Monday, April 7, 2014

From The Greatest City In The World

Late last week, David Letterman announced that he is going to retire.
Good on him, of course; he’s in his late sixties, and no doubt he just wants to not go to work every day. But it’s hard to forget the impact he had on modern pop culture.

Letterman was my very first experience with “adult” humor—that is, sophisticated humor that wasn’t related to Disney movies or coyotes lighting sticks of TNT.* I would stay up late during the summer and half-watch Johnny Carson (he was good, but I didn’t appreciate the interviews) and then get ready for Letterman. Back then, The Tonight Show was more or less the only choice; many had tried, and failed, to compete against Carson. Letterman had the next best thing—a show after Carson. The audience was smaller and the budget tinier, but he wasn’t competing against the man who had slain so many before him.

In retrospect, this smaller audience and smaller budget worked in his favor. For one thing, he had much more freedom to be absurd. You would never see Carson getting dunked into a tank of water wearing an Alka-Seltzer suit. He wouldn’t be throwing watermelons off the top of a building. Sure, these were silly, seemingly childish skits, and yet Letterman’s cranky-old-man shtick managed to take the absurdity of the situation and ground it in a misplaced sense of normalcy. Yeah, jumping on a trampoline wearing a Velcro suit is stupid, but if straight man Letterman is in on the gag, it can’t be that bad.

Secondly, a smaller budget forced him to be more creative. When you don’t have money, you’re reduced to throwing junk off of buildings—and that’s okay, because Letterman’s gift was to take these silly premises and turn them into comedy gold. You add to that a healthy dose of “standardized” jokes (the Top Ten list would predate “list journalism” by a few decades) and you had just a perfect mix of surrealism, solid-base comedy, and a cranky personality turned pleasantly engaging.

During the 80’s, Letterman’s only real misstep was his interviewing (and, by extension, his personality). Being the crank worked to blunt the ridiculousness of the show, but when chatting one on one with celebrities he often came across as a jerk.  Most celebrities understood it and went along with it, and some called him out on it—most notably Cher, but others as well.
Still, when Carson retired, many thought it was a travesty that Jay Leno was picked over Letterman. By this time, over ten years on, Letterman had proved that there was a market for his style of comedy. Nothing wrong with Carson or Leno, of course, but their style was safe and plodding, with comedy aimed squarely at the older demographics that stayed home. Letterman, by contrast, could state, quite fairly, that younger people would stay home if they were given a reason to.

You all know the rest of the story: Letterman jumped to CBS and Leno stayed at NBC. They both could claim victory; for nearly the entire run that they competed with one another, Leno had the larger audience but Letterman had the younger, more lucrative audience. Letterman had his ups and downs—he garnered a huge amount of goodwill during his heart surgery; not so much when details of an intern affair were released. The jump an hour earlier (and a larger budget) did little to change him; by that time, the experimentation he could get away with at 12:30 was now the norm. But in the end his contributions to not only late night but to comedy in generally should not be overlooked.
*Not that coyotes lighting sticks of TNT is bad comedy, mind you. It's just nice to have some variety.


  1. I agree with you!! Letterman was like the Hertz...#2 We Try Harder. His dropping things from the roof, walking, introducing the neighborhood... all good stuff. I found Leno to be a really good stand-up but a boring Tonight Show host.. which, is maybe what Letterman would have become if he had gotten the Tonight Show.

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