In the often high-stakes ratings game of late night television, the hosts have learned: It helps to have a few loyal guests to call your own.
When Conan O'Brien made the move to Los Angeles to become the host of "The Tonight Show" last week, he called on his good friend and ally Will Ferrell, who was also his last guest on the final "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" show in New York last February.
These two go back to their days at 30 Rockefeller Center, where Ferrell got his break as a "Saturday Night Live" cast member and O'Brien broadcast his late night talk show. Ferrell, a frequent guest, would usually strip off his pants whenever he appeared on "Late Night."
Not so for O'Brien's "Tonight Show" debut last Monday. Ferrell, wearing a pin-striped suit, made his entrance to the set on a platform carried by four men dressed like Egyptian guards from "The Ten Commandments" movie. But once he was on the couch, the two comedians returned to their familiar rapport.
"No one thought you could do it, not one person," said Ferrell, on the show to promote his new movie, "Land of the Lost." "And you're here."
Ferrell's appearance, along with rock group Pearl Jam, was enough to knock O'Brien's premiere out of the park. The show earned an overnight 7.1 in the ratings, the highest-rated Monday episode of the franchise in four years, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
And even though the ratings shrank with each successive episode, O'Brien still carried the week against David Letterman's "Late Show."
But by Tuesday night, Letterman had closed the gap and overtaken "The Tonight" Show with a 3.4 rating to NBC's 2.9.
Maybe Letterman's loyal friend Howard Stern is part of the reason. Stern came out fighting on Monday when Letterman had him on as a guest. Stern, no friend of Jay Leno's, dissed the former "Tonight Show" host while praising Letterman.
On Monday, Howard Stern proved his loyalty to David Letterman by praising the "Late Show" host and dissing his longtime competitor Leno.
"I never liked Jay. I can't stand Jay," Stern said. "I've never seen anybody who behaves like a robot like this guy. I watched his final show, saying goodbye to the 'Tonight Show,' reading it off a teleprompter for crying out loud. Where's the emotion? Where's the humanity?"
Pointing at Letterman, Stern then shouted, "Here's the host that we want to watch."
The audience cheered, the band played and Stern danced a little jig. Letterman, who smiled throughout Stern's tirade, sat back in his chair as if to take in the praise, then said, "Thank you, Howard."
Stern also rallied Letterman and the audience against O'Brien.
"This Conan O'Brien took over the Leno show. You heard about this?" Stern asked to laughter. "We got to beat this Conan. For God's sake, how are you feeling? Jay left late night television and now you've got this new guy to compete with?"
Stern even confessed his loyal allegiance to Letterman.
"I've got to say something about loyalty. Dave put me on national television many, many years ago before I was known, and I have stuck with Dave," said Stern, whose first "Late Show" appearance in 1984 helped launch the original shock jock and his radio show into the national spotlight.