Wednesday, May 20, 2015

So long, David Letterman

With tonight being Dave's historic last show, I thought I would re-post my thoughts on his retirement when it was announced last April. Like everyone, I will be watching at 11:30 (after watching INSTANT MOM at 11:00 on TV LAND -- tonight's new episode written by Annie Levine & Jonathan Emerson). I'm posting this today while there's still some perspective and not tomorrow when everyone will be swept up in the emotion of the moment.   Please feel free to share your thoughts as well.

Wow. It took Jimmy Fallon less than two months to topple David Letterman. Dave announced his retirement last week. He claimed it was because he was losing passion after doing over 5,000 shows. And I’m sure that was a factor (you could tell from the last 2,000 of them). But getting handily thumped by upstart Fallon and the other Jimmy for that matter was, I’m betting, the more overriding reason.

I think you have to be of a certain age to really appreciate Letterman’s brilliance. For the last ten years he’s just been this cranky guy, quick with a one-liner, but primarily resting on his laurels. The Top Ten, Vegas lounge banter with Paul, monologue.

But in his early days, especially on his late night NBC show, Letterman’s show was a riot. Now, to be fair, a lot of the credit goes to head writer Merrill Markoe, but David Letterman was the perfect choice to pull it off. He set just the right tone of snark, intelligence, and absurdity. His show was filled with remote bits, running bits, recurring crazy characters, and general nuttiness. At times the humor was inspired. For my generation, Letterman was must-see (the way THE DAILY SHOW and COLBERT REPORT is today). (Remember, this is a re-post)

Then something happened along the way. He went from “you and me against them” to “me against all of you.” It’s almost as if he got tired of his act before we did. But a meanness crept in, and the bits and remotes were phased out. From time to time something could energize him and he was once again fantastic. Unfortunately, those instances became few and far between.

And now that he’s announced his retirement you’re not reading an outcry of people saying, “No! Don’t leave us! You still got ten good years left!” Just the thought that Vin Scully is going to retire from announcing Dodger games already has the city of Los Angeles in deep mourning. Letterman’s announcement was met with “thanks for a job well done.”

I’m sure Letterman would hope his legacy will be up there with Johnny Carson, but that’s not going to happen. One thing to keep in mind – ever since Dave went to CBS he’s lost. Jay Leno and NBC always beat him. For twenty years. Johnny Carson trounced all competition. Carson’s numbers were larger than all three late night talk shows combined. And Carson was better. His class, relatability, sense of humor, and interview skills were unmatched. Letterman may have been funnier, but Carson’s humanity trumped him.

Letterman will be remembered fondly, as he should, and who’s to say what he’ll do in the future? I don’t think he’ll just disappear from the airwaves like Carson. My hope is that he finds another project that reignites that fire and passion. Again, Letterman at his best is a comic force of nature.

46 comments:

Pizzagod said...

Yeah, to me this is pretty much a non-event. Les Moonves can give him his gold watch, thank him for the time he's put in, and wish him well.

Fun while it lasted, but other than his stirring 9-11 words, not a lot more to me.

Roger Owen Green said...

I stopped watching Dave a long time ago. But I LOVED the show when he came back from surgery and thanked the nurses and doctors; that was great TV.

Scott Cason said...

Remember when the Fox TV network started? It was this hip, brash, sharp network setting out to show everyone else there was a new sheriff in town. Then....it became like the other three. Same with Letterman. His NBC years were the best. I watched him for a couple years on CBS, but you could tell he was running out of gas. I probably haven't watched him in 15 years...probably won't watch him tonight. But we have the memories.

Pat Reeder said...

I had drifted away from Dave over the years, but oddly enough, while everyone else was rushing to Fallon, I found myself switching back to Dave. Conan still does the funniest show, but he starts 30 minutes earlier (and I hope the loss of my favorite regular, Brian Stack, doesn't hurt that show too much). And Kimmel does a good monologue. But I just can't take the rising wave of over-excited frat boy hosts. They remind me of hyperactive puppies, with their silly celebrity party games and lip synch battles and "conversations" that amount to "You're great!" "No, you're great!!" "No, YOU'RE great!!!"

