Saturday 23 September 2017

David Letterman and the end of an era

David Letterman
David Letterman

The final episode of Late Night with David Letterman on Thursday brought the curtain down on more than 30 years of wee-hours mayhem. It also trained a spotlight on the extent to which modern American talk shows are increasingly reliant on gimmicks and viral hits.

Viewed with European sensibilities, Letterman (inset) was not nearly as anarchic or revolutionary as his American champions would have you believe and, as with many cases of success in the US, a whiff of self-satisfaction was never far away (we could especially have done without his smug band leader Paul Shaffer).

But Late Night had its charms, particularly contrasted with this side of the world, where the chat show has never felt a natural fit (after all these decades, The Late Late Show still feels like the pallid transposition of someone else's idea while Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross succeed despite, not because of, the awkward format).

From an Irish perspective, Late Night offered a shop window for musicians and comedians seeking to break into the United States. Bell X1, Damien Rice, Tommy Tiernan are among the acts which got a break on Letterman - the exposure invaluable as they sought to win a following overseas.

Granted, Irish artists appearing on American TV are no novelty nowadays. But Letterman was putting them on long before anyone else.

In addition, Letterman knew how to interview - a skill which seems to have abandoned his successors, with presenters such as Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and irritating Brit-abroad James Corden obsessed with having their guests perform wacky stunts in the hope of setting YouTube alight and winning the attention of Twitter. Alas, such attention seeking grows quickly tiresome - were you thrilled to see Corden and Tom Hanks recreate all the actor's movies over a few minutes? Or did it strike you as lame and reeking of trying too hard?

Letterman never looked as if he was trying at all - one reason, among many, to mourn his exit.

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