Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

Jay Leno and David Letterman

They cracked each other up on the set of Late Night in the '80s. They became rivals amid the acrimony over succeeding Johnny Carson in the early '90s. And this year they competed to see who could generate the biggest headlines. Leno ended his 17-year Tonight reign to debut the very Tonight-like Jay Leno Show for NBC. The new show drew weak prime-time ratings. Did it matter? Not necessarily, since the show — produced at a fraction of the price of late-night dramas — is chiefly NBC's strategy for surviving the decline of broadcast TV (a trend underscored by Oprah Winfrey's decision to head to cable). Meanwhile, Dave took the late-night lead over Conan O'Brien, only to have his triumph be marred by a bizarre extortion scandal that revealed a longtime affair with an employee. (This, following a public feud over his monologue about Sarah Palin.) Did it matter? Not necessarily, because Dave jujitsued the scandal, playing it for self-deprecating laughs and staying atop late night. Onscreen and off, this pair gave TV fans plenty to talk about.

— James Poniewozik