This is the sort of televised tripe that Dave, in his brilliant early years, helped to make obsolete. Now, it's all the young audience seems to want. This is what we get for constantly telling them not to say anything that might hurt anyone's feelings and handing them all trophies for being mediocre. We now have talk shows that reflect that philosophy.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

@scottCason...
perfectly said

Oat Willie said...

"Man oh man, I hate those Fancy Lads!"

MikeK.Pa. said...

Early on Letterman complained about the crappy CBS programming as the reason for not beating Leno. He couldn't say that the last 10 years.

I'm amazed at how weepy celebs are about his retirement. It's a sentiment Letterman despises. Carson was an icon. Letterman was an admirer and a placeholder.

People are also calling him an original. Ernie Kovacs was an original and Letterman will readily admit to the influence Kovacs had on his man-in-the-street antics. Letterman just refined the antics.

Chris said...

@Pat Reeder" "over-excited frat boy hosts." Perfect. I've been looking for the right combination of words to describe how I feel about the Jimmies. You did it. Thank you.

BobZirunkel said...


Your mention of Merrill Markoe sparked a Google search leading to this engrossing read:

http://dangerousminds.net/comments/merrill_markoe_unsung_heroine_of_late_night_with_david_letterman

For those readers in a rush, skip the historical Letterman stuff and scroll down to the last third of the interview, where Markoe shares her insights on comedy and writing.

Mr. Hollywood said...

The most telling thing about Letterman was his comments that he wasn't even going to rehearsals of late. I can't imagine having to sit there night and after night and talk to no talents who have nothing to say. I loved when he was forced to have one of those reality show castoffs on his show ... and he refused. They only came out and stood and waved ... then goodbye!
So much of what he did was inspired by Steve Allen, but Dave has a great wit and when he was inspired, did a superb interview. Love to see him come back just doing a one-on-one interview.
Jay Leno is a joke reader ... always thought it was pathetic they gave him the Mark Twain award.
My hat's off to Dave for transforming late night ... and I await Colbert to see what's in store for us next!

tavm said...

To Mr. Hollywood-It's just as well Jay got the Mark Twain prize as I don't think the Kennedy Center Honors would have ever honored him like Johnny Carson and David Letterman were...

McAlvie said...

I liked Letterman. Fallon has some potential, but it remains to be seen whether he will gain Letterman's viewers or whether they'll prefer an old movie on TCM. Late night shows used to be the grown up hour, when you could count on a witty, maybe even snarky, but intelligent take on current events and guest stars worth staying up for. In recent years they have aimed more for the reality tv addicts. As that market tends toward a short attention span, it's no wonder that we aren't seeing hosts with staying power. So I'll miss Letterman and likely be able to roll into bed at a more sensible hour from now on.

Anonymous said...

I'm 34 and this is a real non-event for me. I wish I had been older during his heyday in the early-to-mid 80s, because the collective memories everyone has of those days seem to portray Letterman's "Late Night" as original, unique and (beware of overused word) brilliant.

Bob Summers said...

Letterman's problem was that the 11:30 crowd was different from the 12:30 crowd, and he didn't understand it like he thought he did.

jcs said...

Letterman and Markoe revolutionised the late night talk show business. I don't think you can say that about Carson and his team. Letterman and Markoe were not afraid of taking risks and changing perceptions and they made fun of their own network - unheard of in those days.

While Letterman has been phoning it in for the last years, I believe there is a much bigger issue regarding his legacy. There have been several reports about his office politics and the status of women on his staff. Nell Scovell, one of his former writers, published this interesting piece in Vanity Fair in 2009:
http://www.vanityfair.com/style/2009/10/david-letterman-200910

If Scovell's description is accurate, then Letterman's escapades and lack of ethics made things difficult for many people on his staff. I doubt that in a climate like this you can reach an apex of creativity and productivity.

Jay said...

