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Who's the BEST? // Depends where you're sitting

Standing outside The Ed Sullivan Theater, minutes away from completing my late-night TV trilogy, it hit me: Maybe I shouldn't have come.

By this time, I'd already realized that the show I liked least at home was a joy to watch in person. Wouldn't it follow that my on-the-couch favorite would be a letdown up close and impersonal?

I hadn't expected to be shocked and chagrined last summer, when I began the quest to attend tapings of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, all in six months.

How could I have known that Conan O'Brien would dirty-dance with his audience and serenade us with a nifty rendition of Elvis Presley's Burning Love, swaying even ambivalent tourists to give his super-late show a chance. Who knew that Jay Leno's friendliness could make a scornful TV critic forget the show's creative shortcomings or that David Letterman's protective entourage would make in-house viewers feel so alienated?

Below, this viewer's guide to getting out of the armchair and into the spotlight of late-night TV. If you've ever thought of attending one of these shows, read on:

The Tonight Show

If stars earned ratings for being outgoing, Jay Leno would have the biggest hit on television.

Say what you will about the Tonight Show host's looks and comedic style. Live, he's the nicest, most eager-to-please guy around. If that's acting, give this man an Oscar.

At tapings, Leno oozes excitement, seeming genuinely thrilled that you, the weary tourist, would even consider stopping by his little show. He invites more questions than time ever permits and indulges countless requests to pose for photos with the audience.

During one of my two visits, his guest was fitness guru Richard Simmons, who brought along a cadre of his faithful flock, decked out in similarly ridiculous exercise garb. On another program, these women might have been skewered, if not for their weight, for their devotion to the frizzy-haired eccentric. At Leno's show, both the audacious Simmons and his followers were treated with unmistakable respect, even a tad of admiration. Perhaps Leno, known for his tireless efforts to be liked, could sympathize?

Ever the gracious host, Leno makes nice with celebrity guests during commercial breaks and waves to eager fans _ who, thanks to the tiered seating system, have a great view from every seat in the studio. When it's over, he even thanks the audience for showing up.

Granted, kindness won't make you hipper or your jokes funnier. But to watch a performer like Leno in action first-hand is to see that maybe nice guys don't finish last after all.

The Late Show

For a guy who harps on star treatment, David Letterman's Late Show is full of it. Success has a way of ruining intimacy, I guess.

Hands-down the most entertaining of the bunch to watch at home, Letterman's show is about as personal as the automated telephone system at the IRS. It's almost as if the move to CBS and the competition with Leno have created a pressure cooker where the live audience is but another ingredient in the headache stew. With so much going on around him, Letterman seems oblivious to the adoring fans begging for a morsel of attention.

Ushered inside from the cold at 5 p.m., we sit down to a performance by floor shiners polishing an already-sleek stage. At 5:15, we're treated to a video montage of Letterman's antics on monitors high above _ a hint that the preshow interaction with the beloved host may be brief.

It is. Try 45 seconds, maybe a minute _ total. A "hullohowyadoin?" and one quickie audience question, and Letterman's gone, slipping offstage and into a suit jacket. Within seconds, he's back, jogging onstage as the CBS Orchestra belts out the Late Show's opening theme song.

If Letterman plans it that way to maintain the audience's energy level, it works. No applause cues are necessary, since his wry monologue starts a mere minute after he's left us clapping for more.

The beauty of the Ed Sullivan Theater _ its stately character and cavernous size _ also proves its downfall. Though the studio seats 461, a choice spot in the sixth row on the floor feels like miles from the host's desk. With nearly a dozen producers and crew members huddled around Letterman during commercials, and mobile cameras blocking the audience's vision during onstage interviews, I had a better view craning my neck to watch on the monitor above me.

More frustrating for some is the heat _ or lack of it. Letterman really does keep his theater frigid to guarantee visitors' attention. On my trip, it was 48 degrees, according to the warmup comedian. Does the host know that audience members spend much of the show whining about it? Does he care?

Probably not. Letterman is, after all, the king of finding humor in his fans. During our February taping, he poked fun at a giddy girl from Peru and a couple of lugs he caught chewing gum. At home, it's safe, if mean-spirited, fun. In person, there's something eerily unnerving about wondering whether a bad haircut or dorky sweater will get you humiliated on national television.

If, like me, you're a big Letterman fan, you'll surely enjoy yourself. Just don't go expecting the personal touch. You probably won't get it.

Late Night With Conan O'Brien

Oh, what a difference an hour makes. At 12:35 a.m., Conan O'Brien has the luxury of a looser format and fewer at-home viewers to pick up on improvisation gone awry. Even if you've never seen him on TV, it's a hoot to watch a Late Night taping.

It helps that O'Brien and his trusty sidekick, Andy Richter, put sarcasm, wit and fun ahead of staunch professionalism. These two aren't afraid to be silly or sophomoric. If it makes them laugh, they figure, it'll probably amuse audiences. Isn't that what late-night TV is all about?

The Late Night studio inside NBC's Rockefeller Center is both intimate and funky, seating 191. That's big enough to fill up a TV screen but small enough for visitors to feel special.

O'Brien goes to great lengths to rouse his audience before the show, talking for several minutes with the largely collegiate crowd. Take the dirty dancing Elvis routine.

"That was really gross," he apologized, scowling at himself for overdoing it. "Who here was really frightened by that? Who actually wet themselves?" Suddenly, he's turned his self-described Catholic guilt into a crowd-pleasing joke.

Viewers unfamiliar with Richter may assume he's just a younger version of Ed McMahon. Watching them huddle between breaks, it's clear that Richter's wit and sensibilities are as much a part of the show as O'Brien's.

Of all three shows, Late Night was the most spontaneous, the most laid-back and, frankly, the most satisfying. The audience doesn't have to fake laughs (Tonight Show), nor do in-studio viewers feel as though they're intruding (Late Show). If anything, O'Brien sends guests the perfect invitation: Come for fun. Have fun.

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