Considering how much the entertainment media likes to talk about itself, I was surprised that more wasn’t written about David Letterman’s farewell show. The last episode of Mad Men got more coverage than the moon landing, and the only people who have ever seen that show are the people who are paid to write about it. Meanwhile Dave was praised in a few eulogies as the successful oddball of late night TV. Some places did note how he spent a long time as the gold standard for hip comedy, but even those seemed to miss the true significance of what David Letterman meant to American culture.
As someone whose sense of humor was molded by Dave more than any other single entertainer, and as a proud owner of Late Night With David Letterman: The Book, I felt like I should try more thoroughly to flesh out his legacy.
In a nutshell, it is this: David Letterman was the first regular guy ever to get his own TV show.
Not to say Dave didn’t have a lot of show biz experience before Late Night — a lot of stand-up experience and comedy writing experience and even his own morning show (Anybody remember Dave’s morning show?) But he’s the first star who hadn’t been polished smooth by his show biz experience. He knew how the medium worked, he knew how comedy worked (at a genius level, by the way), but he retained all the awkwardness and sarcastic bemusement of someone who had just stepped off the bus.
Today, we live in the world that Dave made. Every clown with a camera and an internet connection can be the star of his own show, and most who try it think that awkwardness and sarcasm are suitable substitutes for entertainment. But those guys are just shadows of David Letterman.
A lot of the things he did have become so ingrained in our comedic Zeitgeist that we don’t even think about where they started. But every time you see an interviewer looking sideways at his celebrity interviewee, that’s Dave. Every time you see a skit that’s so absurd that it doubles back on itself and starts making fun of its own absurdity, that’s Dave.
I checked out on Dave many years ago. He had been phoning in his CBS show for a long time, and he wasn’t the same guy anymore. The war with Leno, and age, and health scares had changed him. He’d also gone native to an extent, becoming a part of the celebrity culture that he used to mock so expertly. He’d just been in the middle of it so long, it was inevetible that some of his crankyness would get abraded down, that he would get tired of being the squeaky wheel all the time and want some days where the machine just ran smoothly and quietly. But he fit in more by being Dave less, so he lost me.
But his influence still remains, and I hope we remember cranky Dave more than the guy who said farewell last week. He was more than just the guy who made it ok to say “ass” on TV (though he certainly was that; you’re welcome, moms and dads of America). He lost the late night wars, but he influenced American comedy much more than the guy who won. Even his bombs remain the stuff of legend.