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In Good Humor, Letterman, Leno Begin Late-Night Joust

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The first salvos in what promises to be a long and arduous battle for late-night TV viewers were launched Monday night when “Late Show With David Letterman” premiered on CBS opposite “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” on NBC.

After thanking his audience at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York for a standing ovation, Letterman opened by saying: “Welcome to the show. I checked this now with the CBS attorneys, and legally I can continue to call myself Dave.”

The former host of NBC’s “Late Night” show was referring to threats from his former employers that he would be sued for copyright infringement if he used any elements from his old show. Letterman never took the threats seriously, he said to the audience, until Monday morning when he woke up and found beside him in bed the head of a peacock--NBC’s prestigious logo.

On NBC, meanwhile, Leno noted the late-night battle in his opening joke: “The Clinton Administration said they’re concerned about pre 2senting their health plan on national television because they’re afraid people might not watch it because of competing shows. Hey, pal, join the club!”

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During a brief instrumental break at the end of the monologue, Leno crossed to his desk and said, “Thanks for switching back. Good to see you again.”

Most of the competition seemed good-natured. Letterman’s first guest was NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, who wished Letterman well and then confiscated a couple of cue cards. “These last two jokes are the intellectual property of NBC,” Brokaw said as he walked off the set.

“Whoever thought you would hear the words intellectual and NBC used together,” Letterman fired back.

Letterman did retain such trademark “Late Night” items as his Top 10 list--although the bit was renamed “Late Show Top 10" and introduced with a trumpeting score and garish graphics.

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Among the 10 reasons why the new CBS show will be better: “No more pressure to book NBC President Robert C. Wright’s son-in-law Marv Albert” and “No more relying on cheap GE jokes (unless we’re really stuck),” referring to Letterman’s barbs at General Electric, the owner of NBC.

The lighthearted tone of the evening belied the fact that Monday night marked a new era in late-night television, which NBC has dominated for decades with “Tonight” and, more recently, “Late Night.” NBC now faces stiff network competition from the loyal following of Letterman, who decided to move to CBS this year after losing Johnny Carson’s job as host of “Tonight” to Leno.

Hundreds of people from all over the country lined up for hours in blistering heat Monday afternoon outside the refurbished Sullivan Theater to catch Letterman’s premiere show with guest stars Bill Murray and Billy Joel.

“I’m missing my classes today. Most of my teachers understood,” said Meredith Byerly, a 21-year-old from Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.

Byerly’s cousin, Kristin Paxton, 23, took a vacation from her promotion job at the Fox network affiliate in Raleigh, N.C., to be there. Her station airs Arsenio Hall’s syndicated talk show and next week will premiere Fox’s own late-night entry, “The Chevy Chase Show.” They are all competing for the $400 million in advertising revenue that late-night TV generates.

Paxton said she will remain faithful to Letterman. “Letterman doesn’t take himself too seriously,” she said. Of Leno, whose mug could be seen on a 75-foot-billboard not far away in Times Square, she added: “That promo--Stand Up for Jay--is dumb. It’s like the show’s not too good but stay with us anyway.”

The audience members waiting outside NBC’s Burbank studios Monday afternoon seemed too preoccupied with that night’s guest, country music superstar Garth Brooks, to notice the late-night wars. Still, many in the audience said they preferred Leno to Letterman.

Eve Grobles, 50, a dog groomer from Granada Hills, stuck her finger in her mouth in disgust when asked about Letterman. “There is nothing funny about him whatsoever,” she said. “He’s not appealing, and he’s rude to his guests.”

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“The main reason that people will turn on these shows is to see who’s on,” said Sara Rapp, 23, who drove from Phoenix. “I think there’ll be a lot of channel surfing. People will watch the monologue they like the best and then switch around to see who’s on each show. That’s what it’s going to come down to.”

Times staff writer Jane Hall contributed to this story from New York.


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