Sunday, May 24, 2015

Laughs the size of canned hams:
David Letterman signs off

WHEN DAVID MICHAEL LETTERMAN first went on the late-night air, in February 1982, Ronald Reagan was president, telephone behemoth AT&T agreed to slice and dice itself into nearly two dozen subdivisions, and the Commodore 64 debuted in Las Vegas, becoming for a short time the best-selling personal computer.

When Letterman signed off late-night on Wednesday (after 6,082 programs on two networks), Barack Obama was president, AT&T was known more for cell-phone service than anything else, the only commodore that matters is one in the navy ... and the medium Letterman worked in for more than 33 years both transformed him and was transformed by him. Just like us.

The host of CBS’ “The Late Show With David Letterman” and former host of NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman” retired from the medium he ruled absolutely. Our culture celebrates continuity, the act of suiting up and taking the field, day in and day out. So, like it was with Cal Ripken’s record for consecutive games played or Joe DiMaggio’s hit streak, we take note of Letterman’s incredible run — tree-ring time in the fleeting teleculture.

We’ve watched his hair go from the goofy brown nimbus he wore in the 80’s to its current emeritus gray; we’ve seen him ditch the khakis and tennis shoes, changing over to impeccable tailored suits. But mostly we’ve watched him just being Dave. And for 33 years, that’s been more than enough.

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Tom Shales wrote Wednesday in The Daily Beast: “Have you noticed more of a fuss is being made over Dave’s departure than was made two decades earlier over the seemingly more epochal retirement of Johnny Carson, master of TV talk shows and Dave’s idol in the business? Traumatizing as it seemed, Johnny’s leaving was not as significant as Dave’s leaving. The stakes seem higher.”

Maybe. At best, that’s an apples-and-oranges comparison, one that overlooks the evolution of the medium of television itself. Shales says Dave’s retirement created “more of a fuss” than was made when Carson hung ‘em up in May 1992, but there’s really no way to know this. We’re talking about retirement from TV in two completely different eras, with two completely different audiences, in two wildly different broadcast environments.

When Carson retired after more than 4,500 appearances, television had scarcely begun the trajectory toward the digital, streaming, high-definition, super-stratified experience it is today. There are 65 million more Americans now than there were in 1992, and considerably more viewing options now than before. The “fuss” that the nation made over Carson was a big deal commensurate with the audience and the medium of that time.

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SHALES GIVES Letterman credit for creating (or at least being a midwife to) “anti-television — an antidote to all the phoniness, much of it carried over from radio, that had prevailed” on TV before Letterman. But that’s not quite right, either.

You don’t last for 33 years on television by being “anti-television.” What Letterman did was to push back against the prevailing rhythms and sleepy tropes of the medium, to resist the tired habits of TV with something that was (or certainly tried to be) original, dazzlingly silly and daringly fresh.

In other ways, Shales is spot-on. His grasp of the power of everyday people and their impact on Letterman, for example: “Under Dave’s stewardship, they democratized television, helped demythologize it, paved the way for a future (or a present) in which the whole idea of ‘being on television’ is no longer the province of an elite. Dave may have talked a lot about being ‘in show business’ and even may have snobbishly referred to the rest of us as ‘civilians,’ but the civilians are taking over. The professional lunatics are surrendering the asylum to the everyday lunatics. A 6-year-old kid can produce a ‘show’ on a laptop, as everybody knows.”

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In this respect, Letterman’s style of late-night TV may have been complicit in its own demise. When you have a hand in democratizing the medium you work in, when you help surrender the asylum to the junior lunatics, you can hardly complain about what they do with it when they take over.

In recent years, you got the sense that Dave knew his time was almost done. Toward the end of Letterman’s phenomenal run, you could see more than the slightest bit of change in the man himself. He was turning into Mr. Cranky. On a January 2014 taping, for example, he sat with Brian Williams, the NBC News anchor and frequent “Late Show” guest.

The two discussed the goings-on at their mutual networks, but Letterman never missed the chance to stick the knife in with comments about “Little Jimmy Fallon” — infantilizing asides about the soon-to-be host of “The Tonight Show” (the show that Letterman was passed over for). It wasn’t the first time Dave was so ... small, and it wouldn’t be the last.

I observed it then in a blogpost: “Letterman’s interview style, at times sour and cynical, can veer from the sporadically prosecutorial to the passive-aggressive conspiratorial (as though the guest is the object of a joke that only he and the audience are in on).”

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BUT DAVE never missed a chance to be what every good late-night talk-show host has to be, sooner or later: a reporter, someone unafraid to ask the questions nobody else will. In September 2008, he eviscerated Arizona Sen. John McCain for being a no-show on the program, after the Maverick® from the Grand Canyon State lied to Letterman’s staff about why he wouldn’t be there. When McCain finally showed up, about two weeks later, Dave pressed McCain on his cancellation, and asked pointed questions about McCain’s running mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and her fitness to be on the McCain ticket.

His interrogative mein may or may not have dovetailed with journalistic practice, but Dave thoroughly absorbed the fundamental job of any good journalist: afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted ... and tell the truth.

And Dave never missed the chance to be like us: Vulnerable. Who can forget his heartfelt reaction to the events of Sept. 11, 2001? Or the announcement of his heart problems? And then there was that colossaly Stupid Human Trick: “I have had sex with women who work on this show,” Letterman said on the air in October 2009, announcing infidelity and a breach of workplace decorum in breathtaking fashion.

But the two words that matter in all of that are “vulnerable” and “human.” That’s what we loved about Letterman. Dave ‘R’ Us. One way or another, that’s what was celebrated in recent weeks by everyone who visited the Ed Sullivan Theater to wish Dave farewell. Bill Murray (Dave’s first late-night guest years ago) came by. Tina Fey shed clothes for him.

Peyton Manning stopped by; so did Chris Rock, Steve Martin, Michael J. Fox, Tom Hanks, Julie Roberts, Howard Stern, Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld and more. Foo Fighters, maybe Dave’s favorite band, showed up to perform “Everlong,” said to be Dave’s favorite song. Everyone who was anyone was there on Wednesday. And with good reason.

OVER THE years Dave dropped wedding cakes and six-packs of beer from a five-story tower, terminally overinflated various items with an air compressor, wiped out a car with bowling balls, flattened objects with a steamroller, crushed jelly donuts with a hydraulic press.

But these were just symbols and stunts. Everyone who was anyone really came to the Ed Sullivan Theater on Wednesday to offer best wishes to the reigning pyrotechnician of the late-night domain, a man who for 33 years regularly exploded our expectations of what a late-night TV show could be.

And we’re left to remember ... and to wonder if everything could ever feel this real forever ... if anything on late-night TV could ever be this good again.

Image credits: Letterman top: CBS/Worldwide Pants. Letterman in the 80’s: CBS. Letterman bottom: Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS. Tweets by their respective creators.

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