the man for his time, but there’s no question that Letterman is the man for his. He rightfully inherits the mantle of King of Late Night, ratings notwithstanding. (Carson had no competition, who knows how he would have fared? And late night ratings have a great deal to do with prime-time ratings. ) He is wonderful, and even better since his heart surgery. I love him.

The rest are all pretenders.

Re STOID: “Leno does not belong in the same discussion
with the other two. He bloooooooooows. For reasons brought up by others already. God, he is SO bad I am consistently stunned that the man has a job, much less THE job. Who the hell is watching this guy?”

Hey, Stoid, I’ve never understood the visceral HATE some folks feel for Leno. Tho I think Carson was great, I also think Leno is a master standup comedian–when he’s on his mark. Can someone explain exactly what about Leno they hate? Someone said his punchlines are predictable. What else.

Also: I think Conan O’Brien AND John Stewart kick ass! Conan’s skits with Clinton, Gore, Bush are great–wish a compilation was available.

Best Monologue:

1: (tie) Leno / Carson - both top of form

2: Letterman - used to be better (top ten list saves his ass)

Best Interviewer:

1: Carson - no contest could moderate funny to serious smoothly and effectively

2: (tie) Leno (little too jokey and desperate to insert punchline) / Letterman (often bored and too pointlessly acerbic at times)
Best Sketches:

1: Leno
2: Letterman (used to be better)
3: Carson (stilted and seem almost vaudvilleish now)
Best In Studio off desk stunts

1: Letterman - too many greats to list
2: Carson (Ed Ames and the hatchet, the animals and the aircar blasting out the floor tiles are still classics)
3: Leno
Best Out Studio Excursions:
(Carson not applicable)

1: Leno now - occasionally flat but his on the street interviews are priceless

2: Letterman’s were hilarious and gound breaking for the talk show genre but he’s flogged the same horses too long.

Well, first of all I should state that I have a smidge of expertise in this area…I was a standup comic for awhile back in the late 80’s. Roughly 2 years. Now, in and of itself this means not so much, I could have been an incredibly bad standup comic, but I wasn’t. I participated in a county-wide contest (Los Angeles County) which included 110 comics. I placed 11th.

Being a comic and an observer of comics (for hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and you get the picture… you can’t do standup without being forced to see copious amounts of it) I think I know what’s funny, even if it isn’t the kind of “funny” that I prefer (I’m about the toughest audience you could ever be unfortunate enough to have. Really brutal.) And I also know what is “hack” comedy. Leno USED TO BE good. Leno is now a HACK. He has the most obvious, tired, boring, cliched, reptitive CRAP… unbelievable. Insanely bad. I guarantee you that you will find more originality at 2AM on open mike night. Of course, Leno isn’t writing his own material any more, and he has to come up with so much of it. But he hires shit writers who churn out the most bland oatmeal “comedy” it makes me wanna ralph. I can see every joke coming from miles and miles away. And the jokes suck.

As for the anger, however…I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m sure many feel as I do: Letterman earned the Tonight Show, in every way it could be earned. He did the time on late night, he had the talent, he was Carson’s choice… it was stolen from him. He got screwed. By whom? Mr. Sucks The Big One. It’s an outrage and an injustice. If Leno just randomly sucked on some show on cable, I wouldn’t give him a second thought. But he sucks night after night on The Tonight Show, defiling the greatness of the show and proving, every second he’s on, how deeply wrong it was that Letterman didn’t get the show. So that’s why the anger. For me.


Well, as Steve is dead, that would be necrophelia. Icky bad.

I’d go with Letterman. I wasn’t exactly a late night person when Carson was on. I think I only saw Carson do the Tonight Show maybe 5 times, so I really can’t comment. Between Leno and Letterman…Dave all the way. I just don’t like Leno’s stuff. Don’t know exactly why, but he just doesn’t do anything for me. I love Letterman’s stupid antics too…he just acts like an idiot a lot of the time…and it’s pretty amusing.


When I was a kid, not that long ago, I watched Carson every Friday night (had school the other days). I didn’t get most of the monologue jokes because I was too young, but I knew the interviews were great. Carson was pretty old when I watched him, so sketches were few and far between.

But now, when I catch an old Tonight Show on TV (I think some channel was showing old ones awhile back) I laugh my butt off. It’s good, very solid comedy and is the standard by which all others will be judged.

Leno doesn’t do anything for me. I don’t hate him and I have laughed when I’ve watched. But nothing sticks with me when it’s over with. And those segments where he asks people easy questions are created by editing out the 90 percent of people who know the answers.

Letterman is amazing. SO many bits stick with me, and he has been awesome since the heart attack because he doesn’t give a $@!* anymore. How big a fan am I? Remember the “Crystal Clear Party Ice” thing played before every “Campaign 2000” segment? I had it MEMORIZED. He also puts Paul and Allen, the announcer, to great use in sketches and the like. I also love you actually feel like you know the people who work near the Ed Sullivan theatre, who are unfortunately being forced to move because of high property rates. The man had a bit called “Will You Eat the Meatloaf?” He was Carson’s choice. He’s the best one at it right now.

And let me say a word for the 12:30 boys, Craig and Conan. I like both of them, though Kilborne’s ego can be grating at times. I LOVE Conan (been told I look like him too). I miss Andy terribly though. The banter they had was fantastic. Conan has improved exponentially over the past few years and his show made the phrase “For me to poop on!” part of the lexicon. That rocks.

Letterman was better when he did not have the whole ball of wax ratings and just did crap totally out there. I loved when he used Biff, the director(?) at the time to do obscure stunts
(fave of all time…Biff’s CONDIMENT WALL O’ DEATH where Biff had to drive a golf cart through a huge pyramid of plastic cups brimming with ketchup and mustard. Dave joined him at the last moment)

and his backups Larry “Bud” Melman, The Thrill Cam, What’s in your pictures (picks man on the street coming out of photo place to show pics). All were used and used well. Now, its just not funny. Dave seems worn out.

Leno is a ham. He was funny at one time but now its all Headlines and stupid puns.

Carson was king at a time. When he was at the peak (I would say early 70’s-mid 80’s he absolutely could crack anyone up whether it be his gags or skits (Floyd R Turbo, Art Fern and the Teatime Movie). They tossed the skits and it went down from there.

Conan…well I got to say Andy made it for me. Conan can be hilarious but Andy was a absolute master and would do damn near anything for a laugh. Fave: Andy at the first Woodstock 90 where he interviewed most of the music lineup in a mud and sewage slimed 3 piece suit after moshing with the Mud People. A real shame when he left.