Thursday, May 21, 2015

So long, Dave, and thanks for all the fish

What do we do now?

The one-time iconoclast is now being treated like royalty as he ends his 33-year run of Late Night television.  With over 6000 episodes under his belt, he officially gets the title of "Iron Man" having beaten Johnny Carson by a mile in terms of endurance.  But, for all the accolades, Letterman was neither original nor all that funny.  In fact, most of the time he was just downright annoying, especially the way he treated his guests.

How many times did he make Terry Garr undress on his show?  Well beyond the point it was clear she was uncomfortable in the role  Tina Fey seemed all too happy to revive this antic during the last week of his run, albeit looking more like a Romanian weightlifter.   

Guests were foils for Letterman's antics.  Some gladly played into them, like Bill Murray.  Others seemed to squirm and grow visibly agitated.   Occasionally, a guest would beat Letterman at his own game, like Harmony Korine, whose three appearances on the Late Show are considered classics.  For once, it was Letterman who was uncomfortable, unable to get what he wanted out of the precocious talent.  Dave later claimed that the reason for the ban he placed on Korine was that he caught the young upstart rifling through Meryl Streep's purse back stage.

Letterman became ever more condescending as his ratings rose.  Still, he longed for Johnny Carson's time slot so that he could reach an even bigger audience, only to find himself taken down a peg when Jay Leno was tapped to succeed "Carnac the Magnificent."  However, CBS was only too happy to take Letterman off NBC's hands, giving him the time slot he coveted, opposite his new late night rival.

The styles couldn't be more different.  Leno gave his guests space, to the point that they even took over his shows at times.  Robin Williams had a field day one night, getting everyone, including Jay and Harry Connick Jr, involved in his antics.  Letterman would have never allowed a guest that kind of license, because ultimately everything about the Late Show was about himself.

What Letterman was good at was gimmicks like his Velcro suit, Stupid Pet Tricks, his Top Ten lists and odd recurring characters like Bud Melman.  There were some gems in there, but like everything else about his show, they grew stale quickly.  We just tend to remember our favorites.

It's not easy keeping a show going so long.  Letterman seemed at the end of his rope in 1999.  He underwent quintuple bypass surgery on his heart in 2000 and seemed to gain a new lease on life.  You figure he had Johnny Carson's late night record in the back of his mind, and as long as CBS was willing to pay him 8 figures, why not?  He made a quick recovery and enjoyed a good run the last decade.  But, with the rise of Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon, Letterman was no longer relevant.  Much like Carson in his last decade, when he pretty much turned over the show to guest hosts like Letterman himself.

Say cheese, Dave

Dave's biggest boost came last April, when he announced his retirement and CBS pegged Stephen Colbert to take over his show.  All of the sudden, everyone became interested in Letterman again.  This last week has been an orgy of guests and musicians, capped off by an overlong final episode that featured everyone who is anyone in the entertainment industry, and even the President himself.

It was far more than Letterman ever deserved, but after 33 years he has become an icon and icons apparently now warrant respect.  There he was in 2012 along side Led Zeppelin, Dustin Hoffman, Buddy Guy and Natalia Makarova being honored at Kennedy Center, just like Johnny Carson 20 years before.

I don't think it will take Stephen Colbert long to make us forget David Letterman.  While he too is about himself, it is in a much more self-deprecating way that we can all enjoy.   I just hope that Dave doesn't get it into his head to mount a comeback when he gets bored with retirement. 


  1. I divided my late night viewing equally between Letterman and Leno whose respective styles were so different. Leno was relaxed and likeable. Letterman was the irreverent gadfly you would either get or you didn’t. I got him because I knew better than to take him too seriously as did viewers who were turned off by him. Deciding which one to watch was usually decided on the basis of what guests were slated for the evening.


  2. I don't think there was much to get with Letterman. He broke up the routine early in his career as a Late Night host, but once he settled into the role, it became a routine just like Carson.