Why Letterman Mattered

Comedy Features
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Johnny Carson didn’t work Mondays. The Tonight Show would often have guest hosts start off the week, usually stand-up comedians like Joey Bishop, David Brenner and Joan Rivers, but there was no guest host on February 2, 1982. That night’s Tonight Show was a rerun from 1980, featuring Mariette Hartley, Robert Goulet and Rodney Dangerfield. Goulet sang, Dangerfield told jokes, and Hartley probably had to remind America that she wasn’t James Garner’s wife, no matter how close they seemed in their Polaroid ads. It was a representative line-up for Carson’s Tonight Show, with a Broadway singer and Vegas comedian your grandparents (or even great-grandparents) would’ve loved. It was a talk show for the people who won the war, who brought the first TV sets into their new suburban homes, who in 1982 were staring down retirement and Social Security and a world that was passing them by.

The Tonight Show was 90 minutes long when this episode first aired in 1980, but was cut down to only an hour later that year. It’s possible one or more of those guests were edited out of the rerun in 1982. Dropping that half-hour lead to a crucial change in NBC’s late-night schedule. Tom Snyder’s more laidback and intimate talk show Tomorrow followed Carson throughout the 1970s. Initially an hour-long show, it took over the 12:30 AM to 1:00 AM slot from The Tonight Show in 1980. That 12:30 AM time slot opened up when NBC cancelled Snyder’s show at the start of 1982. By February 2, 1982, NBC was ready to introduce a new show to follow The Tonight Show.

After Goulet finished singing “If Ever I Would Leave You,” or whatever he sang on that Tonight Show rerun, viewers who were slow to move their dial saw an odd sight. A small, round man in a black suit walked out on a darkened stage and warned the viewers of what they were about to see. Paraphrasing the movie Frankenstein, he warned of “a man of science who sought to create a show after his own image without reckoning upon God.” The camera faded to a group of dancing girls struggling through a routine on a cramped stage as the kind of disco music that was already out of fashion but still prevalent on network television ad campaigns played. David Letterman, the host of this new show, appeared through their peacock feather-adorned headdresses, and immediately set the tone for the next 33 years of late-night by making fun of his audience, his network and the fact that he was somehow hosting a talk show.

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After over 20 years on CBS, the media-driven silliness of the “Late Night Wars” and the slow dissipation of his adventurous spirit, it can be hard to remember how revolutionary David Letterman was in the 1980s. Before The Simpsons and Seinfeld rewrote the rules of network comedy, before irony briefly consumed all culture and every character on TV became a smart-ass, David Letterman both celebrated and mocked the entire concept of television. With his satisfied smirk, his absurd skits and the constant admission that everything done on his show was basically a ridiculous waste of time, Letterman destroyed TV while making it better and smarter. He was the first TV host of the post-modern age, the first to respond to the societal rot of the ’70s and the black comedy of the Reagan Revolution with the appropriate sense of weariness and oblivion. Even Saturday Night Live, vaunted as a countercultural intrusion when it launched in 1975, felt less like a new comedic attitude than the dregs and vestiges of the late ’60s finally settling down on television. Letterman was different. His show was new and exciting. Like the nickname applied to Paul Shaffer’s band, it felt dangerous.

From the very first episode Letterman threw the audience’s expectations of a talk show into the dumpster. Larry “Bud” Melman’s horror movie introduction and the tongue-in-cheek dancing girls fed into a monologue delivered in air quotes. The show immediately established its palpable ambivalence towards New York City (“one of the most exciting cities in the Tri-State Area”), and later delivered a tribute to and parody of old television with an appearance from the ’60s children’s TV show host Don “Mr. Wizard” Herbert, a full year before Nickelodeon reintroduced him to the world, Letterman’s first episode was an instant seismic cultural shift away from Johnny Carson. Carson had Goulet and Dangerfield; Letterman’s first guest was Bill Murray, at the time a burgeoning young movie superstar and the coolest guy to ever pass through SNL, and who to this day shares Letterman’s combination of irreverence and Midwestern sincerity.

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The term “alternative comedy” was coined in England in the late 1970s, but it wasn’t commonly used in 1982, especially not in America. Late Night with David Letterman was ground zero for alternative comedy in this country. At a time before cable covered the country like kudzu, when even if you were able to get cable you only got a couple dozen extra channels beyond the five or six you could pick up with an antenna, the comedy options on television were scarce and traditional in 1982. Maybe you’d catch some of the more adventurous British stuff on PBS, but Saturday Night Live was a wasteland when Eddie Murphy wasn’t on-screen. SCTV was brilliant but barely watched, and the sitcom renaissance of the ’70s, lead by Norman Lear and MTM Enterprises, had fizzled out. “Alternative comedy” can feel like a misnomer today, considering how prevalent it is on cable and the internet, but in 1982 Letterman was a genuine alternative, and pretty much the only one on TV.

12:30 AM maybe wasn’t a prime timeslot, but it was still on network TV, available in basically every home in America, and Letterman and his crew of writers used that valuable space to focus on a niche style of comedy. They were essentially entertaining themselves. They devoted network TV time to the stupid tricks of regular people and their pets, to dropping stuff off the top of buildings, to launching a Velcro-clad Letterman against a Velcro wall. Letterman approached celebrity interviews as a joke, and although he could often seem dismissive in those early days, if the guest shared Letterman’s attitude it could make for interviews that were both funnier than what you’d see on Carson and also somehow more personal and revealing. He’d regularly bring crew members on camera, and although their lack of polish was part of the humor, Letterman rarely made them the butt of the joke. The show’s spirit in those early days could be summed up by the well-meaning, self-satirical pointlessness of the Top Ten lists, which began as a quick, off-handed bit before somehow turning into Letterman’s signature schtick.