Friday question: Hi Ken, Any opinion/thoughts on Harry Shearer's defection from "The Simpsons"? A part of me thought, good for him! But the part of me that keeps up with comedy/comedians/etc. knows that about 98% of people who know Harry think he is a royal prick. Do you see this as just another move by Harry to be a difficult asshole, or are his reasons for leaving a little valid?

Matt said...

I'm surprised that Letterman's last episode is such a non event to so many people. Letterman was a huge comedic influence for me and contributed a hell of a lot to late night television. He had great years at NBC, but I also watched him for a long time on CBS. Like most people here, I haven't watched his show for a long time now (I actually don't watch any of the late night shows anymore), but I have been watching every day this past month, and I completely remember why I love him so much.

True, he's leaving behind a history of less-than-impressive ratings, but was never really a ratings powerhouse, and I loved his show all the more for that. Jay may have beat out Dave in the ratings, but who the hell cared when Jay Leno retired? There's a long and impressive list of shows that changed the face of comedy but never broke through in the ratings.

A lot of people on here have said that they're no longer a fan, but can point to a time when they loved his show. For that reason alone, why not pay your respects to a guy who was doing something no one else was doing. And even when late night television transformed into the viral video circus it is now, he never compromised what his show was about. You may criticize him for falling behind the others, but I respect him all the more for it.

tim said...

When Letterman was at his best (until about 2004), his show seemed patterned after a well-run morning radio show. All those elements you mentioned from his NBC days would have made a good morning program - and I mean the days before Morning Zoo, which just tried too hard. Letterman started down when irony left and mean-spiritedness took its place. I'm certainly no fan of Sarah Palin, but when Letterman made a cruel, unfounded remark about her daughter, I never watched him again. There was certainly some irony in his situation revealed by his later admissions. I'm going to miss Dave - in fact, I already do - the Dave who departed just after the turn of the millennium.

MikeN said...

Letterman did beat out The Tonight Show for awhile, until NBC redid the studio and Jay changed the show a bit, the last 20 years, Tonight Show has ruled.

Letterman fans feel like a cult. They talk about how Leno fans are stupid while Dave is the great one. They will admit that Letterman has been mailing it in, and say that Leno stole many bits from Letterman. Then who is the stupid one, the guy who watches someone who is mailing it in and no longer does the stuff that made him funny, or the guy who watches the copycat?

I will give credit to Dave for giving the deli guy first appearance over Bill Murray.

normadesmond said...

i can't wait for his special last show
when they wheel regis out. yipee.

H Johnson said...

Well said Matt, I agree completely. I think the whole "non event" bandwagon is bourgeois crap. Love him or hate him, the end of Letterman is another nail in 'grown-up' television. His show took 'silly' to new levels, but it always seemed to have a raised eyebrow irony to it.

I didn't watch every night, but I caught it whenever I could and I liked just knowing it was there. Felt the same about Carson. Kimmel's not terrible, but I find Fallon downright insipid, not funny at all. He's a talented musical mimic, but the whole shtick has gotten old fast.

I'll miss Letterman's show. He's leaving as he should (nothing lasts forever). But let's not kid ourselves, this is a huge step in the change of television. Let's hope Colbert shows up with his wit intact and hasn't borrowed Fallon's celebrity smoochy lips.

Aloha

Jay Jones said...

Here's why Leno consistently beat Letterman, even though Letterman is obviously smarter and funnier: It's very clear that Letterman is a giant asshole, and the median viewer doesn't want to give his last waking minutes of the night to a jerk. (I don't doubt that Leno and Carson might also have been jerks, but it didn't show up in the DNA of their shows the way it oozes from every pore of Letterman.) For all the genius that Letterman supposedly has, he should be humiliated to have been crushed, just crushed, for over 20 years by Leno, who is demonstrably a lightweight dimwit with exactly zero interviewing skills.

And Letterman only became worse with age, as the zaniness of his youth gave way to the crankiness of his dotage. Not to mention that nasty, smug, insiderdom, politicization of his show.

