Letterman’s Goodbye: The Last Great Talk Show Host Retires and a Generation Fades Into History
David Letterman will host his last Late Show tonight. We’re not just saying goodbye to Dave, but to an entire generation of comedy.
“I don’t like that David Letterman,” a dear friend’s grandma once said to me, “he’s always grimacing.” Though it’s hard to say exactly how many years ago that was—a great many—we can safely assume that Dave himself is now as old as that granny was when she said it.
Letterman, who bids his farewell to television—at least to nightly network television—tonight, wasn’t trying to appeal to grannies, of course, although he was boyish enough (and even at 68, still is) to have little old ladies among his admirers. But NBC and then CBS saw in Dave a galvanic figure with which to lure American youth back to television—“back” because so many, it seemed, had tired or sickened of its artifice, its empty rituals, its slavish slavery to the dollar.
The best one-word summation I’ve ever heard of Letterman’s TV career has nothing to do with grimacing. The word, uttered matter-of-factly by young podcaster Jeff Zuk, is “uncompromised.” Nobody can get through a career in show business, or perhaps even start one, without making compromises— compromising one’s own principles (if one has any), one’s own values, and so on—in the quest to succeed. But David Letterman seems to have accomplished 33 years of trend-setting, mirth-quaking television with many or even most of his original goals intact. They weren’t lofty ideals, maybe, but they were his, and they were wildly refreshing.
“I am not going to wear ‘funny’ hats,” Letterman told me very early in his career, during one of the few interviews he granted me. Okay, he wouldn’t stoop that low to get a laugh. But three decades later, out he came from behind his desk on the CBS Late Show and, boom, dropped his pants (so as not to be upstaged by Alec Baldwin, who’d done the same). Isn’t dropping trou arguably lowlier than donning a wacky hat? It’s all relative. Regardless, we still think of Dave as having stood for something.
Have you noticed more of a fuss is being made over Dave’s departure than was made two decades earlier over the seemingly more epochal retirement of Johnny Carson, master of TV talk shows and Dave’s idol in the business? Traumatizing as it seemed, Johnny’s leaving was not as significant as Dave’s leaving. The stakes seem higher. One old fart wrote that Johnny represented the big-band era and comics like Letterman, Jay Leno, and the even younger crowd now taking over represented the rock revolution. God knows one thing some of us won’t miss are Dave’s panting paeans to bandleader Paul Schaffer and Schaffer’s genuflections to whatever studio musician happened to be sitting in with his band (billed as “The CBS Orchestra,” ha ha—there actually was a CBS Symphony Orchestra once, conducted by Alfred Antonini, student of NBC’s Arturo Toscanini).
But Dave Letterman represents more than a musical mindset. He’s easily as much a pivotal figure as Bob Dylan, who gave one of his seemingly self-parodying performances on Dave’s second-to-last show. Johnny was a “Greatest Generation” living icon, in Tom Brokaw’s term, but Dave was of the Biggest Generation, the Boomers who came along in a historic swarm after, or late in, World War II, and who grew up watching, of course, TV.
Much of what they—or their parents—saw, in the first Golden Age of Television, was “live” drama from New York, then later taped drama “from Television City in Hollywood,” some of it brilliant but all of it adapted from other forms. The great critic Gilbert Seldes marveled that TV storytelling—the live drama anthologies that aired every night in prime time on the three networks—might develop its own aesthetic, its own natural rhythm, its own life-like cadences, all new.
But technology, that bastard, intervened. Filmed shows replaced “live” because they were cheaper and rerunnable. Then videotape, first awkward to edit, became as easily manipulated as film, the final death knell for all those Playhouse 90s and Kraft Theaters, all that adventurous human drama.
Much of what now aired night after night was canned; “canned laughter” became the preferred nickname for artificial or supplemented laughter and applause. Television became a matrix of lies, and the lies kept multiplying.
What David Letterman and the like-minded creative crowd he assembled, including writer and “Stupid Pet Trick” inventor Merrill Markoe and enterprising, sharp-witted director Hal Gurnee (who’d worked with Jack Paar, another Letterman hero) produced from Day One was not a parody of a TV show but what’s been called “anti-television”—an antidote to all the phoniness, much of it carried over from radio, that had prevailed.
The critics who saw (or even still see) what Letterman did as child’s play, mere tomfoolery and prankishness, probably forget that when Orson Welles first walked onto a studio soundstage, presumably one of RKO’s, he is supposed to have said, “This is the biggest electric train set a boy ever had.” No, Letterman was not the Orson Welles of Television, but like Welles he was fascinated with the technology and the trickery it made possible. And he loved standing its cherished contrivances on their heads or turning them inside out.
He broke rules that needed breaking. And when a bit bumbled, or bombed, he had immense reserves of personal charm to fall back on. No, Dave wasn’t our Orson Welles, but he could be our generation’s Jimmy Stewart. He happens to be doing his last show on Stewart’s birthday, and for all his sarcasm (or “irony”) and impudence, he epitomizes some of the qualities that Stewart did—a lanky likability; a Midwestern, guy-next-door ingenuousness; and a seeming enmity to pretentiousness and false piety.
Talk show hosts now have a much larger place in television than they used to. Their shows, while not “live,” are usually taped the same day as they air; they’re more “in the moment” than crime show crap filmed months earlier and edited for maximum kinetic impact. Talk shows are the network flagships that network news divisions used to be. They are re-created each day. And they are very, very personality-dependent.
No matter what the ratings said, Dave Letterman was the Captain of the modern Talk Show fleet. He set the pace, he was talked about the next morning, or he went viral on the damn web.
