David Letterman signs off 'Late Show' and leaves comedy forever changed

Dave Letterman retires from 'Late Show.' He was always at his best as a subversive No. 2.

It was 1984. We had a house in a transitional neighborhood near our college's campus. We had a 13-inch black-and-white TV. And we had, almost every night, a ritual.

Dave.

"Late Night with David Letterman," this upstart talk show following Johnny Carson on NBC, was the most extraordinary thing in comedy any of us had seen since Steve Martin, Richard Pryor and the first few years of "Saturday Night Live."

Almost everything else on television, especially in comedy, was lowest-common-denominator pap. Even "SNL" had tumbled. And here came this Indiana comic in Carson trappings, but he was giggling at the rules he was breaking, wearing a Rice Krispies suit into a giant bowl of milk, reveling in regular guests who were slightly off-kilter street poets or obviously incompetent character actors.

It is hard to convey to somebody now, when rule-bending television is the norm and the ordinary stuff has to fight to survive, just how breathtaking early Letterman was. But he set the tone for an era, one in which irony and skepticism were entirely legitimate responses to life, and "celebrity," far from an exalted status, was mostly just dumb luck.

Letterman, of course, is retiring this week, ending 32 years of late-night hosting with send-offs from Oprah and Dylan, from Bill Murray and still-unannounced surprise guests on Wednesday's final edition of CBS's "The Late Show with David Letterman," the show he started in 1993 after he left NBC.

There has been fanfare. There will be more fanfare. In the last few weeks, there have been more words published about Letterman, about his influence on comedy and television and even society, than there probably were in the last five years.

Most of these words are merited. David Letterman, leaving the tube at 68, was a comedic giant. He did change the landscape, moving us from the era of Carson, which still took show business relatively seriously, into the one of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, which sees artifice everywhere, especially in the institutions meant to guide us. Colbert, not coincidentally, is replacing Letterman at CBS come September.

Celebrities asked to sum up Letterman's influence offer paeans like the one Craig Ferguson, who followed Letterman for a decade on CBS's "The Late Late Show," recently shared with me: "The question is big because Dave's impact is huge," Ferguson said. "He's very self deprecating about what his contribution has been. But really the anarchy and quirkiness and oddness that Dave brought to television is similar to what the Marx Brothers brought to vaudeville and early movies. It's a game changer. It's almost like he created a genre. Or he took a genre and then re-created it. I don't know any comedian working who doesn't respect Dave for being the giant figure he has been."

From another generation and another rung in the comedy ladder, there's Scott Morehead, a cast member in his first Second City revue, the e.t.c. troupe's "Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?"

"I first discovered Dave Letterman in a sort of conscious way when I was in middle school," said Morehead, who is 33. "I had a great friend, Matt Hoffman, he had a VHS copy of, like, Dave's best moments. I remember being confused. I remember it being funny, but it wasn't like anything I had ever seen before. I was like, 'This is not Johnny Carson.' It was the humor plus, 'How does this exist? Who let this happen?' That made it so exciting for me.

"Johnny was so charming. He could do no wrong," said Morehead. "Dave, his first thing is not being charming. His first thing is being funny: 'My responsibility is to make people laugh and to see if I can push the walls at where comedy exists in a late night talk show.' He was incredibly successful at it because of how many times he failed at it. That speaks to his comedian side. You can't figure out what works unless you are willing to absolutely just eat it. He had comedy first and foremost in his heart."

Or witness Norm Macdonald, the usually cynical, unflappable Norm Macdonald, appearing on one of Letterman's final shows Friday night. "The first time I saw him I was 13 years old," Macdonald began, telling a story about Letterman appearing on a Toronto TV show. And then he choked up and had to fight through the emotion to finish the story.

"Mr. Letterman is not for the mawkish, and he has no truck for the sentimental," said Macdonald, still fighting for words. "If something is true, it is not sentimental. And I say in truth, I love you."

Letterman came out from behind the desk to give Macdonald a hug, much less awkward than the hug he might have offered a couple of decades ago, and he said, "That was very sweet, Norm."

