David Letterman welcomed President Obama onto his show last night. This wasn’t the first time, but, as you doubtlessly know, it will be the last time, thanks to Letterman’s decision to retire from late night television after 33 years.
Over the next two weeks, there will be a lot of talk about the contributions that Letterman has made to comedy, and those words will be justified, but will also fail to adequately convey the impact that this man had on the people who make us laugh. But we have to try.
In 1982, Letterman saw a pinhole of opportunity at 12:30 at “night” for an audience who was stoned or sleeping, and he completely confounded expectations and up-end standards, thanks to his and his staff’s intellectual bravery and youthful rebelliousness.
They started a fire and burned down the idea that comedy should be buttoned up and accessible in late night, but they weren’t trying to be revolutionaries. Letterman was your buddy who came over and wrecked your house while your parents were away, flashing a mischievous gap-toothed grin that somehow insulated him from consequences. He wasn’t a blazing satirist, or an enviable teller of truths. Following the socially charged comedy boom that introduced us to George Carlin and Richard Pryor, it was huge to people who just wanted to laugh. Suddenly, there was an alternative to the kind of comedy that cared about its truth and its history (the old guard). This was comedy that only cared about its comedy, and people responded, even though it wasn’t necessarily the goal for a show that never seemed to be in the people-pleasing business. Unless, of course, those people were Letterman and his staff.
See what I mean? Another failed effort to adequately explain Letterman’s comedic impact. It’s like trying to squeeze a planet into a bottle… or a pair of paragraphs.
The point is, however, that we’re losing a lot with his departure, but Letterman hasn’t been punk rock for a long time. Not because of some calculated shift to the center, but because people change over time, and they stop thinking that some things are funny. When a show is built on what you think is funny, it will change with you. We’ve seen that with Letterman, and we’ve seen it a little with Conan O’Brien, though it’s sometimes easy to forget.
Like an old workhorse pitcher, though, Letterman has found ways to compensate for his lagging fastball. The show isn’t dangerous, weird, or unpredictable anymore, but it’s still interesting, and it’s steady with flashes of brilliance. That’s the show we’re losing on May 20, and Letterman reminded us last night what that means, as he sat beside the President of the United States and had a sober conversation about Baltimore, race relations, trade policy, and veteran’s issues. An impressive back and forth that calls to mind the more serious highlights of Letterman’s career, like his discussion with Anderson Cooper about gun control, his fierce argument with Bill O’Reilly over the Iraq War, his conversation with Dan Rather after 9/11, and his own response to the attacks on 9/11 when he returned to the airwaves.
Make no mistake, these moments matter. Late night viewership isn’t what it used to be. But for those who still tune in, the relationship between us and our chosen hosts is strong. In the morning, everyone (regardless if they watch or not) wants to know what these comedians-turned-broadcasters said and did the night before. And in those serious moments when funny won’t do, you can’t run a re-run until everything settles down. Letterman has revealed himself to be not just a comedic genius, but a substantial man with the uncommon ability to put things in perspective and ask questions of people who know. With the exception of Jon Stewart, no one else in late night can provide that kind of gravitas, and he’s leaving, too.
We are, of course, getting Stephen Colbert as Letterman’s replacement. While he has the mind-power and the experience, we’ve never seen him take on these things in his own voice, and there’s the concern that he may stay above-the-fray on serious topics for a little while in an effort to over-compensate for his reputation as a partisan following The Colbert Report. Or maybe that’s bullsh*t, and he’ll be the perfect successor to Letterman. All I know is that, in a couple of weeks, Letterman will be a delightful part of our collective past, and we’ll feel his loss for a multitude of reasons.