You’ll get over the retirement of David Letterman. I know it doesn’t seem that way right now, but it will happen. Late night is particularly flighty, and you’ve already gotten over Craig Ferguson (or was it Kilborn?) For those who watched Leno, now you have to choose between the Jimmies, Kimmel vs. Fallon, and all three hosts have first names starting with “J,” just like the iconic Johnny Carson.
Out of all of these, it was probably David Letterman who changed late night talk the most in that his was a surreal refraction of what had been the template. Not that Letterman didn’t take the show — neither CBS’ Late Show or his NBC precursor Late Night — seriously. In fact, he probably took them too seriously behind the scenes, leading to some dodgy heart ailments and scares. But the work of putting on the show and not having people tune out was kept back there in the offices, in the green room, and in the control booth. Once the cameras rolled, it looked like play time.
Letterman’s most favorite guests were, by his admission, the ones who came to make the most of their appearances and not simply to be weasels selling their current product. He liked musicians that chose to interact with Paul Shafer’s house band, in whatever configuration it manifested itself in. That was partly why Warren Zevon was such a frequent figure in the works, and why he regularly was the fill-in bandleader when Paul had to be away. He could be a part of the joke, still do the job professionally, and when he was the performer would still give it his all. This takes nothing away from Shafer and the band which exhibited those same traits night after night.
As for the regular guests: Another favorite was Steve Martin who genuinely appreciated the chance to not talk about Father of the Bride or Cheaper by the Dozen to instead do something remarkably silly. The intention was clear. You may need to do the dog and pony show on the other programs in the circuit, but you don’t have to do that here. In fact, it’s encouraged that you don’t.
Letterman was a comedy writer before he took on the late night mantel, and so he surrounded himself with great writers, many who have gone on to other programs and other heights of fame. The crew was likewise brought into the mix, from the announcers to the cue card handlers, to deadpan and rock steady floor manager Biff Henderson.
I fear that what will be lost when Letterman ends his television run next week is not the trappings of his successes. Other shows are now free to drop frozen watermelons from 8-story buildings, or industrial freezers into recycling shredders just for the thrill of seeing them being torn apart. They’ll call it a tribute to Dave, when what would be a more fitting honor would be that they break the form into tiny pieces instead. That’s what David Letterman, at his best, brought to T.V., and that’s the “show” part.