“It’s beginning to look like I’m not going to get The Tonight Show…”
Among a handful of standard, fallback jokes for the (temporarily) floundering late night talk show host – at least for as long as I’ve observed the form – is some variation of the following: any viewer who is still up and watching TV at this ungodly hour of the night has to have at least a little something wrong with him/her. It’s kind of a brilliant conceit, not to mention evergreen, not so much a blanket characterization as a sly, subtle method of bonding viewer to host via self-deprecating confession. There’s nothing more wrong with you than there is with me, the host is effectively saying. I’m the person you’re watching, after all. Why don’t we just be weird together! Tucked away in his 12:35 hidey-hole, the exquisitely eccentric Craig Ferguson always got a lot of mileage out of this particular trope, and plenty of other hosts both current and departed – your Kimmells, your Conans, your Meyerses (sic?) – have at least road-tested it with predictable success, but, as with so many things having to do with this medium, David Letterman seemed, to me, to do it first. Even when history easily and inevitably proves this assertion wrong by having the temerity to exist deeper and go back further than my own memory (or research) does, David Letterman, for my money, still did it best. And that wasn’t the only thing.
The implacable, unemotional, gap-toothed sarcasm dispenser that is David Letterman ruled late night talk for the better part of thirty-three years, and even when he didn’t rule, as in his years of extended Muy Thai combat with noted “Anti-Dave” Jay Leno, he still loomed uncomfortably large, in terms of ingenuity, creativity, and abiding influence. Leno routinely trounced Letterman in the ratings for close to two decades, recasting NBC’s Tonight Show as a bland, comfortable, safe space inhabited by millions but truly embraced by surprisingly few, whilst Dave thrived on rival CBS, taking the inventive, free-wheeling niche he’d already established as Johnny Carson’s lead out and broadening it. Leno was the consummate professional, a boardwalk artist’s sketch come to harmless life, tweaking the news of the day and various “man on the street” interactions just enough to make them seem slightly naughty to the teeming, unwashed masses. Letterman’s was a restless comedic mind turned on by chaos and subversion, and if the necessities of an 11:35pm timeslot hindered him somewhat, they still never quite hamstrung him. No less professional than Tonight, in reality, just far less uptight, The Late Show’s M.O. was to throw everything at the wall, regardless of its potential to stick. If a joke landed, it often killed, and, when it didn’t, Dave could capably draw a laugh out of he and his audience’s shared conception of how painfully stupid it was. Leno was addicted to affirmation. Among Dave’s many gifts is that he, seemingly, genuinely doesn’t care about applause, though even he’d have to admit that sometimes it’s a pleasant enough byproduct of great comedy.
That joke I referenced earlier? A rogue like Ferguson – who, in his own final months, proudly (and truthfully) proclaimed, via helpful recurring graphic, that his Late Late Show was “Not Like Any Other Late Night Show”* – could beat a double-edged sentiment like that into the ground because A) he didn’t particularly care either and B) the lateness/relative obscurity of his timeslot “protected” him. Conan O’Brien accomplished great things as Letterman’s successor at NBC for those same reasons, among others – notably his anxious, overdriven creativity and own house style of fluid, somewhat bent comedy – and Seth Meyers is starting to make some low-key inroads as well. As Late Night/”late night” hosts, these men can get away with being less than 100% condescending to their audiences and it actually burnishes their comic reputations. The difference is that Letterman, who I’ve already (incorrectly, probably) gone on record as naming the creator of this bit, among so many others, moved from the dead of night into the catbird’s seat at a network that invented its entire late night strategy just to accommodate him, yet changed remarkably little. The “Top Ten” segment followed him, as did “Stupid Pet Tricks” and its inevitable biological heir, “Stupid Human Tricks”. Paul Shaffer still led the band – albeit one renamed the “CBS Orchestra” – Biff Henderson still managed the stage, and Larry “Bud” Melman still haunted the halls. Letterman’s Late Night toyed endlessly with the possibilities for unlocking a hidebound medium, delivered consistent surprises, yet never edged into anarchy. His Late Show continually tightened its defenses and refined its presentation but could never fundamentally alter his creative spirit. And if Dave ever needed to tweak the audience in addition to himself to make sure they were all still in it together, he didn’t hesitate. Even at 11:35.
