Thursday, May 21, 2015

Spotlight: David Letterman

"Letterman taught us how to watch television, how to critically engage with our culture, how to laugh at both the banal trivialities of life and the crushing weight of an often thankless and aimless existence. David Letterman changed television and how we look at the world around us. He deserves his retirement, he’s more than earned his private time with his family, but for a generation of Americans his absence will sting like the loss of a father. And somehow he did it by hosting a talk show."
When the final episode came, after weeks of accolades and tributes to his genius, David Letterman made sure he punctured the emotion of the moment with a little old-fashioned, self-deprecating sarcasm.

"We've done over 6,000 shows ... and I was here for most of them, and I can tell you a pretty high percentage of those shows just absolutely sucked," Letterman told the audience during Wednesday night's Late Show episode, his last after 33 years in late-night television. "And also, in light of all of this praise, merited or not, do me a favor: Save a little for my funeral."

Letterman was doing more than filling his role as TV's Biggest Curmudgeon — a part he has gleefully played for more than three decades now. He was doing something that ensured his last episode would move quicker and feel funnier than even the finale of his longtime mentor, Tonight Show host Johnny Carson.

Whenever it seemed the proceedings might get overly sentimental or maudlin, Letterman would crack a joke that kept it funny and kept it moving. Unlike Carson, Letterman would never tolerate a long, emotional song sung in his honor on camera; instead we got five presidents — four of them seemingly filmed especially for this broadcast — proclaiming "our long national nightmare is over" because Letterman is retiring.

To my recollection, no other late-night host has gotten almost all the country's living presidents to show up in his honor for a finale — not Carson or Letterman's longtime rival, Jay Leno. But Letterman's farewell comes at a time when media and politics have never been closer, and the evidence of Letterman's impact across the landscape of late-night television has never been clearer.

Most of today's late-night TV hosts — the Fallons, Kimmels, O'Briens and Meyers — grew up watching Letterman rewrite the rules of TV talk shows with his post-Carson program on NBC, Late Night with David Letterman. Where Carson was slick, tanned and Hollywood, Letterman was goofy, gritty and perched in the middle of 1980s New York City, recycling bits from his own heroes like Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen for youngsters eager to see someone celebrate the silliness of TV while puncturing its self-importance.

When I asked Letterman about the finale last week, he insisted he hadn't been directly involved in much planning beyond the show's final segment. "It will be a variety of visual images, you know, in various presentation," he said then about his segment. "And then just me saying thanks and good night."

If that quote holds true, then Letterman himself planned the moment when Foo Fighters took the stage and played "Everlong" — a song that the host has said helped him through recovery after a quintuple bypass operation — while images from the entire history of the show flashed by in rapid succession.

In the end, just before the band cranked up, Letterman did say, "For the last time on a television program ... thank you and good night." But there was no emotional quaver in his voice, no hint of tears in his eye.

David Letterman went out of late-night TV the way he came in: on his own terms, guided by a subversive sense of humor that was severely allergic to sentiment or phoniness.

"The people who watch this show, there's nothing I can do to repay you," Letterman said. "Thank you for everything. You've given me everything."

The only question left now: What are fans of great late-night television going to do without him?

"After 33 years, he will go out as the longest-serving host in late-night TV — outdistancing his mentor Johnny Carson by two years — a record that will not be challenged any time soon, if ever. Try to imagine Jimmy Fallon doing "The Tonight Show" at 68, and you will fail. (Jimmy Kimmel I can see hanging on, maybe.)"

More information:
» Paste: Letterman's Top Ten Remote Segments
» Vulture: "Stories From Behind the Scenes of the Show That Changed Comedy Forever"
» Rolling Stone: "How David Letterman Reinvented TV"

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