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The man who has made a mark as an irreverent outsider who's refused to soften his sharp edges, Letterman's brand of lovable curmudgeon for years served in contrast to former rival Jay Leno's everyman appeal, attracting a loyal fan base and celebrity following.
But with Leno out and an invigorated Jimmy Fallon in at the No. 1-rated "The Tonight Show," the ever-viral Fallon already seems to pose a bigger threat to "The Late Show" than Leno ever did. Ratings aside, the 39-year-old Fallon matches Letterman in one important way: he's cool. He's got some edge to his sunny demeanor. And not only that, he's a lot of fun, too. Let's face it: He makes Letterman's shtick appear staid –- even out of touch -- in comparison.
And that raises the question: If the Emmy-winning Letterman -- 32 years into his tenure as the longest-serving late-night host in TV history –- wants to stay relevant at 11:30 p.m., should he switch things up or stick with his old formula?
"Jimmy Fallon made his debut by pulling out all of the stops: U2 performing on the top of 30 Rock, his 'Evolution of Hip-Hop Dancing' routine with Will Smith, the Brian Williams' 'Rapper's Delight' mash-up, and genius skit with the first lady and his 'SNL' alum Will Ferrell, plus ending the week with bestie Justin Timberlake," said E! News' Alicia Quarles, highlighting just how difficult it can be to match Fallon's lineup.
But that said, "David Letterman should stay the course of doing what he does best: landing those big interviews," Quarles said. "But maybe he can take a page out of Fallon's book."
For example, Team Letterman might do well to takes notes from Team Fallon's talent for viral video content and social media. The Feb. 17 "Evolution of Hip-Hop" clip has attracted 10.6 million hits and counting on YouTube. Airing the same night, Letterman's "Top 10" countdown featuring the cast of the CBS hit "How I Met Your Mother" accumulated more than 104,000 views on the video portal.
He could also enlist the most unlikely of allies –- Jay Leno –- to stage a truce on "Late Show" turf. According to the New York Daily News, the beloved CBS crank is angling to hook his alleged arch-nemesis as a guest with the idea that the two would make public amends –- and combat Fallon's streak of strong ratings –- after a decades-long feud. The paper reported Friday that, in a gesture of goodwill, Letterman recently reached out to Leno for a phone call lasting 20 minutes.
A Letterman representative declined comment; Leno's publicist did not respond to a request for comment.
Booking Leno is exactly the kind of stunt that Letterman might pull. After all, it was Letterman's idea, in 2010, to recruit his "Tonight" competitor and Oprah Winfrey in a top-secret CBS Super Bowl commercial promoting the "Late Show." (The spot featured all three sitting on a couch and watching the game, with Winfrey in between Letterman and Leno.)
Letterman might not know how to impersonate Bruce Springsteen –- or use Twitter -– but he's still got it when it comes to the art of The Big Interview. Indeed, his ability to bring out the best, the worst and the crazy in his high-profile guests has resulted in legendary encounters with Drew Barrymore (who flashed Dave on the air circa 1995) and Joaquin Phoenix, whose awkward and jaw-dropping behavior spawned national headlines.
"I don't see him having too many tricks," said Adam Frucci, editor of the comedy site Splitsider. "He's always just going to be Letterman."