I was just about the ideal age for Late Night with David Letterman. The program was there for me throughout my teenaged years, providing absurdist, anarchic, highly ironic comedy at the exact point that my swarming hormones made me inclined to reject staid sincerity and childish silliness. Letterman operated his show with a thin undercoating of hostility for the very showbiz conventions he was charged with upholding, and yet his jagged view of the proceedings was tempered by a Midwestern decency that was very familiar to me as I watched in my small town Wisconsin home. It was this latter quality that his bookers were constantly exploiting by filling the guest’s chair with individuals sure to make Letterman uncomfortable, whether it was the sexual explicitness of Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the lunatic ravings of Brother Theodore, or the persistent crankiness of Harvey Pekar. Sure, that choice was partially driven by the relative difficulty the show faced in those early years nabbing big-name guests, but there was a clear sense that everyone also knew that placing unpredictable people across from Letterman made for great television.
I was enough of a disciple of the device then still referred to as the idiot box (hardly a term that gets bandied about in the Breaking Bad era of televised entertainment, no matter how many Kardashians infest the landscape) to recognize all the ways Letterman and his team were bending the rules into bold new shapes. Led by certified genius head writer Merrill Markoe (who I hope and assume will be lauded at some point during tonight’s momentous telecast), the Late Night creators sharply deconstructed the very sort of program they were creating, beginning as early as the third episode, which found guest Hank Aaron being stopped as he left the studio, asked by a sports reporter for a “post-game” interview. That sort of inventiveness extended to experiments that consumed entire episodes, such as the custom-made show, the program on which they spent the hour gradually rotating the image, and — my personal favorite — the instance when they supposedly sent the entire audience home and instead staged the whole thing from Letterman’s office, culminating in Teri Garr, one of Late Night‘s most dependable guests, taking a shower in the adjoining bathroom. Those are larger scale examples of the “Hell, let’s give it a try” spirit of the show, but it was completely pervasive, found in the impulse to fill out a national television program with a steamroller crushing stuff or strapping a camera and a pair of roller skates onto a monkey. Every night was a new adventure, always charted by restless comic minds.
Given the outsider status of Letterman and his show back then — sometimes cultivated, usually genuine — it’s difficult to think of the most famous alumnus of Ball State University as a national institution, but that’s precisely what he is (he’s a Kennedy Center honoree, for God’s sake). Mere longevity is a partial explanation for that, if only because the added time has given time for his pronounced influence to catch up with him. Letterman leaves a late night that is filled with performers who owe more to him than the do to Johnny Carson, an assertion that would undoubtedly fill him with dismay. That makes it no less true. Had Letterman gotten the Tonight Show post he deserved upon Carson’s retirement, there’s no way he would have devoted lengthy segments to duplicating the Password game show of old (in part because Letterman’s done it for real), but Jimmy Fallon’s impulse to just play around in whatever way tickles him is a direct extension of Letterman’s bored revolt against celebrity chatting. There’s a deeper knowingness and a resolute intelligence across much of modern comedy that owes a lot to Letterman (and, it bears repeating, Markoe).
A common complaint about weak drama is that a plot is built in which there’s nothing really at stake. Letterman recognized the same potential flaw could do in comedy, where complacency and safety are even more deadly. That’s why Bill Murray was the go-to guest for the most important episodes, the debuts of a new show or, just last night, the penultimate edition before the lights are put out for good. In a Playboy interview, Letterman talked about Murray’s appearance on the first Late Night:
“And it was very funny.” For all the just celebration of Letterman’s many innovations and his winning moments of serious reflection (far more prominent later in his career), I have a strong sense his bottom line for worthiness didn’t ultimately budge much from that simple phrase over the years. If it was very funny, it was worth his time. More importantly, it was worth the viewers’ collective time.
Ultimately, what I appreciate most about Letterman is that he was a broadcaster to the very end, and that’s the quality that hasn’t really translated to his entertainment world descendants. (There’s a reason Regis Philbin was the most frequent guest, by a wide margin, on Letterman’s programs. Together, they’re the last of a dying breed, at least within the confines of television.) The kid who hosted a college radio show back in the nineteen-sixties was always there, at least somewhat. He worked his way through an hour of television like he knew he had to hit everything on the broadcast clock and still catch AP Network News at precisely the right moment at the top of the hour. That aspect of Letterman’s approach may have been blunted when the show moved to CBS and became The Late Show. The increased prominence, budget, and respect from the network that employed him allowed spectacle to overtake scrappy ingenuity. I was reminded of much the show had changed when the cable network Trio started airing old Late Nights in 2002, and I watched an episode from roughly twenty years earlier on which Letterman interview a welder about the accuracy of the welding scenes in Flashdance, the sort of bit that wouldn’t have made it past the brainstorming stage in the offices on the Ed Sullivan Theater. In recent years, those instances when Letterman was clearly a broadcaster again — just sitting behind his desk and speaking extemporaneously about the physicians who performed quintuple bypass surgery on him, his feelings in the wake of the September 11th attacks, or, best of all, remembering Johnny Carson shortly after the legend’s death — were the clear highlights of the show, arguably because they were the points when he was most clearly himself.
I had a profound appreciation for Carson, and I found it moving and significant when he left the air. (And I can’t overstate how impressed I was that he treated his retirement with real finality, rebuffing almost any attempts to get him back on the air for any reason. Notably, the only one he’d do it for was Letterman.) But losing Carson was losing part of history, a person who’d always been there on my television. Bidding goodbye to Letterman is different for me, in large part because I remember when his Late Night was just beginning, perplexing legions and offering a secret handshake of whip-smart invention and withering ridicule to the rest of us. Hell, I remember watching his morning show and marveling at how different a television program could be. As it turned out, at least one revolution was televised, and I watched it in real time. For that, I am grateful. My oh my, we had some fun.