A TV Pioneer’s Sarcastic, Sentimental Farewell: David Letterman’s Final Late Show
One of the most amazing, annoying aspects of watching TV on a regular basis is the way shows can come to feel like a permanent part of your life before disappearing without a trace. This is especially true of talk shows. The format could not be simpler: mostly, they consist of a host sitting behind a desk interviewing guests in front of a live audience. Around since the beginning of the medium, it seemed nothing or no one could change the genre.
Along came David Letterman to make his mark on talk shows. He spent so long hosting a late-night show (33 years) that it is now easy to forget how he transformed the format. In 1982, when his Late Night debuted on NBC, he was told by the network that he could not copy any of the comic ideas of his lead-in and mentor, Johnny Carson. No problem, he reasoned; he wanted to do his own thing anyway. Letterman in the 1980s hosted a program considered the equal of Saturday Night Live in its ability to make fun of TV conventions. He liked offbeat guests; many people had never heard of Pee-wee Herman, for example, before his multiple appearances on Letterman. Who can forget the Velcro suit? The Alka-Seltzer one? Or the elevator races, in which he got NBC sportscaster Bob Costas to lend a ridiculously dramatic element to a silly contest?
Despite his show’s late start time (12:30 Eastern and Pacific Time), people started watching (and talking about) Letterman’s show outside of college campuses, where he had a huge following. Cher appeared on his show one night in 1986 and called him a name I can’t repeat here. Letterman had fun with the name, telling people the beeped-out term she used for him was “awfully nice fellow.” True to his nature, he invited her on the show several more times over the years; they established an uneasy rapport that made for good television. This was the secret to Letterman’s appeal: a willingness to tease or to say silly things to antagonize a guest yet delivered with a charm that let everyone know it was only a joke. More often than not, the guest got the joke.
Julia Roberts (a favorite guest over the years) told the host on her last appearance that she was scared to go on his show the first time because she was convinced he would make her look stupid in no time. She went on to say that she realized he could be hard on guests because “you hate stupid people.” “Thus explaining my self-loathing,” shot back the host, who had exhibited a great deal of it over the years.
This willingness to be annoying at times ultimately kept Letterman from getting his dream job. When Carson announced his retirement in 1991, Letterman (and apparently Carson, who certainly enjoyed his act) assumed he would take over The Tonight Show. NBC decided otherwise, choosing Jay Leno, a funny but decidedly non-threatening comedian, to take over the franchise. Having needled the network mercilessly over the years, it was little surprise that Letterman would move on. When CBS came a-calling, he jumped for a huge sum of money and the chance to compete with Leno head-on.
Late Show debuted in August 1993. For roughly a year, Letterman defeated Leno in the ratings. Then Hugh Grant’s arrest for soliciting a prostitute in Hollywood occurred. Leno’s interview with the embarrassed star vaulted him into a lead he held for the rest of his time against Letterman. After a while, Dave seemed to settle into a bit of a funk. His show still funny but not as much as in the 1980s, he seemed to be angrier than before.
At this point, his personal life intervened to give his fans a chance to see him in a new light. In 2000, he had to take several weeks off the show to have emergency heart bypass surgery. On his first night back, he introduced the doctors and nurses he credited with saving his life. For the famously reserved and private host, it was a rare look into his life. The next year, he returned to the show only six days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that left New Yorkers so traumatized. Admitting he did not want to do the show yet (he did not do a monologue that night and for several weeks thereafter), he asked, when discussing the terrorists and their motives, “Will that ever make any sense to you at all?”
This marked the start of a more serious Letterman, one who liked having newsmen and newsmakers on his show. He clearly took pride in the fact that presidential candidates considered an appearance on his show a must during the fall campaign. One of the funniest bits on his later shows was the night John McCain, in the midst of the financial meltdown during his 2008 presidential candidacy, cancelled his scheduled appearance on the show. He argued that the crisis would keep him away. During his show, Dave showed McCain being interviewed by then-CBS anchor Katie Couric. Justifiably angry, he let the Republican candidate have it for the rest of his show. The episode was so talked about that when McCain finally did appear a few days later he apologized, stating “I screwed up.” A few weeks later Meryl Streep, appearing to promote a movie, admitted she had a bad cold but she was there because “I was afraid to cancel.”
One more event in Letterman’s life showed him in a new and different light. In 2003, at the age of 56, he became a father. For the remainder of his run, anytime he talked about his son Harry, his face lit up in a way difficult to believe before. In a way, Harry’s arrival into the world both made his father more lovable and less of what he was. A man gushing over his son and his guests’ kids cannot manage the same level of cutting-edge humor that had marked Dave for so long. When he announced his retirement in April 2014, it seemed like he may have held on too long.
For months after his surprise announcement, the show continued on as if nothing was changing. Even when Letterman had his successor Stephen Colbert on, it felt like his departure was way into the future. Only in the past month has it felt more like he was saying goodbye (as opposed to Carson, who spent pretty much all of his last year on the air bidding the audience farewell). Favorite guests made their last appearance: Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey (who it took Dave so many years to win over), Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Murray, the craziest of all Dave’s guests and the one who most perfectly captured the anything-goes appeal of his show.
By the final night, Letterman looked like he was ready to admit how much his fans’ support meant to him even as he maintained his air of self-deprecation. He interviewed no one but had 10 of “our friends” to do his final Top 10 list. True to form, it was full of the casual insults to the host that he seems to love. He told the audience that “I can’t tell you how flattering, embarrassing and gratifying it has all been,” he told them. He ended the show with a simple “that’s all I got” as he introduced his favorite rock band, Foo Fighters, The band cancelled a South American tour to perform a favorite song of Dave’s, Everlong, at his first show back from heart surgery. Now they were performing it again as a montage of Letterman’s years on TV rolled past. Once again Letterman had found a way to both show his heart while getting away before things got too sloppy.
In terms of ratings, David Letterman was never a champion. Despite that, he changed TV talk shows and comedy. All late-night talk shows that have come in his wake feel a need to joke about the artifice of the format. Comedy such as the kind performed by Jay Leno feels old-fashioned and dull as well. The future of late night is to find ways to carry on Letterman’s legacy. He was an innovator, a sentiment he would not agree with, but surely would find reassuring. He will be missed by all who remember his glory days and anyone who appreciates a healthy dose of irreverence on television.
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Senior Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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