Thursday, May 21, 2015

Late Night Leader

After announcing his retirement just over a year ago, last night David Letterman put the period on an unprecedented thirty-three year run of sitting behind a desk, cracking wise, and making America smile. Spanning two shows and two networks (Late Night on NBC from 1982 to 1993, and Late Show on CBS from 1993 to now), not to mention five presidents, countless monologue minutes and innumerable "Top Ten" lists, Letterman's legacy is substantial not only for the unique brand of off-kilter, self-referential comedy he ushered in, but for how he normalized that kind of humor in the mainstream.

On a personal level, I never did get to see Dave during his NBC era. Late Night was on too late for me to be allowed to watch it during that pre-Hulu, pre-DVR wilderness, so my first exposure to his show was when Late Show debuted on CBS in fall of '93. By then the dust was settling from the first late night wars, with the feeling among many that Letterman was wrongly passed over in favor of Jay Leno after Johnny Carson abdicated The Tonight Show in 1992. At least initially, you have to think NBC wondered if they'd made the right decision. Initial tune-in for Letterman's CBS skein was substantial, and it remained dominant for several months.

As legend has it, actor Hugh Grant's 1995 appearance on Leno's show mere days after an arrest for prostitution was what finally turned the tide for Jay, putting him in front of Letterman for the remainder of their time in head-to-head competition. Nonetheless, with both fighters now out of the ring, Dave's place in the record books is secure for having hosted in late night longer than anyone in history, even his idol, Carson. Sometimes it seems like the late night talk show represents an antiquated model that's past its sell-by date in this age of viral videos and reality TV, but there's a reason these are institutions.

They give us the comfort of the familiar, and as such we only become aware of how comfortable they made us when that familiarity is gone. Stephen Colbert's Late Show era doesn't start until September, but with Leno's Tonight Show tenure receding into rearview (here's what I said about his farewell last year), it seems almost irrelevant to rehash the "who was better?" argument about Leno and Letterman. Suffice it to say, both were consummate showmen skilled at their craft, albeit in very different ways. Where Leno's obsessive aim (for good or for ill) was to make the most people laugh, Letterman was just as happy to make himself laugh --and that in turn made everyone laugh. Here's Dave's final farewell from last night's show:

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