David Letterman waves to the crowd as he accepts The Johnny Carson Award for Comedic Excellence in New York, March 26, 2011. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi
To begin at the ending, David Letterman, who closes his 33-year late-night television career Wednesday, leaves a subversive legacy. He is likely to be known as the man who tried to destroy the late-night format he inherited. Everyone else played by the rules. Letterman broke them.
The late-night rules dictated that the host be likable and easy to digest. The pretense was that hosts invited the audience to a nightly party with selected “guests” who would let their hair down, reveal a bit of themselves, tell a story and usually promote a project. Occasionally, guests would get up to entertain, but more typically they sat in the chair and chatted. They were off duty.
Long-time hosts, who convened the party, brought their individual brand to the event: gabby intimacy (Jack Paar), conversational ease and an aw-shucks manner (Johnny Carson), relentless inoffensiveness (Jay Leno). Newer arrivals, like Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, flaunt their insiderness as close buds with their guests in a nightly convivial get-together.
Ball State alumnus David Letterman hosts a conversation with Oprah Winfrey at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, November 26, 2012. REUTERS/Chris Bergin
But Letterman’s art was his attitude. He actively sought to not be ingratiating. If all the other hosts were projecting fun or bonhomie, Letterman was the party-pooper. He was a grouch who could never disguise either his moods or the strenuous effort that went into his show.
He was also sincerely self-deprecating — not manipulatively seeking to earn the audience’s sympathy. Letterman was a guy who looked as if he didn’t much like himself.
He certainly never subscribed to the pretense of a Fallon or a Kimmel that he was among friends with his guests. When he did gush, as he did over Julia Roberts and Sarah Jessica Parker, he was like a moonstruck fan. By the same token, when he was bored, he didn’t bother to conceal it. In fact, he was the only host who needled his guests and made them uncomfortable.
Essentially, he was the first hermit of late night – the only real outsider. When the show was over, Letterman would jump in his car and race home.
None of these things would necessarily commend Letterman to be a talk-show host — much less arguably the best one ever. But these qualities are precisely what made Letterman great.
He wasn’t out to obey the conventions that his predecessors had set — that whole sedate, congenial, phony gabfast. He was out to subvert them because he clearly thought they were baloney. Though he spoke about Carson in admiring, even loving terms, his post-Tonight Show program on NBC was the anti-Tonight Show — a send-up.
David Letterman pays tribute to Johnny Carson at the Emmy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, September 18, 2005. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
When he would introduce Bob Hope, and Chris Elliott would pop his head up from a hole under the seats, conversing as if he were Hope, or when he had the less-than-cogent Larry “Bud” Melman regularly perform announcing chores, or when, in his later CBS incarnation, he visited with the nearby souvenir-shop owners, Mujibur and Sirajul, he was taking dead aim on every puffed-up celebrity who had ever sat in a talk show seat. Even his patter with his bandleader Paul Shaffer was intentionally unctuous to mock the unctuousness of his oblivious rivals.
It is a cliché by now to say that Letterman brought irony to late night. It is also untrue — though it is easy to think he did because Letterman’s demeanor was so dry and wry. You just assumed there must be some irony behind it. Letterman wasn’t an ironist, however. He was a saboteur.
He took the idiocies of life and mocked them. One of his most memorable routines was the simple act of going to a store named “Just Bulbs” and peppering the salesman with requests for something other than light bulbs. Or going into various dry cleaners, restaurants or even garages that displayed old autographed celebrity photos on the wall and asking about the encounters with those famous people.
But Letterman’s most withering barbs were always reserved to mock his own show — much the way he mocked himself. There was real humor in watching him deconstruct the show we were watching. But there was also something no other late-night, talk-show host would dare: misery. Only Late Night with David Letterman mixed pathos with its humor — the pathos of Letterman’s own unstinting dissatisfaction with himself.
This is likely one reason why NBC opted for Leno over Letterman when replacing Carson. Leno was ingratiating and reliable. He was blandness incarnate, never ruffling anyone’s feathers. He was also self-satisfied. Letterman was the exact opposite. Leno was going to maintain The Tonight Show franchise. Letterman had made a career out of gibing it.
Fans wait outside the Ed Sullivan Theater for tickets to the first “Late Show with David Letterman” to air after Letterman’s production company struck a deal with members of the Writers Guild of America in New York, January 2, 2008. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Letterman might have been crushed that he didn’t replace Carson, but the NBC suits had a point. They were still throwing a nightly party — not deconstructing one.
In the end, even Leno proved no match for the even more eager puppy Fallon. There is no room in late night for honesty, much less miserable curmudgeons.
Almost every successor pays homage to his forebears, and all the late-night hosts have done so to Letterman — as he did to Carson. They have talked about Letterman as a guiding spirit. But unlike Carson, Letterman is not likely to be much of a model or, frankly, to have blazed much of a trail.
He was one-of-a-kind and inimitable. If anything, late night has moved farther away from Letterman rather than closer. He did “Stupid Pet Tricks” for the sheer nonsense of it. Fallon does “Stupid Celebrity Party Games” nearly every night to let us ogle celebrities having fun. His is the kind of show Letterman satirized. Now Fallon is the darling of late night.
In saying goodbye to Letterman, then, you say goodbye to his intelligence, his point of view, his willingness to offend and, of course, his attitude. You say goodbye to that laser vision of his that saw through the whole enterprise of late night TV while everyone else was, and is, busy deflecting our attention from the absurdity. There won’t be another Letterman because it is just about impossible to imagine any TV executive putting a guy like that on the air again.
Stephen Colbert is a worthy successor. He is a comic genius and certainly willing to offend.
But we’ll miss Letterman — who fought so valiantly to bring late night down around him — precisely because he is unlikely to miss us.
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