After 33 years and over 6,000 episodes, the longest running late night host has closed his doors, ushering in the true end of an era. (I would also say ‘and changing the fabric of late night TV’–but it is already, so we won’t go there yet.)
The end of the Late Show (final episode aired last night) comes after a hard week. My last grandparent has passed away, and Mad Men is over. It might sound callous or insane to compare the loss of a paternal grandparent to that of a TV show, but to me, they are nearly the same. When you love something, why you love it and what it represents to you becomes as real as anything else. In the words of one twitter-ite, disputing the Letterman “generational divide” between those over forty and those under thirty (who don’t care supposedly): “I’m lucky…I’m in the under [thirty] and still don’t know how tomorrow is going to happen without Dave”.
To be clear, I’m with that guy. David Letterman has been a seminal figure in my life. I didn’t always watch his show, but for the entirety of my life–and then some–he has always been there. You probably grew up in a house similar to mine: Leno or Letterman? Needless to say, I didn’t watched Leno. Maybe a few times. This last week, as the end of his tenure approached and I’ve been melting to puddles on the floor and crying in coffee shops, feeling the old weight of deceased pets, there has been great cause to reflect on this phenom’s end.
It’s no great mystery that for some this will fall on deaf ears–maybe you watch Conan or Comedy Central, or maybe you don’t watch anything these days. Maybe you’re like me and watch on your time, streaming from Netflix, and haven’t had an actual TV in over three years. It is totally possible you give zero fucks, as they say, about David Letterman. But for a second, let’s just pause and appreciate this magnificent ‘underdog.’
In the words of my father, Letterman had “edge.” He was cranky. Leno was nicer, and he always had better ratings–but Dave was different. You never knew what to expect. For a truly tragic and delightful send off, watch Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue from Tuesday night. Comedians and celebs of all manner and stripe have been pouring in to shout Dave’s praises–Jerry Seinfeld has credited Dave for the most “pivotal and potent” advice handed down before the start of Seinfeld: “Just make sure if you fail, you did what you wanted to do.” Howard Stern, a guest on the Late Show 43 times, told the NYT, in an article titled “Prickly Late-Night Innovator”, it was his “unusual” strength in never compromising that both kept him second fiddle and made him the enduring and better broadcaster. And, in the words of Entertainment Weekly writer Jeff Jensen–a “half pass” rant so ferocious, it forever inspires my allegiance:
“Letterman’s influence is extraordinary, arguably more so than any other late-night talk show host before him. His persona–the one forged in NBC years before CBS, 11:30 and more life matured him; the self-deprecating smart-ass; the loose-canon insider-outsider, speaking snark to power, usually his own network–and his comedic sensibility–honed in the freer, wilder spaces of late night’s later hours; ironic and irreverent; the master of the calculated joke fail; impish tweaker of talk show genre conventions…can be seen in almost all of his younger rivals. Conan, Kimmel, Stewart, Colbert, Ferguson, more – late night will soon officially belong to Letterman’s kids, nerd-comics with writer-humor bent, not stand-up comedian bent, who’ve inherited the fringe terrain that Letterman terra-formed for them.”
Anyone who has any sentimentality or experience with Letterman will understand–and I hope even those who don’t do–that the ‘big deal’ is that this is truly saying goodbye to a generation. This is the moment come to pass that you never think will–you’re just always certain this thing or this person will be there, even if you abuse them and don’t watch their show. The internet, niche-ville and social media have forever changed the way we do ‘late night’. And who knows, in another 20 years, maybe 30, as we usher out the new generation of hosts–whether they’ve lasted as long as Letterman is seriously doubtful, but I’ll plunge on never-the-less–maybe then you will understand fully the emotional calamity that is losing Letterman. Maybe it will even be under similar circumstances–a new form, a new audience, new tastes and technologies taking place of the old.
You get the sense, through multiple interviews, that this was a bittersweet and conflicted decision. All I can say is that I hope David Letterman knows, when all was said and done, he was the best. I have absolutely nothing against Jay Leno, truly. I’m sure he’s a lovely human. But it is agreed upon, at this juncture, almost universally, and even by Jay himself, that while David Letterman ‘lost’ a very public war, he is the man who’s exit has signaled the end, and he is the man who we will remember like those who remember Johnny Carson. He was unapologetic, he was himself, he owned his faults and he defined comedy for the generations that came after and now revere him like a scary god. There is a part of me that will never, ever bury this. Dave, you are the best. I hope this outpouring, and others like it, has shown that you don’t always have to ‘win’ to come out on top, and that legacy is something different entirely.
For some of Dave’s most iconic interviews/moments, and Jimmy Kimmel’s farewell: