After tonight, David Letterman will be the longest-serving host in late-night TV history. He is responsible for expanding our understanding of what late night television could be. He is also, in a funny way, responsible for the complete destruction of late night TV. He started out in the hour after Johnny Carson, and you could argue that – especially in the early years – Letterman’s show represented a complete deconstruction of the whole Carson model. A sketch like “Stupid Pet Tricks” was a knowing mockery of an animals-being-cute late-night segment. Letterman’s Late Night was a subversion of the traditional nightly talk show, as surely as The Simpsons was a subversion of the family sitcom or The Wire was a subversion of the cop drama. Letterman’s deconstruction opened the floodgates – if Letterman was making fun of the idea of a talk show, then Conan O’Brien was making fun of the idea of making fun of a talk show. The whole voice-of-god notion of the Johnny Carson host was a thing of the past.
Letterman further eroded the model – with accidental help from NBC – when he hopped to CBS twenty years ago after being passed over for the Tonight Show job. The Late Night landscape was now defined by the Leno-Letterman schism. A late night show used to be something we could take sides on – were you a Letterman person or a Leno person? It became a decision, a cultural signifier, Batman vs. Superman, McDonald’s vs. Burger King. Around the turn of the century, the rise of cable – and ABC’s decision to bank on cable personality Jimmy Kimmel – turned the late night schism into a massive landscape. In turn, the rise of the internet essentially made the very term “late night” sound outdated. The modern late night show – if the ascension of Jimmy Fallon is any indication – is less a “show” than a Google farm, an hour-long attempt to create at least one five-minute viral node that people will watch the next day.
The funny thing is, as much as Letterman tends to be pegged as an influence on the current generation of late night hosts, the Letterman model of hosting feels like a dying animal. For all his snark and self-satire, Letterman’s show was always incredibly personal. When he had heart surgery, he proudly trotted out the medical staff that operated on him. No other late-night host was as moving after 9/11 – as willing to speak freely. Even if other late-night hosts sleep with members of their staff, it’s doubtful that they’d announce that fact on national television. Conan O’Brien turned the closing moments of his Tonight Show into a moving bit of personal revelation; Letterman has done that sort of thing regularly, and without cancellation looming over his head.
David Letterman changed Late Night. By making it savvier – more sketch-based, more deconstructive, more exciting – he was preparing the model for the internet decades before the digital era. Yet in his three decades, late night programming – like all of television – has evolved from a populist monolith into a series of demographic-targeted subcultures. Enjoy these last few years of Letterman. Thanks to him, we won’t see his like again.
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