*Ferguson’s cherubic successor, the uncrowned but unquestionable current “Happiest Man on Earth” James Corden, has modified this underlying “up late” joke much as Leno might’ve – “I’m sure you’ll be asleep very soon” – thus shifting the onus from something more communal, or actively, albeit playfully, critical of the viewer, into one playfully critical of the host. It’s a small but telling distinction, in both nightly approach and larger comedic worldview. Corden, as stated before, is warm and incredibly inoffensive, but so desperately eager to please he’s almost part cartoon. If the stoic Letterman ever attempted a standard Corden monologue, he’d likely be laid out from a stroke by the first of several built-in applause breaks.
Meyers inherited his Late Night from “hipper Leno” Jimmy Fallon – who is slowly but surely turning his own Tonight Show back into a cultural conversation piece – who inherited his from Conan O’Brien – who, following his own brushfire tenure as Tonight Show host, is now safely ensconced and gratifyingly wacky again on TBS – who, in turn, inherited his from Letterman. Such a line of succession is no accident, nor is the fact that, once Letterman became entrenched at CBS, he hand-picked the prickly, self-amused Ferguson, and not someone more marketable, to follow him. Each, to a man, was directly and formatively influenced by Letterman’s work behind the desk at NBC and CBS. Nor does it even end there, as Jimmy Kimmel, ABC’s laid-back but still plugged-in answer to Fallon’s earnest enthusiasm at 11:35, proved by opening Tuesday’s show with a disarming personal appreciation of Letterman, who, insofar as anyone aspires growing up to be a talk show host, was apparently little Jimmy’s guiding angel. The list of previously unknown facts grew and grew, as Kimmel unveiled analog family photos showing him at a party wearing a Late Night letterman’s jacket (then an item with a surprising amount of cool cache) and blowing out the candles on a birthday cake which read “L8 NITE”, then standing, years later, behind his car, proudly displaying that identical, now authentic, license plate. Kimmel’s band leader, his friend since the age of nine, delivered his own tribute to Late Show musical director Paul Shaffer, and Kimmel went so far as to implore his own audience to watch Letterman’s finale the next night instead. He’d sought initially to replace the show outright with a static placard, reading, “Go watch the Letterman finale”, but was rebuffed by cooler heads at ABC, who, nevertheless, graciously agreed to program a rerun instead.
All of this has the side-effect of making me a bit more interested in watching Jimmy Kimmel now, in spite of the fact that, otherwise, he doesn’t do a tremendous lot for me. In fact, he is indicative of the standard by which I generally tend to judge late night, which has raced past me in many ways and left me an outlier where once I wanted to belong. Ferguson was my only notable exception in the parade of homogenous, staid white men (though indeed white, he’s no stick in the mud) that populated the late night landscape, and the only one whose exploits I thought consistently worthy of my DVR.** Your mileage will almost certainly vary. By the occasion of David Letterman’s Late Show finale, I’d long since been forced to concede that I deeply admired the man and treasured his history much more than I ever enjoyed his comparatively shaky present. Like many children of the 1980s, still workshopping the sarcasm that would eventually help me survive high school, I was a tremendous fan of Late Night. It was appointment viewing, even for someone who wasn’t technically allowed to be up that late. I wanted desperately to be weird enough to watch Late Night with David Letterman, and on the occasions I was able, I felt included, and inspired, not merely rewarded.
**He’s gone now too, of course, ol’ Craigyfergs. First and foremost, I think we were united by our mutual contempt for the late night format…something we learned indirectly at the feet of, you guessed it, David Letterman. “The Late Late Show” then was so simultaneously chaotic and relaxed, with engaged, interesting interviews and regular, headlong detours into the goofy and nonsensical…and he got away with it for a decade. I hope someone is going to the trouble of archiving that show on Youtube, or, yes, even something less conveniently free. It was among the truest possible heirs to Letterman’s “Late Night”. Little wonder Dave decided to produce.
