I was with a British friend at a baseball game the other day. We were discussing the rumors of Letterman’s imminent retirement, and he told me that he never got why Letterman was so iconic. It’s tough to explain why a man like Dave would be iconic to someone who wasn’t around for his prime (or whose parents weren’t) because David Letterman did more to shape everything we know about American TV than any man of his generation.
It’s very easy to dismiss Dave in an era when every TV show competes with the latest youtube sensation for the funniest random shit. But in the 80’s and 90’s, when mainstream American culture was so bought and paid for by corporations, it was a sheer stroke of luck that landed a man as weird as David Letterman on television.
The secret of Letterman’s early success was all too simple: do the show you want to do, because nobody’s watching. He had nothing to lose, so he became the American mainstream’s bridge to It’s counterculture. It wasn’t just the inspired randomness of putting stupid pet tricks on, or the Top Ten Lists that got old thirty years ago, or throwing large objects out of the 30th floor window in Rockefeller Center, or dressing up in suits made of Velcro or Alka-Seltzer, or using funny-looking old people like Bud Mehlman and Leonard Tepper in humiliating ways. It was also that he practically launched the mainstream careers of REM, Talking Heads, Warren Zevon, Chris Rock, and Jon Stewart. It was that he brought on ‘favorite’ guests like Charles Grodin and Richard Simmons for the particular reason that he clearly couldn’t stand them and they couldn’t stand him. It was that he would have Siskel and Ebert run out into the theater mid-summer with a wheelbarrow of snowballs to throw at the audience. It was that he would have Paul Newman stand up from the audience and announce that he thought he was going to a production of Cats. It was that when he thought a guest was a particular waste of space - think Crispin Glover, Joachim Phoenix, Justin Bieber, Donald Trump, Lindsey Lohan, Courtney Love, Lady Gaga, Farrah Fawcett, Drew Barrymore, Madonna, - he let them know in front of millions of people that they were idiots, and it wasn’t just celebrity lightweights either. Neither Bill O’Reilly nor Rod Blagojevich nor John McCain came out looking good after sparring with Letterman. In fact, every person grateful for a Barack Obama presidency owes a huge debt of gratitude to Letterman. The night after the economic downturn in September was the same night that John McCain begged off the Letterman show so he could rush back to Washington, only for Letterman to capture footage of him on camera in the CBS news studio. It was, definitively, the moment America decided that John McCain was too incompetent to run this country.
Jay Leno might have commanded America, but Letterman commanded ‘The American Carnival.’ After Ed Sullivan, the non-stop parade of American entertainment didn’t go to Johnny Carson - whose guests would have to pass a prestige test for the country’s consumption. Johnny’s persona was based in no small part on ‘class’. Johnny Carson was a naturally dapper, telegenic, and urbane. For someone like Carson to dress up in a skit as a genie would get a laugh simply because ridiculousness seemed so far removed from a guy like Johnny. But the persona of David Letterman, a man as ugly as Carson was handsome, is based on 'chaos.' Dave looks like a man who knows about chaos, and he basically turned his shows into a vaudeville house in which he was the MC. He simply took in everything he could find, made a beef stew out of it, and stood out of its way. Before Dave, television was supposed to be scripted, canned, predictable. But Dave let a wrestler hit Andy Kauffman onstage, he publically berated Harvey Pekar, he did sixteen interviews with Brother Theodore - a “Standup Tragedian,” he got Sonny and Cher (who called Dave an 'asshole') to sing together for the first time in twenty years. For thirty years, America turned on Dave to see what a weird country we live in.
Letterman was a comic of the 70s, released on the world in the wake of George Carlin and Richard Pryor, which meant that he made his bones doing standup gigs in places far seedier than today’s comics ever have to venture. If you compared the seediness of that era’s punk venues against their comedy clubs, it’s no fair bet that the punks would win. The venues in which comics had to work were disgusting, drug ridden, and often violent. It also endowed the comics of his time with an almost mythic street cred. Who could possibly know what joke might piss off a psycho or gangster? Purely from a comedy point of view, there was no better time to be a comic. But Leno and Letterman rose up from those circumstances because they were fundamentally unsuited for those lives - they were clearly more clean-cut, less vulgar, less drug-dependent, than most of their colleagues (who were probably funnier). It’s easy to imagine Jay Leno as loathing every minute of it and dreaming of the day he could get something better, but it’s equally easy to imagine Dave relishing the chance to go up against an audience who might be offended by him. Letterman has a personality so dominating that he can tell anyone exactly what he thinks and get away with it.
Jay worked his way up from a Boston blue collar background to become America’s late-night king. To Jay, success is about ‘making it’, and he would never consciously do anything to disappoint the bosses or audiences which allowed his ascent. He worked so hard to rise up that he became his job, and seemed to have no personality outside of his show’s routines. I don’t doubt that Dave worked nearly as hard to get to where he was, but Dave was a squarely middle class, Middle America kid who even in his 60’s seems like he just pulled a giant prank. He didn’t seem to care whether or not he was a success in show business, all he cared about was the fun he’d have along the way.
And because Dave seems so secure within himself, he is able to do things no other comic of his time would ever be able to. Everyone remembers Dave as the first TV host to go back on the air after 9/11. It was a gravely serious show, during which he spoke for every American’s bewilderment and held the hand of Dan Rather as Rather broke down in tears. Imagine Jay Leno having that much security within himself, hell, imagine Johnny Carson working up the sincerity to do it. But we should also remember Dave as the guy who spoke up in public about his extra-marital affair after he was blackmailed. The admission was so casual, as though he was talking about what he had for lunch, that we wonder how anybody could ever think Dave could be blackmailed. We accepted both equally from Dave, because he was Dave, and there wasn’t a single emotion he’d ever hold back.
‘Weird’ has so much currency in today’s culture that it’s lost its cache. In a world where computer geeks make more money than anyone else, and American culture is made from a tapestry of niches, the whole country seems to be based around Dave’s view of it. Dave may never have gotten the Tonight Show, but if the Late Night Wars were truly a war, then Dave won it handily. Every major talk show host of the next generation - Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Joel McHale, Chelsea Handler, Craig Kilborn, Craig Ferguson - is a variation on the model of Letterman. The exception to this rule is Jimmy Fallon, who, like Leno, is a throwback to the Carson model of charming the audience rather than assaulting them, and such is charm's expendability that NBC simply threw Leno out for a newer model of himself.
But there is now a new model of talk show host which has broken free of the Letterman influence by building on it. Jon Stewart may have started out as a Letterman protege, but his proximity to the source allowed him to build upon Letterman’s model. Stewart takes Letterman’s relish of this country’s weirdness and uses it to put a magnifying glass onto American politics and culture, a model that Stephen Colbert has built upon (please don’t replace Dave Stephen). Just as Letterman’s chaos was the next logical step from Carson’s control, Stewart’s critiques are the next logical step from Letterman’s chaos.
But what’s ironic is that Jon Stewart didn’t seek out a new pattern. He simply wanted to be David Letterman, just as David Letterman wanted to be Johnny Carson, and just as Johnny Carson wanted to be Jack Benny. One day soon there will be a great comedian who wants to be Jon Stewart, and he will come up with an even newer model of how to run a talk show.