The Master

The King Abdicates From Late-Night Nation

There’s been no comedy voice more influential to our generation of Americans than David Letterman. The master of ‘found comedy’ leaves television forever changed.

Craig Warga/NY Daily News, via Getty

A strange shocked silence from the studio audience followed David Letterman’s announcement, on his Thursday Late Show, that he is retiring from television and has “a year or so” to go. And yet was it that much of a surprise? Many of his fans have long been harboring fears that any night now, he’d be making just such a statement. The old clock on the wall ticked with a deafening vengeance.

Letterman will turn 67 on April 12; talented Jimmy Fallon, whose radically reconstituted Tonight Show has been a runaway ratings hit on NBC, is 40. The networks’ desirable demographic is 18-49. In the light of Dave’s announcement, media savants spoke of it as “completing the generational transformation in late-night,” its control passing from baby boomers and the middle-aged to Generation Xers and younger, and much of the culture with it.

On his show, Fallon fluently and frequently references the Internet and such gratuitous accoutrements as Twitter (the term “world-wide trending topic” trips nimbly from his lips), whereas Letterman, hunched grudgingly over a laptop Tuesday night, attempted awkwardly to type out a single tweet on its keyboard, and with great difficulty. It was very funny, as are all his skirmishes with the rapidly passing parade, but it had a creepy symbolism, too.

Letterman tapes both his Thursday and Friday night shows on Thursdays; he made the announcement while taping last night’s program, telling the audience he’d spoken earlier with Leslie Moonves, who Letterman said “owned” CBS but is actually president and CEO, and had informed him of his decision. Later in a statement, Moonves praised Letterman for “wit, gravitas, and brilliance unique in the history of our medium.”

Sir Howard Stringer, the man probably most responsible for bringing Letterman to CBS when Stringer held Moonves’s job, said yesterday of his star, “His contribution to CBS has been remarkable. He took a time period that was a wasteland and gave it intelligence, wit, and consistent humor. His CBS legacy will be joined to those of Mary Tyler Moore, Alan Alda, Walter Cronkite, Norman Lear, and other giants.”

Loyal viewers know the accolades to be true. Letterman has persistently demonstrated the quickest wit in late-night television, a time period that increasingly seems more financially important and culturally influential than prime-time. Whether playing with new toys on a Christmas-week show or verbally sparring with the most adept of ad-libbers, Letterman was ever-masterful, his mind a marvel of monkeyshines.

Trying always to avoid the kind of schmaltz and sentimentality that once dominated the medium, Letterman refused to be serious even while delivering last night’s discouraging words. He began with a seemingly interminable preface about going fishing with his 10-year-old son, Harry, and spotting a bird in a tree. He reprised a joke about having vowed, “When this show stops being fun, I will retire—10 years later.”

Finally he broke the news, but brought the announcement to an end by declaring “What this means now is that Paul and I can be married,” a reference to his longtime bandleader Paul Shaffer. The studio audience laughed at the joke, later rising to give Dave a standing ovation.

During his three-decade tenure on talk television, David Letterman’s has probably been the most influential comic voice in the country. Early on he introduced and perfected the concept of “found comedy,” heading out of the studio to wisecrack his way through innumerable banal situations that became in his domain hilarious, the world and its populace his obedient props. One evening he ventured forth in a car with the radio tuned to an all-news station that solicits news tips from listeners; Dave called in repeatedly to say he thought he saw a suspicious man standing on a corner, driving station personnel batty.

But there has been a downside to his influence. Ever since it was revealed that Letterman began his television career as a weatherman who livened up his daily routine with quips, seemingly every weather forecaster in the country has tried to be funny. In fact, entire local news teams—as well as the casts of network informational shows like Good Morning, America—now try to mete out Letterman-style sarcasm and facetiousness, romping about like tots in a playground.

Nobody did it better, however, than the originator.

For all the laughter, Letterman could in fact be very serious, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes in the most touching ways, as when at the turn of the century he thanked the surgeons “who saved my life” with an emergency heart operation. The entire surgical teams were marched out onto his stage.

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Much more recently, with frequent guest Regis Philbin at his side, Letterman spoke about the arrival of the Beatles in the United States 50 years earlier, and their historic appearance on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater, home to Letterman’s show since he moved to CBS. In a few words, Letterman brought the Beatles and what they represented into disarming focus.

“And then, of course, as everyone has pointed out” (though everyone had not), Letterman recalled “the context of their arriving in the United States—the deep, deep abject sadness that we had lived through, and now the bright light of joy that came across the Atlantic. There’s no comparison to what that experience was.”

For all his irreverence, absurdity, stupid pet tricks, and mocking Top Ten Lists, David Letterman has been quite the bright light of joy himself. One may well wince with dread at the thought of it going out.