We are running out of rascals. I think that’s the problem here. The late-night shake-up of the last few years changed a lot of things, but taking away most of our rascals hurts the most. Rascals are important. They make their points with a wink and a smile, and a mischievous twinkle in their eye that allows them to say things poor twinkleless saps could never get away with. The righteous and angry have their place, too, of course, as do the harmless birthday clowns. There’s a whole ecosystem there. But if you take away the rascals and leave only hosts who a) yell and eviscerate in a comedic monologue they deliver with graphics over their shoulder, or b) distract you with songs and Chuck E. Cheese games, something just isn’t right.
This rascal exodus can all be traced back to one event: David Letterman’s retirement, which not only took away Letterman, but also resulted in Colbert moving to CBS to take his spot, leaving behind the very rascal-y character he created on Comedy Central and transitioning into something a little more sterile. Losing those two hurt — and Stewart, too, although he often teetered into the angry and righteous (with comedic results, but still) — because now our most mischievous host left is Jimmy Kimmel, a lifelong Letterman superfan and first-ballot troll Hall of Famer for the stunt he pulled on Leno during the whole Tonight Show debacle of 2010. But even Kimmel treads a little lightly sometimes, especially with politics.
All of which brings me to this: I have really been missing Letterman this election season. I have been missing Stewart, too, but between Seth Meyers and Samantha Bee and John Oliver, that hole in my soul has at least been filled partially. The Letterman thing hurts, though. This election has been such a mess that I’m afraid people are running out of outrage, a development that most internet experts had thought impossible, which means that all these well-researched segments about corruption and histories of lying (any one of which might have landed like a Tyson cross in another year) are having the effect of throwing a bucket of water into the ocean. It’s all creeping its way past “upsetting” and into “chaos.”
And no one was better in chaos than Letterman. The studio could have been burning down around him and he would have been sitting at his desk smiling his gap-toothed smile, asking the fireman deliberately mundane questions as they tried to control the flames, just for his own enjoyment. My favorite example of this was the aforementioned Leno-Conan Tonight Show mess. Posted below is a YouTube playlist of Letterman’s desk segments from the period. I really must insist you watch it all. You might never see a happier person in your entire life. At one point he calls Jimmy Fallon “Lonnie Donegan.” I still think about this.