In the lightweight division of nighttime talk shows, The Jon Stewart Show (syndicated, check local listings) and Late Night with Conan O'Brien (NBC, Mon.-Fri., 12:35-1:35 a.m.) are trying to appeal to roughly the same audience: young adults who don't see the appeal of David Letterman and who wouldn't be caught dead watching Jay Leno's revamped yet somehow already smelling of mothballs Tonight Show. This is a difficult group of viewers to court, because they never want to feel that they're being courted. To actually tell them a joke is considered kinda, you know, uncool.
One's sympathy goes out to O'Brien and Stewart, who must create a hip atmosphere while remaining fashionably blase about wanting to be thought of as hip. When O'Brien's version of Late Night debuted in September 1993, he decided to go at it as an ironic eager beaver: Look at me, I'm a parody of an earnest fellow who's just been handed a talk show! Which was good for about 20 minutes. It was obvious that O'Brien was intelligent, but there was all that camera awkwardness to put up with; you knew he had to shake off a lot of nervous tics and instinctive bad habits, so why not just avert your eyes for a few months? Most people did.
And so, this Conan update: He's calmed down. His gaze is now level no more rabbity eye-darting. He's chilled on the mock-cool dance moves. But like most of the current cast of Saturday Night Live, O'Brien is forever coming up with recurring characters and catchphrases and acting as if they're audience favorites well before the audience has a chance to vote on the matter.
O'Brien has improved as an interviewer. He's now asking logical follow-up questions rather than slogging through a prepared list (something even Leno is still doing), and his recent session with Elvis Presley biographer Peter Guralnick proved that Conan had read the book and had thoughts to share about it with his guest.
Aside from their postboomer youth and commendable lack of slacker slackness, both O'Brien and Stewart have out-of-it sidekicks. O'Brien's Andy Richter remains a smug guy masquerading as a dumb lump, while Stewart's announcer, Howard, is ... really unsettling. If Howard's nerdy vagueness is an act, he's better at it than Richter; if it's not, then I just feel bad for him. You'll notice that neither of these options is particularly entertaining.
It is de rigueur to compare Stewart favorably with O'Brien by saying that the former is the better, more relaxed host. But I think this misses the point. By network standards, Stewart is a worse host, far less organized and polished and that makes him more interesting to watch. He's more apt to say or to inspire his guests to say something unexpected. On a recent night, Stewart greeted the crowd with, ''Man, am I hopped-up on Sudafed and ginseng now there's a speedball you don't want to miss!'' He got guest Sarah Jessica Parker to talk about her fear of stalkers and the letters she gets from admirers and when she mentioned a recent missive, it turned out that the correspondent was sitting right in the studio audience. (Talk about having your demographic figured out). Stewart is a clever scamp: When Baywatch's Pamela Anderson wiggled on to promote her current Playboy layout, the host showed us the nude pix with little head shots of himself pasted over Pamela's naughty bits.
But let's place this episode in perspective: Over several weeks, neither Stewart nor O'Brien got off as funny a line as a throwaway David Letterman tossed off recently: a riff about how President Clinton had sent Jimmy Carter to Los Angeles ''to persuade Dudley Moore to leave the CBS fall lineup.'' Conan, Jon: Think jokes. It's the only way to survive. Late Night With Conan O'Brien: C+ The Jon Stewart Show: B