Anxious introvert who changed the late-night landscape
As talk-show giant David Letterman bows out, Jonathan Bernstein looks at the TV maverick's unique legacy
In the two months since James Corden began his chat show on America's CBS network, he has won positive reviews and a modest but appreciative audience for his cheerful mix of games, songs, sketches and fluffy celebrity interviews. Corden's Late Late Show is broadcast at 12.30am each weekday, but is so wholesome and unthreatening it could as easily be broadcast at 11 in the morning. Then there's David Letterman, who retired from network television last week after 33 years behind the talk-show desk. At various times the veteran broadcaster has been described as brilliant, annoying, polarising, difficult and beloved. Nobody has ever called him wholesome or unthreatening.
The late-night talk show is deeply woven into American television tradition. Corden is now one of more than a dozen male late-night talk-show hosts, and all of them are, to some extent, influenced by David Letterman. The 68 year old - who retires on a reported annual salary of $20m (€18m) - has changed the face of American comedy, making it more knowing, more cynical and smarter.
Letterman has been called an inspiration by comic heavyweights such as Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey, Bill Murray, Jon Stewart, the creators of The Simpsons.
But when the former stand-up made his debut, there was no one else doing what he did. His friend and mentor Johnny Carson, America's talk-show monarch, approved his selection as the host of Late Night, the programme scheduled to follow his perennial Tonight Show. Letterman, however, was a different breed of host. Where Carson, by 1982, had evolved into a relaxed, avuncular, elder statesman with a wry quip and a twinkle in his eye, Letterman was an anxious introvert, uncomfortable in his own skin and uneasy around others. His sense of humour tended towards the obscure and the non sequitur rather than the relatable. These were not great attributes for the host of a show designed to put guests and audiences at ease, but Letterman's timing was perfect.
In 1975, NBC's Saturday Night Live initiated a comedy generation gap: you were cool and you got it, or you were square and you didn't. The same phenomenon occurred, on a somewhat smaller scale, with Letterman. Staying up late to watch him and then talk about the show the next morning became a rite of passage for nerdy American high-schoolers who could relate to Letterman's sarcasm, and the delight he derived from stunts like strapping a camera to a roller-skating monkey and devoting much of the show to following the chimp as it scampered throughout the studio.
Where Carson was known for lengthy segments where he interviewed senior citizens and their oddly shaped potatoes, Letterman's growing cult was transfixed by the host strapping himself into a suit made of Alka-Seltzer and being lowered into a tub of water, or gleefully throwing watermelons off the roof of a five-storey building. Letterman was making viral videos before there was such a thing.
Like many an introvert, Letterman made a virtue of his discomfort, turning show-business interviews into combative encounters. Asked why it took so long for her to agree to do his show, Cher replied: "Because I thought you were an asshole".
Letterman never went to great pains to hide his grumpy demeanour. During a commercial break, his guest, Teri Garr, leaned over to Letterman and asked how he was doing. In reply, he scribbled "I hate myself" on a piece of paper.
When Carson announced his retirement from The Tonight Show in 1992, everyone assumed Letterman was his heir apparent. But NBC went with Jay Leno. CBS swooped in and grabbed Letterman, giving him the 11.30pm slot, directly opposite Jay Leno's new Tonight Show. They gave him a huge salary and saturation promotion, and suddenly America had a new obsession: the late-night wars.
Audiences took sides. It was Letterman or Leno - you couldn't like both. If you were smart, if you had taste, if you were youngish, and a comedy nerd, there was no choice. Amazingly, America agreed.
For two years, the Late Show with David Letterman was like the dream ending to a movie about an awkward, misunderstood introvert. Letterman didn't just have the most watched, most discussed talk show on network TV, he did it without significantly altering or diluting his personality or content.
He still revelled in ridiculous stunts, many of which now involved his Broadway neighbours, the proprietors of a gift store and pizza place. But he wasn't a cult figure any more. No celebrity was calling him an asshole. Regular guests Tom Hanks, Bill Murray, Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts were funnier and more spontaneous with Letterman than with any other host.
Drew Barrymore created the blueprint for a generation of young actresses making their Letterman debut when she blushingly declared her love for him, mounted his desk and flashed him. ("I can't thank you enough for that," was his solemn response.) Letterman's reign over late-night ended on July 10, 1995. That was the night Hugh Grant appeared on Jay Leno's show to talk about his arrest after being caught in a car with the prostitute Divine Brown. From that night, and for the next 17 years, Jay Leno was the king of late-night.
Leno's show was not particularly clever or funny, and he wasn't a skilled interviewer. But, perhaps because he found favour with Middle America, while Letterman's fan base was mainly concentrated on the east and west coasts, Leno became the winner. Letterman was sanguine about this. "People just liked watching his show more than they liked watching mine," he said.
The years in the immediate wake of the Leno ascension were rough. Letterman was, at times, openly bored; his lack of interest in conducting yet another celebrity interview, obvious. (The mutual dislike between Letterman and Jennifer Aniston was painful to behold.) Over the next decades, he would survive a stalker, a quintuple bypass and an attempt to extort him by the boyfriend of a former intern with whom he had been sleeping (Letterman addressed the incident on his show).
Occupying permanent second place to Jay Leno (whom he affectionately referred to as "Big Jaw") seemed to no longer plague him. "All I have to do, really, is pick out a tie and sit down," he once said of his job. He even rediscovered the simple pleasure of making celebrities uncomfortable.
After grilling Paris Hilton about her 2001 prison stint, the heiress mumbled that she didn't want to talk about the traumatic experience.
"That's all I want to talk about," he yelled back at her.
Over the past few weeks, Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Tom Hanks and many more lined up to pay their respects. Stand-up comic Norm Macdonald, famous for his bone-dry delivery, openly wept at the end of his appearance last week, telling the equally affection-shy Letterman, "I love you."
Letterman's tenure has come to an end, and in September he will be replaced by Stephen Colbert, of the satirical political talk show The Colbert Report. Colbert is a multi-talented performer with a devoted audience, but he won't have the same impact. There will never be another David Letterman.