As David Letterman has prepared for his last show, airing tomorrow night on CBS, effusive praise has poured in for the late-night host. An Entertainment Weekly story claimed that Letterman’s legacy “will live on in every other late-night host.” MTV.com said Letterman “changed the face of late night.” The Huffington Post similarly said he “changed TV forever.” The UK’s Telegraph said that every host in late-night owes “their personas, their formats, their wry ad-libs and their interplay with their bandleaders” to Dave.
Oh, they do not.
The outpouring of affection is understandable, but the grandiose declarations are inaccurate. They both simultaneously overstate Dave’s impact on late-night talk while understating the singularity of his talent and achievement.
With the possible exception of Groucho Marx and Mark Twain, nobody has ever had a better understanding of what Americans find funny than David Letterman. On his first, groundbreaking NBC show, Dave prefigured virtually every major comic trend of our age. Do you like videos of dogs and cats doing silly stuff? Letterman was airing Stupid Pet Tricks decades before YouTube made them cliché. Do you enjoy the deliberately uncomfortable interviews by Zack Galifnakis on “Between The Ferns”? Letterman has been doing awkward interviews for real since the 1980’s — like when Cher famously called him an asshole, Crispin Glover flung a roundhouse kick at his head, or Andy Kaufman and wrestler Jerry Lawler got into a slap fight. Letterman even foretold the Reality TV star — the idea that merely being on TV was enough to make a person famous — by making celebrities out of people like Rupert Jee, Larry “Bud” Melman and his own mom Dorothy.
Yet, strange as it may seem, and despite hyperbolic declarations, the one area where Letterman hasn’t had much lasting impact is the late-night talk show.
When Letterman started on NBC in the 1980s, the talk show format consisted of a news-of-the-day opening monologue, self-promotional chit-chat with celebrity guests, and stand-up comic or musical act to close the show. That’s precisely what it is now. Steve Allen or Johnny Carson could watch the two Jimmys, Seth, Conan and James Cordon and not see a single element they don’t recognize.
What Letterman created at NBC was something else entirely. Late Night was a satirical, postmodern deconstruction of the talk show masquerading as the real thing. There’s never been anything else like it on TV, before or sense. From the self-consciously hammy opening monologue, to sketches like “Toast on a Stick” with the dazzlingly inept Larry “Bud” Melman, to the parade of bizarre and occasionally hostile guests like Harvey Pekar, and picking fights with his bosses, the entire show was a subversion of the late-night talk paradigm, show business conventions, and ultimately of consumerism itself.
And Dave’s most powerful weapon wasn’t zany bits or crazy guests, but his fabulous, idiosyncratic use of language — specifically an encyclopedic catalog of catchphrases and advertorial boilerplate used to devastating satiric effect. Dave didn’t just answer letters from viewers, after all. He answered “voluminous viewer mail.” He read his Top Ten List “from the home office in Milwaukee.” He called his own program as “a dog-and-pony show,” and insisted there be “no wagering” on Stupid Pet Tricks. He would describe something as “sweeping the country” then claim that the country really needs sweeping. The overarching message, subtle but insistent, was that consumer culture is a ruse, not to be trusted. Nobody on late-night, before or since, has been so adept at exposing absurdity and hucksterism.
Even now, on his far less innovative CBS show, elements of that trademark lampoonery survive. Earlier this month, Scarlett Johansson was on, and Dave had her set up a clip from her new movie Avengers: Age of Ultron. What played instead was an ultra-kitschy scene from some forgotten, low-budget ’50s sci-fi showing a robot that looked like a glorified Roomba chasing a suburban housewife. It was a simple moment — just a chuckle. But it captured the essence of Letterman’s humor. The laughable clip not only mocked talk show conventions and the self-importance of Hollywood, but subtly chastised the audience — which believes itself more sophisticated than audiences of the 1950s — for buying into the hype. No one else does that. Not even close.
Talk shows, ultimately, are supposed to be about talking. Dave has never had an equal there — certainly not in the current crop of late-night hosts. Letterman, at his best, didn’t interview guests. He interrogated them, bristling if someone got smarmy or he thought we were being sold a bill of goods. Far from “owing their personas” to Dave, today’s hosts are universally jovial and often painfully credulous. Fallon never met a guest he didn’t call “awesome.” James Cordon is like a charming kid brother. Seth Meyers is unabashedly sweet. Conan has the wit to be acerbic, but has always been more interested in self-deprecation. Leno, who owes his career to Dave, was congeniality incapable of irony.
Even Kimmel, Dave’s closest successor in terms of attitude, is almost oily in his service of the showbiz machinery. Kimmel, a prankster with a mean streak, once encouraged parents to steal candy from their own children. Yet, in this interview with Kim Kardashian, the very symbol of celebrity vapidity, you never once get the sense he will do anything but serve her agenda. Compare that to Letterman’s classic and deliciously uncomfortable grilling of Paris Hilton about her time in jail. It’s nine minutes of incredibly uncomfortable, unpredictable and thus monumentally compelling television:
So, no, Dave didn’t “change the face” of late night — except when his face was on it. And he didn’t “reinvent” the late-night talk show. Late-night, in its formulaic predictably and unctuous service of the entertainment industry, looks precisely as it did before Dave. Certainly Letterman’s legacy won’t “live on” in the work of his successors. That’s because none of his successors have the sensibility, integrity, intellect and courage to follow him. Letterman’s genius is unique and inimitable. He is a creature who lived an entire life in show business, yet somehow appeared to remain above it. He did so with his skewed sense of humor, gimlet eye for bunk, withering sense of irony, unrivaled gift for language, and relentless integrity.
Letterman’s great legacy, in short, isn’t that the current crop late night hosts imitate him. It’s that none of them can.
Hampton Stevens is a freelance writer who covers entertainment and the arts. He has contributed to The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, ESPN the Magazine, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @HamptonStevens.