After Letterman, Will There Be Trust in the Oval Office of Comedy?

The surprising gravitas of a pathbreaking comic.

What Will We Do When Letterman’s Gone?

In his book The Late Shift, about the mad scramble to replace Johnny Carson as the host of “The Tonight Show,” Bill Carter wrote about how CBS attempted to woo David Letterman to leave NBC after 13 years by appealing to him not as a comedian but as a broadcaster. Walter Cronkite called him. He sat down with Dan Rather. Most of all, they promised him the Ed Sullivan Theater in the Theater District, which had been the home of “The Ed Sullivan Show” for 23 years before languishing as a rent-a-studio (they filmed “Kate & Allie” there, and it was home to the Broadway hit “Dreamtime”) before CBS quietly bought it in February 1993. They wanted it for Dave.

The theater didn’t link him to Johnny Carson: It linked him to television itself. For all the ongoing discussion of what David Letterman Has Meant To Comedy during his final two weeks on television (all of which is justified; you can make a strong argument that the two most influential comedic minds of the last 60 years are Woody Allen and David Letterman, two incredibly different varieties of New Yorker ) I find myself more compelled to look at him, to paraphrase former Observer editor and close Letterman watcher Peter Kaplan, as the Voice of the Republic. Letterman was funny and irreverent, sure, but more than anything else, he was a person you could trust. Everyone on television is selling you bulls--t. Every actor and actress, every celebrity, every executive, every politician, they come on television, they come on Dave’s show, to sell you something. They invent the best possible version of themselves, and they all show it to you like it is real, so that you will buy it. Dave, from the very beginning, was the opposite of this. Dave was Dave was Dave, was always Dave. Like his idols Bob and Ray, Dave stood a step removed from everything and grinned, the two of you in on his private joke, aware of the artifice of it all and still somehow standing right there, in the middle of it. It’s why Dave always looked so ridiculous when he was cast in sitcoms. There was no character Dave could play. He was just Dave.

 This made you believe in Dave. He was just there, wry, knowing, with a lopsided gap-toothed smile, being an actual person in the middle of all the liars and frauds. He had a face you might laugh at before he said a word, and he was a lot quicker with a quip, but let there be no doubt: He was us. He was a shock of actual humanity that exposed the rest of TV as a ruse. Watch that “Mork & Mindy” clip again. You almost feel bad for the rest of those actors. They’re all busy acting. Dave is just being Dave, eternal Dave Letterman, a man incapable of not being himself. Even back in the wisenheimer days, Dave was the lone sane person surrounded by loons and hucksters. His famous interaction with a drugged-out, paranoid Crispin Glover (Glover was likely playing a part) ends with Letterman handling the situation like any normal person would: getting up and walking away.

 As he grew older, Dave got a reputation of being mean—Cher famously called him an asshole on air—but that wasn't quite right. Dave just didn’t suffer idiots well. You want someone who suffers idiots well? Go watch Leno. (And people did.) You believed Dave because you saw Dave, every night, and he never changed. No one can do 6,000 shows and never change unless they are actually being themselves. No one on television—no one in public life—is ever themselves, particularly not anymore: We are all a construction, a face we’ve put on to make people like us, or hate us, or just react to us. Not Dave. Dave was Dave. Sometimes he was feeling angry, sometimes he was feeling goofy, sometimes (even over whole seasons) he was feeling bored. But you always knew he was being honest. You were seeing Dave at his natural comfort level. It made sense that when he finished his show, he just drove back home to Connecticut or flew out to his ranch in Montana and never did any schmoozing and hobnobbing with celebrity sorts. He had nothing in common with those people. It’s why his sex scandal, such as it was, was so minor and easily moved-on-from: It just seemed so ordinary, and his shame so genuine. He was a famous man on camera, sure, but only when the camera was on. This gave him a gravitas that was unexpected. He had an inherent bullshit detector that allowed him to interrogate politicians (for all the talk of the John McCain incident, my favorite was when he destroyed Rod Blagojevich during his bizarre media tour for “The Apprentice” right before he went off to jail; Dave’s joking, but his disdain for Blagojevich is palpable), interview military generals and soldiers wounded in battle and, most famously, address the nation in one of the first telecasts after September 11. Many broadcasters and comedians attempted to find their place in the early days of that new world, some with less success than others. But no one understood the moment, and what it meant for the city of New York, better than Dave. Fourteen years later, it feels just as true and sad and perfect as it did then.

 Letterman, in this and many other ways, is less the television revolutionary he has been lauded for being by Conan O’Brien and others, and more a direct throwback to the early days of television, when you tuned in to try to find someone you could trust night after night. This is not how we watch television anymore. Now, as the two Jimmys, Kimmel and Fallon, have shown us in their own, far more amiable Leno-Letterman war, it’s about YouTube clips and providing a fun, happy place for celebrities to be goofy. (This is what Conan O’Brien’s writer was grousing about when he criticized Fallon, in particular, for “Prom King” comedy: They’re shows for the popular kids rather than the outcasts.) The game had moved on from Letterman, not because he was out of step with comedy, but because he was out of step with the times. We don’t care about “broadcasters” anymore: They’re just more people on our television selling us something. Dave stood outside of that.

He’s leaving at the right time. We don’t value Letterman's specific qualities—his adulthood—as much anymore. Since his announcement that he was retiring, his shows have been loose, relaxed and sometimes explosively funny. Watch this fantastic quip with Reese Witherspoon just Tuesday night, a joke so good that it takes Witherspoon a moment to catch it.

  (It’s the “Huh … what?” response to Witherspoon when she catches on that’s kills me.) But as funny as he has always been, I think I’m going to miss Dave the broadcaster the most. I’m going to miss the constant, the person who is always there, being Dave, in a world of buffoons and dopes and phonies. The guy who never changes, the guy looking at us and smirking, letting us know he agrees that this is all primo bunk, but hey, isn’t it a gas anyway? He is the both ringleader and the main attraction. There’s no one like that. There won’t be again. If Dave said something was good, it was good, because he wouldn’t lie … he couldn’t lie. That was Letterman’s signature genius. And now it’s almost over. David Letterman has been the single organizing principle of my pop cultural understanding for my entire life, and to be entirely frank with you, I have no idea what I’m going to do when he’s gone.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE