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Friday, 8 March, 2002, 13:59 GMT
The long arm of Letterman
David Letterman and Madonna
Letterman can pull in the world's biggest stars
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By BBC News Online's Robert White

One of the universally acknowledged truths of television is that a successful format or face begets a host of imitators.

The process is so inevitable that the fortunes of a quiz show, game show or talk show can be judged by the enthusiasm with which it is being copied.

Using this yardstick, The Late Show with David Letterman is doing so well that the staggering sums of money involved in the tug-of-war between the US networks ABC and CBS for the star's services begin to almost make sense.

The Late Show only made its debut on CBS in 1993, but it has become the undisputed, international gold standard in chat show terms.

David Letterman in 1979
Letterman guest-hosted The Tonight Show

The chief domestic pretender to the Letterman throne is Jay Leno, current host of NBC's Tonight Show.

His challenge is a serious one, for two reasons.

First, The Tonight Show dates back to the 1950s, and Leno is the latest in a line of presenters that includes Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson - and even, occasionally, Letterman himself.

The other reason is the very real prospect of an unexpected retirement by Letterman, who has spent more than 20 years anchoring late-night TV shows.

When the star underwent a quintuple heart bypass operation in 2000, at the age of 52, Leno seemed poised to assume the mantle of top late night TV host - but in the end, Letterman returned.

Arsenio Hall

Past US TV schedules are littered with lesser talk show contenders who have fallen by the wayside.

The syndicated Arsenio Hall Show ran mainly on stations linked with Fox Broadcasting from 1989 until 1994.

The show managed, for a while, to pull in the young black and Hispanic viewers who were being ignored by the other networks.

Its highlight probably came in 1992, when the then presidential candidate Bill Clinton appeared and played two songs on the saxophone.

But Hall crashed off the air soon after he went up against Leno in the schedules.

The palest Letterman imitation of all was probably comedian Chevy Chase, whose eponymous show on Fox was pulled just weeks after it launched in 1993.

Abroad, homage has been paid to The Late Show as often as it has in the US.

Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge
Alan Partridge: self-crowned King of Chat

Close adherence to Letterman's methods has made Harald Schmidt a famous face on German television.

In the UK, for the time being, Johnny Vaughan seems to have secured the Letterman franchise.

His late-night Johnny Vaughan Live show for the BBC has many of the trademarks - most obviously, the desk, the monologue and the house band.

It's a tribute to the resilience of the Letterman format that the show is now doing well after a fairly shaky start both critically and in terms of audience share.

But Vaughan is just the latest UK TV star to bear the Letterman imprint.

Larry Sanders

Where would Jonathan Ross, Chris Evans and Danny Baker be without the myriad Letterman-esque tics and trappings that have accompanied them throughout their careers?

So powerful is the Letterman formula that it some time ago slipped the bonds of the talk show and drifted off into genres new - specifically, comedy.

In the US, the best example of this was The Larry Sanders Show, which blurred fiction and reality and satirised the inflated egos involved in the talk show business.

Real-life celebrities appeared on a fictional show, which was presided over by the Letterman-esque Sanders, played by Garry Shandling.

In the UK, Steve Coogan, as gaffe-prone host Alan Partridge, pulled off a similar trick in Knowing Me Knowing You.

And much of the humour in Caroline Aherne's Mrs Merton Show came from casting a sprightly Mancunian pensioner as the suave Letterman.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then this latest, comic approach is surely the strangest and most subversive.

Caroline Aherne as Mrs Merton
Mrs Merton: The female of the species?

Letterman himself did not spring fully formed from nowhere.

For almost as long as there has been television, there has been a man with a suit and a well honed monologue basking in its cathode rays.

The ultimate expression of this TV type was probably Johnny Carson, who once wielded enormous cultural power.

Television has fragmented - in the future, it seems, thousands of channels will broadcast to micro-communities of viewers.

The constant refinement and reinvention of the talk show format show how desperate we are to return to a golden age of TV which is bound up in our memories with figures like Carson.

Larry Sanders is essentially Carson with irony; Michael Parkinson is the British Carson; Johnny Vaughan is Carson lite; even David Letterman is really only Carson: The Sequel.

There will never be another Johnny Carson.

But one thing is for certain - until we, and television executives, all start wanting something else, there will be another David Letterman.

See also:

07 Mar 02 | TV and Radio
'Tug-of-war' for Letterman
17 May 01 | TV and Radio
Letterman appeases Miss Colombia
15 Jan 00 | Americas
Heart scare for Letterman
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