I grew up with Late Night. It affected my sensibilities, and warped my still developing sense of humor in wonderful ways. Dave never placed his guests or his audience on a pedestal, which had the effect of making him more relatable, and, it would turn out years later, downright (and justly) beloved. I still remember what an event his opening night at The Late Show was, with the grand unveiling of the refitted historic Ed Sullivan Theater and visits from A-list guests like Bill Murray and Billy Joel. My entire college dorm stayed up to watch it, though eventually I’d find my attention waning. As it turns out, 33 years is a long time, and each new Late Show broadcast I watched over the intervening years was a sort of forced recalibration for me, and unwelcome, because I had never, ever cared about the “show” – the lush theater, the professional production, the preordained glad-handing with celebrities, which even an interviewer of his caliber could only ever make so atypical. To me, Dave was the whole show. I could tell he still had the same old love of invention, and determination to always let whatever might happen happen. Still, I found myself conflating the Dave of 1987 with the David of 2007 and sometimes, only sometimes, not liking the little differences that revealed themselves.
Time works its wiles on us all, eventually, and, eventually, I stopped watching altogether.
My admiration never cooled, however. When Letterman recently announced his slate of retirement shows, there was no question to me that they were DVR-worthy occasions, though the first several did nothing at all for me. Dave seemed nonplussed by and, at times, actively uncomfortable at all the admiration being aimed his way. Few enough of the jokes landed, I thought, and few enough of the guests seemed like themselves, but rather like they had been subsumed by the occasion instead of transcending it (as Letterman would surely have preferred). After a penultimate show that saw uber-guest Bill Murray jump out of an actual cake and Dave introduce Bob Dylan as “the greatest songwriter of modern times” only for the famous iconoclast to sing jazz standard/Sinatra favorite “The Night We Called it a Day”, the finale featured refreshingly little but Letterman reminiscing on the past thirty-three years in his whimsical but unsentimental way. This is something its predecessors could’ve benefitted from mightily. Beginning with a montage of recent U.S. presidents (H.W. to Obama) mimicking Gerald Ford’s immortal, post-Watergate platitude, “our long national nightmare is over” in reference to his impending retirement, the finale stepped easily and confidently from point to point, mixing in classic pieces, such as Dave’s hilarious interactions with kids or the time he took over a Taco Bell drive-thru, with newly prepared material, such as a bit where Dave’s stirring goodbye to his staff ends up as him merely interrupting a breakroom conversation in holographic form, waving once with a smile, then disappearing, or a star-studded final “Top Ten” list, in which a cavalcade of Letterman regulars (such as Steve Martin, Tina Fey, Jerry Seinfeld, and Peyton Manning) unveiled the “Top Ten Things I’ve always wanted to say to Dave”***. The older material was heartily laugh-worthy and the newer bits, though hardly hilarious, were clever and fun without being needlessly showy. Dave has always seemed more at peace with his decision than his audience or legion of devotees ever would be, but here he finally seemed comfortable from top to bottom.
***A little more pointed than the naturally obscure “Top Ten” lists are often allowed, this final edition took full advantage of its overloaded celebrity roster, including mild, self-reflective jabs at Dave – Jim Carrey’s, “I’ve always found you to be a bit of an over-actor” – at the business – Chris Rock’s “I’m just glad your show is being given to another white guy” – and at finales themselves – Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale”. The fact that Seinfeld’s response to the slight was scripted didn’t keep it from still being funny.