The show’s almost confrontational form of comedy was best embodied by Chris Elliott. A writer on the show, he’d occasionally interrupt Letterman with surreal skits and characters, like “The Conspiracy Guy” and “The Guy Under the Seats,” often angrily chastising a dismissive Letterman. Like the show, Elliott was aggressive in his refutation of traditional concepts of comedy. The joke wasn’t just the absurdity of the material itself, though, but the very thought that a network like NBC would broadcast something this silly and ramshackle. Letterman kept everything grounded with a self-awareness that rarely verged on cynicism, without the forced veneer of hipness that Dennis Miller displayed on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update.

The best and most transgressive part of Letterman’s first two decades on TV were his remote segments. Whereas his eventual rival Jay Leno regularly mocked common people with his asinine “Jaywalking” segment, Letterman’s remotes were driven by his antipathy towards fame and celebrity. Like the skits featuring his crew members, these segments rarely turned passersby or neighborhood business people into objects of ridicule. When Letterman infamously interviewed Chinese restaurant owners about Alan Alda’s preferences in 1982, the real target was vapid celebrity journalism, and the restaurateurs were made complicit in Letterman’s parody. From fast food drive-throughs to car culture to the grit of New York’s Port Authority, these remotes freed Letterman from the confines of the studio and spread his sensibility across American life.

A vital part of Letterman’s early years was the regular belittling of NBC’s corporate owners RCA and General Electric. Although there were limits to Letterman’s willingness to attack corporate America—watch cartoonist Harvey Pekar’s last appearance on the NBC show if you haven’t seen it yet—his antagonism towards the companies that owned his show was, like so much of the sensibility of early Late Night, a precursor to the attitudes of Generation X. You can draw a straight line from Pekar showing up on Late Night in a “Stop NBC” shirt to Kurt Cobain wearing that “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” t-shirt on the cover of Rolling Stone. It’s impossible to watch Letterman’s attempt to deliver a fruit basket to GE’s headquarters and not think of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, which came out over three years after Letterman’s segment first aired.

By the end of the 1980s Letterman’s style of comedy was colonizing all of television. Chris Elliott left to star in Get a Life, a brilliant sit-com parody that deconstructed the form more drastically than Seinfeld. The Simpsons had the same irreverent tone, and used the freedom of animation to tackle almost every aspect of American culture. Smart comedy started to sprout throughout cable, from the Higgins Boys and Gruber’s anti-show on the nascent Comedy Channel, to Garry Shandling’s two very different pay-cable satires, the late ’80s sit-com parody It’s Garry Shandling’s Show on Showtime and Fox and the withering ’90s show business satire The Larry Sanders Show on HBO. Letterman begat a chain of smart, subversive comedy that extended through Sanders and Mr. Show into Adult Swim, Arrested Development, the American Office, 30 Rock and any number of cult hits on broadcast, cable and the internet. Throughout the ’80s he laid the foundation for the future of television comedy, and by the early ’90s he seemed poised to take over The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson retired.

Of course that never happened. Of course Letterman wound up on CBS after an acrimonious split with NBC that is all too well-documented. And although Letterman’s move to a new network and an earlier timeslot might have made his new show feel a little safer (along with both his growing older and his style growing more familiar and widespread), Letterman never lost the love and respect of comedians and fans of comedy.

It’s telling that, more than Carson, Leno or any other host, Letterman was the primary influence on some of today’s top talk show hosts. Conan O’Brien, his successor on NBC’s Late Night and the truest heir to his sensibility, recently wrote in Entertainment Weekly that “not one single writer/performer in the last 35 years has had [Letterman]’s seismic impact on comedy.” Conan cut to the heart of Letterman’s importance, explaining how “Dave’s show was that rare phenomenon: a big, fat show-business hit that seemingly despised show business. Dave didn’t belong, and he had no interest in belonging…Where late night television had once provided comfort, this man reveled in awkwardness.”

Jimmy Kimmel, whose existence on the traditionally late-night talk show averse ABC has always felt removed from the boorish politics of late-night, laid out the central point of this entire essay when he wrote in Time that “none of us who discovered Letterman on our own and claimed him as our own will ever be able to satisfactorily explain to the younger people who didn’t what he did, what he meant and what he means.”

The bulk of Letterman’s career unfolded on CBS, and although he did some fantastic work there, and became a better, more empathetic interviewer as he grew older, his comedy legacy would be intact if he had left television when he split from NBC’s Late Night in 1993. His CBS show was less edgy, even if Letterman was visibly more comfortable. He became more openly political, which was welcomed by those who agreed with him, and used as another line of attack for those who didn’t. His show became comfortable, a familiar old friend, and in a way that’s the worst thing you could say about somebody who had been such a transformative figure. Watching his show unwind over the last few weeks has reminded us of his formidable skills as a talk show host, but despite Letterman’s best, most modest and Midwestern attempts to stifle any sad-eyed eulogizing, it’s been a depressing show to watch. Longtime guests have returned every night for months, and they all act like they’ll never see Dave again. It’s like a months-long, nightly eulogy for a guy who’s very much still alive.

When his last regular episode wraps up tonight, with Bill Murray returning to close out the show he helped open twice, the sense of loss for the Letterman generation will be unmatched by any other TV farewell. It’s a single sharp jab that’ll make us confront the passage of time and the death of our youth as clearly and immediately as a mortgage or child. Letterman taught us how to watch television, how to critically engage with our culture, how to laugh at both the banal trivialities of life and the crushing weight of an often thankless and aimless existence. David Letterman changed television and how we look at the world around us. He deserves his retirement, he’s more than earned his private time with his family, but for a generation of Americans his absence will sting like the loss of a father. And somehow he did it by hosting a talk show.

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