The host has changed through the years, seemingly grown more comfortable in the ill fit of his skin. Early Dave couldn't make a statement without picking it apart for hyperbole or balderdash or even loose wording. He could not call something "sweet" without raising an eyebrow. The funniest thing of all, he seemed to think, was not the watermelons he dropped from a roof on TV but that there he was, dropping them.

"He never ever tried to be anything more than a man who happened to be on television," said Morehead. "He's one of the most important and influential voices in comedy, period, and certainly in my lifetime, but he's never come out and said anything like that. When people give him compliments, he always sweeps them away."

That trait, said Morehead, an Iowa native, is essentially Midwestern: "The people I come from, we want to know about you."

Middle-period Dave, after NBC gave the "Tonight" show to Jay Leno instead of him and he first went to CBS, was trying, hard, to be No. 1 in late night. For a while he was. But the effort to a make a big, bold, capital-S Show wore on him and constricted him. Some of his core audience, me included, began to look around.

The new show wasn't populist exactly — Letterman's worldview was too twitchy for that — but it certainly often looked the part. Meantime, Leno's "Tonight Show," a truly populist thing on which the host would come out and literally high-five his audience, passed Letterman in the ratings and stayed there.

And Letterman, as he has explained in some of his farewell interviews this year, made a sort of peace with being No. 2 and found his way back, only this time to a different place. If early on he was Goofy Dave and Undermining Dave, in his later years he's almost been Citizen Dave.

Trying to explain this transition in 2009, I wrote, "Since his 2000 heart surgery, (Letterman) has taken on President Bush and candidate John McCain, global warming and Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and the lack of national leadership. His first broadcast after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was an almost oracular expression of what a nation was feeling and the best thing any broadcaster found to say in that dark period.

"He even turned a post-jail visit by Paris Hilton political, in a sense, using her appearance as cultural critique, a riotous dismantling of the notion of unearned celebrity and blind adherence to promotional agendas."

Letterman is still funny, but where he has seemed most genuinely engaged in his show is in the interviews, in poking around at people and trying to figure them out. Having undergone (and handled with relative aplomb) a sex scandal involving staffers he slept with, he's also been a bit more willing to acknowledge his celebrity status and let his grievances show.

Calling Jay "Big-Jaw Leno" over and over, in a monologue about NBC fouling up the Leno-to-Conan-O'Brien planned "Tonight Show" transition, will not make it onto a next Dave highlight reel. It's beneath him.

But his line in that same monologue about the people making those decisions was exquisite: "A lot of people criticize these executives at NBC," Letterman said. "But don't kid yourselves: If they didn't know what they were doing, they wouldn't be there."

In responding to O'Reilly's insistence that Letterman answer an "easy" question about whether he wanted the U.S. to "win" the war in Iraq, Letterman was similarly pointed.

"It's not easy for me because I'm thoughtful," Letterman told the Fox News host.

The astute Hank Stuever, of the Washington Post, argued this week that it's all being lost, that the era Letterman helped bring in is over.

"Have you seen how dumb things have gotten over on Jimmy Fallon's 'Tonight Show'? Are you like me, have you seen that attention-desperate nitwit James Corden's 'Late Late Show'?" Stuever wrote. "Have you noticed how, on these shows, that it's not at all about subverting the celebrity culture from within, but just rolling around in it like pigs in A-list mud? Have you noticed how it's become a competition (literally) to see how well celebrities and a host can hang together and pay each other endless compliments? Have you picked up on the way that a lack of soul is covered by cleverness, giddiness, childishness?"

That is all true. But a new wave of celebrity clubbiness is not a final or only answer. Craig Ferguson was very smart and, in his way, subversive in late night until just last December. We look forward to Colbert's new take on the program Letterman established, which will surely be more Dave than Fallon, and we await Jon Stewart's next move after he departs "The Daily Show" this year.

More than those potential heirs to the Letterman legacy, the bigger point may be all of television. For today's college kids looking for something smart and edgy to coalesce around, the choices are many more than one late-night talk show on one network hosted by one upstart in a suit and tie.

sajohnson@tribpub.com Twitter: @StevenKJohnson

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