Looking back one year from an arbitrary date of, let’s say, June 1, 2015, the television landscape of the past 7-8 years already has the feel of a post-apocalyptic ruin. Gone in just that stretch of time is HBO’s stupid but addictive True Blood, FX’s grimy, riveting Sons of Anarchy, the aforementioned, criminally underrated Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, the brilliant, lately-lamented Colbert Report, NBC’s sunny and sublime Parks and Recreation, FX’s snappy popcorn noir Justified, AMC’s magnificent Mad Men – one of the ten best television dramas of all time – and, now, the man who rewrote the rules of modern talk in the process of burning it all down, the great David Letterman (don’t even get me started on the forthcoming summer exodus of The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, right as the 2016 election cycle kicks into second gear). These departures leave gaping holes to fill, whether expertly/luckily (FX’s The Americans remains the best drama on television), clumsily (NBC doubled down on drama in the wake of Parks’ accelerated swansong and unwittingly shipped its two best comedy prospects, Community season six and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, off to streaming platforms), or inadequately (Does anyone honestly think second seasons of AMC’s Turn or Halt and Catch Fire will mitigate the absence of Mad Men in the slightest? To that point, could anything?). Stephen Colbert may be just the right outsider to claim the late night throne, though The Colbert Report was a terribly funny, culturally significant, damn near invaluable work of political satire, one I’d argue selfishly is objectively worth more than either the sad loss of David Letterman, which precipitated its fall, or the deserved rise of Stephen Colbert – this time sans quotation marks – to replace him, which, for the record, I think is probably going to be awesome. Finally, a late night show worth setting the DVR for again, just so long as he takes at least a few cues from his predecessor.
David Letterman was always the type to care deeply while nevertheless eschewing overt sentimentality, and he carried that through to the end. He waited countdown episode after countdown episode before finally offering extended, heartfelt thanks to his staff and crew, band and writers, guests and viewers, at the last minute introducing and thanking his wife and son before bidding us a final goodnight. The episode’s lone guest, Dave’s self-pronounced “favorite band”, the Foo Fighters, then exhaled the opening strains of their lovely, definitional 1997 hit, “Everlong”, which they had, of course, played on the show before, once during their 2014 week’s residency, and once, in 2000, on the night of Letterman’s emotional return following quintuple bypass surgery. It was a perfect melding of music with moment, and as the song kicked into gear, the tuxedo-clad Foos disappeared in favor of a marvelously assembled montage of thirty-three years’ (or 6000+ shows…“I was here for most of them,” he quipped) worth of memories – The Late Night opening, Chris Elliott, Andy Kaufman, Johnny Carson, Jack Hannah, Dave’s famous Alka-Seltzer dunk tank stunt, Howard Stern (in and out of drag), “Late Night Monkey-Cam”, Sonny & Cher reunited, Madonna, Julia Roberts, Springsteen rock-standing on Paul’s piano, Dave’s mother as a Winter Olympics correspondent, Larry “Bud” Melman at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, Dave slapping Butt-head before an appreciative Beavis, Dave receiving a birthday “flash” from Drew Barrymore, Will Ferrell as Harry Carey, Paul Shaffer as Carnac, the “Oprah Log”, the cupcake car, the Velcro jumpsuit, James Earl Jones and Mitt Romney reading individual, tailor-made “Top Ten” lists, Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, Walter Cronkite, Jimmy Carter, Paul Newman, Lou Reed, James Brown, Simon & Garfunkel reunited, Eddie Murphy, Richard Simmons, Mick Jagger, Don Rickles, human cannonballs and on-street field goal competitions, dizzying dozens of musical guests (from Boy George to the Beastie Boys) and, literally, hundreds of on-couch companions of every stripe, notoriety, and vintage, culminating in a flash-cutting, explosives-laden climax and a final frozen image of Dave saluting his audience as he walked out from the backstage area and into our lives. It was jaw-dropping. It was overwhelming. Though he spoke from the heart, the montage was more emotional than anything Dave ended up saying, or, indeed, probably could have. Or wanted to. It was a perfect, altogether proper, sendoff.
Legacies endure. Ask Kimmel, or any dozen working comedians you might randomly select.
Memories live on. Few television minds have ever been responsible for more of them, or better ones.