Topic for another day, but I have to wonder what CBS is thinking in hiring a replacement whose claim to fame is a niche show done entirely in a faux persona, and whose shtick has been entirely to make fun of and alienate half of the country. This is the way to beat the non-threatening, and endlessly sweet and optimistic, Jimmy Fallon? I very much doubt it. (If Fallon would settle down and stop being so, so, so, thrilled just to be there, and would stop jumping and nodding and heaving and hoing any time something strikes him as funny, I might actually enjoy watching him.)

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you give Letterman's early"a lot of the credit" to Merrill Markoe, when it was his entire staff that got that party started. She was never a strong comedy writer. She was adequate. She was in no way a peer of David's, aside from providing some emotional support as his girlfriend at the time. She couldn't keep up with the increased pace of the show creatively, and that's why she was eventually a goner.

It amazes me that someone who professes that writer's don't get enough credit doesn't bother to do his homework when dishing out the credits for what/who made the early Letterman show a hit.

Anonymous said...

Jay Jones said...

"Here's why Leno consistently beat Letterman, even though Letterman is obviously smarter and funnier: It's very clear that Letterman is a giant asshole.."

Here's where your reasoning screws up: NBC had a fuckload more affiliate stations than CBS.

What does that mean?

It means that for Letterman to simply TIE with Leno, meant he beat Leno's ass into the tarmac like the incredible Hulk.

It means that if the affiliate numbers were about equal, Letterman would have crushed Leno almost all the time. If Letterman and Leno switched networks, and did the exact same show, Leno would have almost NEVER beaten Letterman.

Letterman had no control over how many affiliates CBS had the talent to garner. If that makes him an asshole, you're an asshole too.

Jeff Maxwell said...

I was a very young fellow when President Kennedy stopped wacky Khrushchev from sending rockets to Cuba. Like most of the world, I was afraid the confrontation would lead to nuclear war. The days leading up to the ocean blockade were unnerving. But every night, the Steve Allen Show made me laugh out loud and helped me forget I may soon be vapor.

Thank you, Steve. In these days of beheadings, I miss those laughs.

I will miss the good Dave, but Ken nailed Letterman's descent into hostility toward the audience. It's hard to laugh at somebody who doesn't like you.

John in Ohio said...

Best to worst
Carson. Nuff said.
NBS Dave was the best. Put the first couple of CBS years in NBC Dave.
Craig Ferguson had the don't give a Fk attitude of Dave's early years. He is the one I enjoyed watching in the last 10 years.
Kimmel, when he is doing the bits Dave used to do (or would have if he thought of them) - TWINC, Matt Damon, street interviews, belly flop competitions, Uncle Frank, etc.
Conan had his moments, but I just didn't get into him.
Fallon / Meyers / CBS Dave / The new CBS guy / Leno - meh.
Jimmy, Jimmy, Dave (after CBS+2) can rise higher if they have the right guest on.

On a totally different note, it is a shame that Costas got tired of it. He was really good at interviewing people.

gottacook said...

Jay: Doesn't Harry Shearer have the right to retire from The Simpsons? He's (gulp) 71 now. It's understandable that he wouldn't want to simply say "I'm tired" and would give a different pretext instead.

As for Dave, I loved the '80s show and was a regular viewer from about the first anniversary (Feb. '83) until the final NBC broadcast, with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band as guests performing "Glory Days." Clearly his NBC show was always a collaborative effort - I didn't need to see the credits to know that. But I agree that moving to the earlier hour didn't suit him; even before the CBS show began, there were many published (pre-Internet) opinions that the Late Night sensibility wouldn't transfer - and looking back on it, I think the same would have been true even if he'd gotten the same earlier time slot on NBC.

suek2001 said...

