Lately, my nighttime routine has revolved around both The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Late Show with David Letterman. Mostly because I know we have an increasingly finite amount of time to watch either of these shows. (With Letterman, we’ve known officially for some time; with Stewart, his announcement this week was inevitable.)
Their impending “retirements,” at least from late night television, have added some urgency to my viewing habits, but I don’t think that’s what’s been drawing me to Stewart and Letterman lately. (Granted, Stewart is still one of the most popular late night hosts working today, but Letterman is being routinely trounced by Jimmy Fallon’s juggernaut of a Tonight Show.)
Everything kind of sucks right now. I realize that’s a hyperbolic over-generalization, but it really kind of does. It’s impossible to pay any attention to the daily news cycle and not feel some sort of all-encompassing depression. In 1969, John Lennon could write a song like “Give Peace a Chance,” and, sure, even then, it was probably a naïve endeavor, but at least it kind of made sense. A song with that kind of simple message doesn’t make sense in 2015. What does that even mean? This is a convoluted way of saying that the atrocities are so complicated today that it’s kind of insane to think it will ever get better. This is just the way things are going to be … hence why everything kind of sucks.
Last night, after drinks with some friends who also work in media, I, like everyone else, read on Twitter that David Carr had died. At those previous drinks, Carr had just been discussed. That happens a lot in New York. It’s kind of impossible to get more than two media people together in a room and for Carr’s name not to be mentioned.
I had been reading a lot of David Carr lately.
I think what all of this has in common is that Stewart, Letterman and Carr all have the ability to be the wise authority figure. All three of them had the ability to make you feel like everything was going to be OK. All three of them could make you feel like you weren’t actually crazy in a world that’s gone insane. This is a rare quality and it takes years to earn. And now Carr is gone, Letterman is saying goodbye in May and Stewart will sign off after that. And there’s really no one to replace them – not in that way.
I actually admire what Fallon has done with The Tonight Show, but he doesn’t seem too interested in developing this aforementioned quality, at least not yet. Whereas Letterman has the uncanny ability to talk to the camera and make you feel better about whatever in the world might be going on, watching Fallon when I’m in this kind of mood (which is a lot lately) is kind of like when you spray the cat’s litter box with an air freshener instead of just cleaning it. It’s temporarily better, but then everything stinks again. Fallon is dessert – which can be great, honestly – but I’m not always in the mood for dessert. And after Letterman and Stewart leave, all that’s left is dessert.
This isn’t some sort of plea for someone to change or for networks to hire someone who might be maybe a little more introspective – because if you go back and watch clips of Letterman from the early ‘80s, it’s impossible to predict that he’d become some sort of trusted figure that we all look to when we are sad. And, who knows, as Fallon gets older (it’s kind of hard to believe he’s 40), we might see the same kind of transformation. And when Colbert’s new show debuts in September, he, too, could fill this gaping hole. So could Larry Wilmore. John Oliver is trying his darndest, but the limitations of one show a week with huge gaps between “seasons” make that harder to do. But, very soon, we won’t have that person we all turn to in these moments. And they are all leaving us seemingly at once.
This was a pretty bad week, but at least Stewart and Letterman, for now, are still here to make me feel better.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.