Warm, jovial Jay Leno is doing his job, somewhat faster, more efficiently, now that he's back on his old, late-night schedule.
The competitive link between Leno and Letterman is more important now, and both of them seem to be aware of it -- heightening what's different about them -- Leno still emphasizing anything that's sexy, heightening whatever is said with his "married man" ruefulness, while Letterman, the opposite of rueful, is more honest these days, (wryly honest, ever since his "playing around" hit the media).
I think we, the show watchers, have changed. We're tense. There's political anger in the air. Every other news-flash is perturbing, ugly, or doomful. And bad news, sad news is repeated, revived, recapitulated -- often, day after day. News people and show hosts have to be more "up-front," down-to-earth blunt sometimes, about what they're discussing.
There's a clockwork, neater, faster pace in Leno's show that wasn't there before. He's talking faster -- he gets to the guest's repartee faster. As usual, it's up to the guest to create an extemporaneous "ha-ha, gee whiz" mood. But the feeling that the jokes and teasing are improvised isn't quite believable.
Letterman, on the other hand, is looser, more relaxed. Laughing at himself, ala Popeye the Sailor Man, he says I AM WHAT I AM. He's been connecting with guests, staff, and audience, very spur-of-the-moment, (so easily, so spur-of-the-moment, that I, who never laugh out loud, find myself actually chuckling).
They're both aging. I'm aging. Perhaps I'm overly sensitive to the changes in both of them. Jay Leno seems shorter. I was never aware of his height before -- everything about him is just a little smaller, compacted, less than what it was before. The show's gimmicks which I've never liked -- dumb ads and silly toys seem ho-hum, and the time for me to get up and get a snack.
I've never liked Letterman's supercilious "top ten" gimmick, and his gimmicky video clips might get the crew laughing in rehearsal, but I find them mostly unfunny. I don't enjoy the "help" that conductor Paul Shaffer gives Letterman, while Kevin Eubanks and Leno are good together. As for the celebrity guests --"you pays yer money, you takes yer choice."
So who wins the competition?
Before Leno became a 10:00 p.m. show, we rarely tuned in Letterman. But the new, looser Letterman has become a good way, right now it's the better way for us to end the evening.