I am a fan of Dave....not really into the cult ofDave but a fan. I will miss him deeply. As for Letterman hoping to leave a Carson-like legacy, I doubt that is what he is thinking...He would never want to be compared to Carson..as Carson was his god to worship.
Dave leaves and we are stuck stuck with hosts that adore celeb culture..and worship at it's feet. Letterman did not..He had disdain for it...
I never bought his hostility towards his audience but to the powers that be at large. He has a sfotness to him now because of his heart aurgery..and the birth of his son.
I feel bad that it's now easier to hate someone than to love someone now...so all those Letterman haters will have to find a new target after tomorrow...
One thing that has been missing in a lot of these missives is the praise of the CBS Orchestra...They will always be the best band in the land..and their musical legacy will live on in whatever You Tube clips are allowed to remain.

Canda said...

My favorite all-time Letterman joke:

"Sirhan Sirhan said if Bobby Kennedy were alive today, he would want to see me free. Man, what a lousy break. The only guy who wants to see him free, he killed."

rockgolf said...

Anonymous: CBS & NBC both have 222 affiliates according to Wikipedia. And CBS constantly tromps NBC in the prime time ratings, other than Sunday Night Football. So, sorry, I don't buy your argument for a second.

Canda said...

Incidentally, anonymous who said that NBC has many more affiliated stations than CBS, and that's why Leno won, is 100% WRONG.

CBS has 240 affiliated stations, and NBC not quite 200.

Fred from Scarborough said...

Hate to say it about a fellow Canuck but we stopped watching because Paul Shaffer would not shut the fuck up.

Jon B. said...

One thing that Dave did recently that was quite touching, I think, is that he really went to bat for his old pal, Michael Keaton. When BIRDMAN first came out last fall (well before any nominations), Dave was ecstatic about the film and, particularly, Keaton's performance. This was not Dave pretending to like something, but he really gushed about it and was in awe. After the Academy Awards, Dave had some really heartfelt comments about Keaton's loss of Best Actor, even though the film garnered many other Oscars, including Best Picture. Whether you liked BIRDMAN or not, and whether you think Keaton was robbed or not, it was interesting to watch Dave be so strident and emotional.

Anonymous said...

rockgolf said...
"Anonymous: CBS & NBC both have 222 affiliates according to Wikipedia. And CBS constantly tromps NBC in the prime time ratings, other than Sunday Night Football. So, sorry, I don't buy your argument for a second."

Uh... is Letterman broadcasting in Prime Time?

NO.

Are all affiliates the same?

NO.

Has there always been a level playing field for Letterman and Leno regarding affiliates?

NO.

Sit down, and keep to yourself.

Canada Said:

"Incidentally, anonymous who said that NBC has many more affiliated stations than CBS, and that's why Leno won, is 100% WRONG.

CBS has 240 affiliated stations, and NBC not quite 200."

Your skittish rant doesn't hold up, since I said "had," not "has."

"Had," is the past-tense of "has."

Typing is not thinking. Try verifying that on Wikipedia. Oh... it's not in there? Must be a lie!

Phantom Dreamer said...

It's too bad CBS can't show Best Of's between now and when Colbert takes over in September. I guess it's a clearances issue. CBS will air reruns of procedurals in Letterman's time slot beginning tomorrow night.

Mike Schryver said...

The point about the affiliates isn't the number of them, it's the quality. In the mid '90s there was a mass defection of CBS affiliates to FOX when FOX took the NFL from CBS. CBS was left with the former FOX affiliates - stations you had to stand on the roof with a wire hanger to get, and that had cable assignments with higher numbers than the FOX stations after the switch. That is the reason that Leno was able to catch Letterman.

It doesn't explain why Letterman wasn't able to regain the lead when CBS' fortunes improved. I think Ken did that.

Richard said...

I was 12, when Dave went to CBS. I stayed up when I could then taped it when school started and watched it in the AM. But eventually I got tired of his...I dont know...negativity? I switched to Leno and that was it. Taking the happy old guy over the cranky old guy was easy. But I'll be watching tonight.

BTW Ken, I'm reading your book on the 60s. I find it totally relatable, even tho I grew up in the 80s and 90s.

D. McEwan said...

Thanks for the paternal plug. I've set the DVR to record Instant Mom tonight.

