Monday, June 30, 2003
Dave v. Jay
CNN has an article on why Dave can't beat Jay in the ratings. I may come back and re-edit this so it's coherent, but here's my initial take.
The article gives a weak version of the central issue: they're different kinds of funny--Jay is set-up/punch-line, Dave is more reactive-subtle. This plays out not just in terms of strengths and weaknesses (e.g., Jay has a better monolog, Dave is funnier in interviews). It comes out in their personalities. Jay "works" every single joke. He's like a joke machine that seldom deviates from the pattern, getting laughs out of the mechanics even when the joke isn't particularly good. He's giving every vocal trick imaginable to squeeze every bit out of each joke.
Dave seems so much more casual, and for the most part he is. He relies heavily on facial expressions and sight gags. However, he works his jokes, too, primarily by recycling and calling back to a joke. Norm MacDonald has the best Letterman impersonation, highlighted by his repeated use of "Got any gum?" and "Uh, ya want some shrimp?" You also see it in the repetition of the bits. Dr. Phil every night. Alternating nights of "Will It Float?" and "Is This Anything?"
Another key difference in their comedy though is the object of the humor. Nothing epitomizes the difference so greatly as the difference between "Jaywalking" and "Will It Float?" Jaywalking derives its humor from making you feel superior to the idiots on Hollywood. "You'd have to be a moron to not know who the president is. Look at this moron?" And you laugh. "Will it Float" has almost no inherent comedic potential. That it gets a laugh at all is entirely due to the theatrical presentation: staging, Dave and Paul's interplay, the sideshow freaks with the hula hoops and the grinder and the supermodels, and the "contest" aspect. And Dave is the key to making the whole thing work. Importantly, it doesn't belittle anyone and the only way you laugh is if you enjoy the performances, primarily Dave's.
This is not to say that Dave never puts people down. Imagine getting called a fat ass at the drive-thru getting your lunch, as when Dave worked the McDonald's drive-thru. But, while Dave's line gets a laugh, the humor is still based in the situation that everyone can identify with: the simple but impossible task, in this case, getting lunch. While the ethics and merits of this kind of joke compared to the open ridicule of Jaywalking are debatable (at least the Jaywalker gets a choice in participating in the gag), there're other examples from Dave's history. Dave follows comedic formulae for situational humor, and Jay follows comedic formulae for superiority comedy.
The irony is that, I suspect, Dave's appeal is to more intellectual folks, while Jay's is more blue collar. Jay will forever be the comic at the strip club desperate to do everything to bring your focus on his joke instead of the naked broad hovering over you, even when there's no naked broad above you. Importantly, the style difference for Jay helps him keep people from switching channels: whether it's big bare breasts or 187 other channels, the task is the same, and Jay approaches it that way.
Dave, on the other hand, relies on the audience paying attention the way a theatre crowd would. He assumes you're there to see him and that you'll pay attention. His casualness and the repetitiveness of the show from night to night allow the viewer to switch channels or even to stay away, especially with a lame guest (e.g., when Jack Hannah headlines a Monday night). Dave's confident you'll come back, but if you switch away, while he may beat himself up over it, Dave's not going to change anything about the type of material to keep you.
You can really see the difference in the Late Show by comparing him to the guest hosts. Even people who have done really well (Vince Vaughn, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Fallon) can't do what Dave does. The show can have 5 or 6 guests because none of the replacements can fill the time like him. The replacements ask their questions, the guests answer them, there's maybe a laugh, and they go to the next question or the next commercial.
So, the upshot is: Dave can't beat Jay because Dave's style permits you to "cheat" while Jay's doesn't; and, Dave's comedy, even when it's juvenile, appeals to a smarter/hipper audience than Jay's and that's an inherently smaller crowd.
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