David Letterman: Talk Show Host

I was wandering around New York City the other night trying to find my way from the American Bible Society headquarters to my hotel, when I came across the old Ed Sullivan Theater, now the home of the Late Show with David Letterman.  As I walked by the theater I remembered that Letterman would soon be leaving the late night airwaves.  Indeed, May 20, 2015 will be his last show.

Letterman has been on the air for thirty-three years.  I started watching Late Night on NBC in college. He was doing things on television that I had never seen before–Stupid Pet Tricks, Stupid Human Tricks, dropping things from 5-story buildings, crashing into velcro walls wearing velcro suits, the high-top sneakers, the Late Night Monkey Cam, throwing pencils, “viewer mail,” and Top Ten lists from the various “home offices.”  It was hilarious. I used to love when he would interrupt other television shows being filmed at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. I still prefer “Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band” over “Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra.”  And let’s not forget the recurring characters–Chris Elliott, Larry “Bud” Mellman, Marv Albert with the “The Wild and Wacky from the World of Sports,” Dave’s Mom, and Biff Henderson. And how many times was Teri Garr a guest?

I have been loyal to Letterman from the beginning.  I was mad when he did not get the Tonight Show gig in 1992, but I was happy that he could continue to do his thing on CBS.  I always felt guilty when I would flip the channel to Jay Leno because he had a more interesting guest.  I actually thought the “Oprah…Uma. Uma…Oprah” joke at the Academy Awards in 1995 was very funny.  

I actually know more people who think Letterman is not funny than people who think he is funny. (This probably says more about the people I hang out with than it does about Letterman’s comedy). For example, my Letterman fandom has never been appreciated in my house.  My kids and my wife think Letterman is boring. They don’t watch late-night television, but they do like to catch Fallon and Kimmel on YouTube when they get home from school or work or practice.  I cannot remember the last time I watched Letterman’s show when I was not alone.

Today I ran across Richard Zoglin’s op-ed on Letterman in The New York Times and I thought it really captures what makes Letterman different from the younger late night hosts currently on the air. Here is a taste

But it’s easy to overlook the most important thing Mr. Letterman has nurtured in his three-plus decades as a nightly talk-show host: talk.

Talk — relatively spontaneous, genuine, unrehearsed conversation — was, of course, the main point of the genre when the “Tonight Show” was pioneered by Steve Allen back in 1954, redefined by Jack Paar when he took the helm in 1957, and turned into a national institution by Johnny Carson in the ’60s and ’70s. Here was a place where show-business celebrities could drop at least some of their public persona and give us a glimpse of what they were “really” like. Sure, that glimpse was always a little stage-managed — the conversational topics screened, the anecdotes carefully baked. But those nightly sessions on the “Tonight Show” guest couch were a relaxed, human-scale refuge in a hype-filled showbiz world.

Mr. Letterman, like Mr. Carson before him, understood this. He never shirked his publicity duties (“let’s show the clip”), and he valued guests like Martin Short and Steve Martin, who came primed with fresh material. But he took the interviews seriously. He asked real questions and actually listened to the answers. He rarely fawned, or let his guests off the hook. He poked their sensitive spots and cut through the phoniness.

When he talked to politicians and other newsmakers, he was informed, even passionate. (As the years went on, he did less and less to hide his liberal political views.) When he baited guests like Donald Trump and Bill O’Reilly, his quips couldn’t totally hide the disdain. When he talked to ordinary civilians — dog owners with their stupid pet tricks, kids showing off their science projects — he was naturally curious, engaged and winning. Whenever a star came on and tried to play him — Joaquin Phoenix in his sullen faux-rap-star phase, for example — Mr. Letterman showed no patience. He didn’t want a performance; he wanted people.

How times have changed. The late-night world that Mr. Letterman leaves behind is almost all performance. Jimmy Fallon has turned the “Tonight Show” into a festival of YouTube-ready comedy bits  lip-syncing contests, slow-jams of the news, musical impressions, games of Pictionary and egg Russian roulette. His interviews, meanwhile, have resurrected the kind of Merv Griffin-style celebrity gush that Mr. Letterman thought he had stamped out years ago.show a few months ago. 

2 thoughts on “David Letterman: Talk Show Host

  1. I will take Letterman any day of the week over the others. I started watching him when I was on Okinawa via late broadcasts on the only English station available back then. He was hilarious then and still is. I always wanted to get one of the blue Late Night jackets he had on the show.


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