As has been noted, the current talk show ratings leader, Jimmy Fallon, isn’t a talker. And he, along with producer Lorne Michaels, seem to appreciate what a “talk show” must do in the cybernetic age to survive: keep the “talk” to a minimum. Besides, most of it is just boilerplate jabber anyway about Starr Starlet’s latest movie, opening Friday at a theater or cable channel, or streaming down to a “device,” near you.
Dave was the last talk show champion of his generation. He stayed in the race a very long time—maybe longer than he should have, to judge from the relative stasis of recent years, not that there still weren’t enough bull’s-eyes to fill a thousand “highlight reels.” Those compilations, incidentally, were the best parts of the shows that aired in the final weeks, showing off at their bests Dave, his staff, and the “ordinary” people drafted into the service of comedy and invention.
Under Dave’s stewardship, they democratized television, helped demythologize it, paved the way for a future (or a present) in which the whole idea of “being on television” is no longer the province of an elite. Dave may have talked a lot about being “in show business” and even may have snobbishly referred to the rest of us as “civilians,” but the civilians are taking over. The professional lunatics are surrendering the asylum to the everyday lunatics. A 6-year-old kid can produce a “show” on a laptop, as everybody knows.
The poor old networks in their desperation are remaking old movies, their own old TV shows, even raiding the Bible and other public domain stuff for material. Two colorized I Love Lucy episodes, more than half-a-century old, aired in prime time on CBS Sunday night, after 60 Minutes.
But the real TV, other than live news coverage, starts at 11:35 each night. Or, all right, it’s watched via DVR-delay, or is consumed in little cubes off one website or another. But it had to start someplace.
Perhaps it makes more sense to say that Dave Letterman is the last Television Generation talk show host rather than the last Baby Boomer talk show host, or perhaps they’re both the same thing. It’s felicitous that he came along when he did, that someone so enamored of the possibilities of television, even the frivolous ones, took command of a network talk show (or two) and played it all to a happy hilt, squeezed every nutty or inspired or goofy or brilliant idea out of it that he and his merry band could, and laughed along with us.
In 1987, Eric Pooley wrote in New York magazine, back when Dave was still at NBC: “‘Late Night’ has become the favorite program of a generation raised on television and tired of its pretense.” He got it. And it was fun to be part of the constituency that did get it. Four years earlier in the same magazine, a certain fatuous old hack had called Letterman’s show “a creaking, facetious contrivance—a choochoo forever wobbling off the tracks.” Rrrright. Didn’t get it.
Apparently Letterman had failed to offer enough highbrow stimulation for the gigantic intellects of the Upper East Side.
The 1983 diatribe, admittedly, was during the First Age of Letterman, long before his symbolic wardrobe change from khakis to suits when he moved to Broadway and CBS; long before his profoundly moving contemplation of 9/11 and what it meant to us; long before he was given a Kennedy Center Honor (an award Johnny had won years earlier) for his contributions to the culture; long before his stunningly candid revelation of sex in the office and a failed blackmail attempt (“I have a little story that I would like to tell you…”); long before he made monkeys or mincemeat out of such pompous windbags as Bill O’Reilly; long before the latter-day 21st-century Dave who, if less fun and less eager to leave the building on video adventures, was never less than fascinating.
Letterman and company haven’t left much for others to do insofar as merrily mauling the medium, while subtly celebrating it as well, and so people like Jimmy Kimmel, who according to a recent CNN documentary grew up with an almost pathological fondness for Letterman and his work, do imitation Letterman shows of their own. Will a “new Dave,” a “next Dave,” emerge? Our fault is in our stars; they seem to get smaller and smaller, their niches narrower and narrower. It is all perhaps inevitable, but that doesn’t make it fun.
It’s an especially sad moment for those of us who consider ourselves members of Letterman’s generation. We can see the generation as well as the performer fading into history—we are, once and for all, relinquishing the culture. We’re turning it over, more or less officially. Some of us are utterly cold to what we see as feeble replacements—the merely dirty comedy, the merely percussive music, the merely derivative “entertainment.” Little seems innovative or enterprising (not that there’s any lack of entrepreneurs), but maybe the language itself is changing, and the frames of reference, and the deployment of words like “amazing” and “epic” and, of course, “iconic.”
Radio and television—broadcasting—a guy could fall in love with, as Letterman did. Can anybody really fall in love with a frickin computer? A website? A pod? A blog? Can you warm up to your router? Your “server”? Or any of that other nerd-centric, number-cruncher crap? Maybe so. Our grandparents thought our parents were nuts and our parents knew that we were.
Letterman has repeatedly expressed admiration and affection for Johnny Carson, who did set the bar in his day. But Letterman seemed even more in command of The Bar in his day. He owned the bar. It seems more likely that the bar will lie there gathering dust than that someone will dash in from the wings to pick it up and lift it higher and higher; but that’s one of those things you never know.
What most of us will miss the most, of course, is not Dave the Symbol but Dave the Funny Guy. This is a debt that cannot be repaid, though many a recent guest has tried. Of all the tributes, the most memorable has come from a perhaps unlikely source—the very irreverent comedian Norm Macdonald, who memorably helmed SNL’s “Update” in the great late ’90s.
Macdonald floored even Letterman when he ended a comedy routine on one of last week’s shows (on which too much time had been squandered on Oprah Winfrey) by hailing Dave as “the greatest talk show host who ever lived.”
But that wasn’t the part that stuck, the part most likely to be remembered. Macdonald recalled the first time he saw Letterman perform and, uncharacteristically, seemed to be choking up as he spoke about it. He told a joke he’d heard Letterman tell years earlier and then, closing, and turning to face Letterman, said:
“I know that Mr. Letterman is not for the mawkish, and he has no truck for the sentimental. But if something is true, it is not sentimental, and I say, in truth, ‘I love you.’”
End of an era? That may be the least of it.