I've watched Letterman every night (Or, more often, next afternoon) for just over half of my life. (Thanks to VCRs and now DVRs, I saw almost every episode over the years, missing perhaps 10% of his broadcasts, though it was never unusual for me to switch away once the guests came on, especially if they were actors/actresses I was uninterested in, or sports persons, or Howard Stern. Sorry. I do not share you admiration of Howard.) I will be missing Dave, however much I enjoy Stephen Colbert on the show.

Mike said...

For a while, Dave's producers blamed the CBS/Fox station affiliation switches and NBC's primetime dominance as they reason he lost to Jay. But later on, NBC's primetime tanked in the ratings, and Jay kept the lead. America simply preferred Jay. The guy who is arguing that NBC had more affiliates is simply dead wrong, but not man enough to admit it.

I loved Dave's show on NBC. I thought it was brilliant (much better than the overrated Carson - his show was so fake and tired in the 1980). It changed when it moved to CBS, not nearly as good. Dave was always a much better interviewer than Jay. But Jay put on a pleasant, harmless show and many preferred that type of show at bedtime.

Speaking of Dave... said...

While I liked Letterman well enough, I really miss Tom Snyder. I wish someone would release all his great late night conversations as podcasts or audiobooks. When he was on CBS after Dave, I used to tape the audio from the TV and listen to it while driving to work. I loved his laugh—it inevitably cheered me up every time. "Huh-huh-huh-HUH!"

stuart greenbaum said...

You know it is time for Letterman to go when he can no longer fake sincerity, humility and humanity -- the talk show hosts' most important qualities. That said, his first show back after 9/11 was one of TV's most inspiring moments.

Floyd R. Turbo, American said...

Carson was the smooth, platonic ideal of a talk show host. But Letterman spearheaded a wave of absurdist, contemptuous template-smashing that has come to infuse the comedic profession in a way Carson's body of work never did.

Who was funnier: The Pope, or Father Guido Sarducci?

The names Steve Allen and Ernie Kovacs still get invoked from time to time today. Their Nielsen ratings were mediocre to poor. The names Arthur Godfrey and George Gobel never get mentioned today. Their ratings were large.

I write this as someone old enough to have been a huge fan and regular viewer of Carson's Tonight Show. But there is no doubt in my mind where the TV and comedy history books will shake out fifty years from now.

A_Homer said...

Letterman is guilty of doing something that is not easy at all, and in the end, making it look easy. He literally personifies a changing room of writers over decades. All those changes, from "us" to "me-against-you", were necessary and foreshadowed a changing tv world, or at least popular sitcoms of that era. He gets advice from his team of writers as to the direction. By turning into that (me-against-you) perspective, it also changes the type of audience reaction that comes from being self-depracating. Each character change is related to the kind of audience of an era. It's not just a whim, but feels like it with Letterman being so good.
From innovating the late night spot, to losing the (expected) Tonight Show, starting his own venture on CBS and so on through just being there night after night, I cut him some slack compared to Conan - who I love - but just doesn't grow much further. The problem isn't Fallon's Tonight Show beating Letterman, it's that audience change to surface, attention-span youth. The days are over where I expect Fallon the attention hog as host to develop any layers like Letterman the comedian, did deep enough to handle anything in the world that we encounter (obviously, Dave's post 9/11 show is one example, but there are many) or develop with his audience and address them honestly, like Conan so wonderfully did with leaving his (two) shows. I prefer the solid investment in Dave's uneven long run, with all the changes, rather than the short term cash-in-quick 'junk bonds' market of Tonight shows since Leno.

Anonymous said...

CBS just threw his set in the trash.

Kathleen said...

For the decade that I was single, one of my first date questions was " Do you watch David Letterman or The Tonight Show? M.A.S.H. or Cheers?"

JR Smith said...

For everything and everyone, there is a season. Dave represents a time when people actually watched TV on a TV set, not a smart phone or tablet.

Watching Johnny say goodbye and Jay say goodbye and now Dave say goodbye makes me realize how close I am getting to the end of that conveyor belt.