When David Letterman bid farewell to late night TV in May of 2015, he was joined by guests like Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey, and Steve Martin. But the man he was most closely tied to was notably absent: Jay Leno. The former Tonight Show host was invited to Letterman's send-off, but declined the invitation. It was the conclusion of a decades-long quarrel between the former friends. When Leno took over The Tonight Show in 1992, Letterman - along with many critics - thought he'd taken his rightful spot behind Johnny Carson's desk. It's was a battle so fierce, it became the subject of a book and an HBO movie.
But now, with both of the comedians retired from late night, it seems the tension has eased a little bit. With Letterman set to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on October 22, Leno has surprisingly written a bittersweet ode to his rival for The Hollywood Reporter. In it he admits to the anxiety between them, writing, "The idea that there was a huge rift between me and Dave - yeah, of course there was. And our shows were very competitive. Whether it's two sports teams, or two boxers, you can trash talk each other, but it doesn't mean you don't respect each other."
And he outlines ways that Letterman would cleverly subvert The Tonight Show, subtly mocking Leno's entire character:
I remember I had this thing where I would go into the audience and shake hands when I came out. One day, I was watching Dave, and he steps in front of this big Plexiglas wall and puts his hands through with two rubber gloves on and he's shaking hands with people. It was really funny. It was the exact opposite of what I do, and that was the joke. The one thing about Dave was, even when he was mean to me, it was funny, and that's all that matters.
It's a fascinating dynamic, one that made the stakes feel even higher in late night. Things are of course different now, with no open rivalry between Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy Kimmel. Certainly, they're competing - with Colbert currently on top - but if there's any relationship like Leno and Letterman, they've never said so publicly. Maybe late-night feuds are a thing of the past.
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