May 22, 2015

"But, somewhere around the turn of the century, I lost interest. The show became less and less surreal."

"Real celebrities started showing up, and I winced as Dave would suck up to them. Suddenly, everyone had a perfectly polished, self-deprecating anecdote — invariably meant to prove the utter fiction that Celebrities Are Just Like Us — that sounded suspiciously crafted by a team of writers. Suddenly, each episode had as many as three celebrities, with Letterman being unctuous and insufferable and fake-laughing his way through every minute. At times Dave would turn depressingly earnest, particularly when he thought he had a Deep Political Point to make.... His comedy started to sound like everybody else’s, with the same potshots at the same easy targets. His act sounded less like dada, more like Dad. Letterman was the barking dog who caught the car, was invited in, and curled up delightedly on the seat...."

From "Letterman’s departure is 15 years too late," by Kyle Smith.

I feel much the same way, and yet, we all get old. Dave was getting old and we were getting old. We could stick with him and grow old with him, get comfy on the car seat, or we could stop watching. Me, I stopped watching. But that doesn't mean Dave should have stopped at the point where he was no longer the Dave that meant so much to me. It was okay for him to make a long soft landing into old age, to become Dad. Nothing really that wrong with Dad. The culture needs its Dad too. I mean, I might not want to watch Dad nod at celebrities for an hour every night. But it's okay that he's there.

Did Letterman dilute his legacy by sticking around so long? It's not exactly dada and surreal to analyze things in those terms.

41 comments:

Laslo Spatula said...

"It was okay for him to make a long soft landing into old age..."

He didn't land, he curdled.

I am Laslo.

Kevin said...

I stopped watching when he decided I should give a s--t about his political views.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

It was commenter Pogo from whom I first heard: "Everyone disappoints us, eventually."

Tremendous explanatory power, well put.

Perhaps I should add that I'm also a big fan of Leonard Nimoy's farewell message.

Henry said...

The word legacy throws me. Ed Sullivan has a legacy, I guess, but we're still talking show business humor. The pixels fade to black and the cultural memory soon follows.

Sebastian said...

"But that doesn't mean Dave should have stopped at the point where he was no longer the Dave that meant so much to me."

What exactly did he mean to you?

"It was okay for him to make a long soft landing into old age, to become Dad. Nothing really that wrong with Dad. The culture needs its Dad too. I mean, I might not want to watch Dad nod at celebrities for an hour every night."

"Dads" nod at celebrities?

"Dads" scoff at the Daves of the world.

lgv said...

I guess I'm in the minority. Never cared for him. Never thought he was that humorous. Worst of all, I never found him interesting. I would watch occasionally and still never got into him.

I won' t miss him. Am I the only one?

Michael Fitzgerald said...

Dad the ignorant asshole and bitter bigot who kept hitting on the baby sitters and screwing his secretaries.

MadisonMan said...

I outgrew him, I guess.

That means I grew too old to stay up that late :)

Tank said...

Never watched. I saw a clip of O'Reilly being interviewed by Dave a few years ago. O'Reilly made Dave seem like a moron while Dave's audience cheered for Dave.

It was weird. Like stupid pet tricks (which I've heard of, but never seen), with Dave as the monkey.

Tank said...

Never watched. I saw a clip of O'Reilly being interviewed by Dave a few years ago. O'Reilly made Dave seem like a moron while Dave's audience cheered for Dave.

It was weird. Like stupid pet tricks (which I've heard of, but never seen), with Dave as the monkey.

Barry Dauphin said...

Dave was hip in the 1980s, and there was an inspired zaniness to his show. As creative and innovative as the show was, it owes a big debt to Steve Allen's work. I'm not sure Dave did enough to note that.

Dave wanted to take over for Johnny, and I understand how much he admired Johnny, but Dave's work was quite different from Johnny's. Both were midwesterners, but Johnny appealed to middle America, while Dave wanted to remain hip. Hip is incompatible with the mass appeal of middle America. Hip holds its nose when around Middle America--you know, flyover country.

It's OK to age (what other good choice do we have). But it would be nice to age gracefully, and I don't see that in Dave's work. I can't speak to his private life, but his public work seemed like a bitter, grumpy old man who was no longer hip, so he decided to foist his political opinions onto the audience. Johnny really never did that. He tried to make fun of his lack of hipness, but he came across to me as resentful of his lack of relevance.

Dave got outmaneuvered by Leno, and that is what I think stuck in his craw. Although he railed against the NBC executives relentlessly and whined about it, he got outsmarted by someone whose intelligence he underrated. Dave's smugness cost him, but he would not admit that to himself. He blamed everyone else for not getting his "entitled" place, but, considering the way show business works, he had no one to blame but himself. By his public persona, he never came to turns with that. So Leno is seen as "evil" rather than as smart (since smart belongs to Dave).

I felt that he committed the sin to which some comedians fall prey, i.e., he stopped being funny. I think the heart surgery had some effect on that, as the show's routine changed after he came back, and he did not spend as much time immersed in the details of the show as he did before. But whatever it was, the thrill was gone. That happened to Johnny too, who seemed to phone it in for a decade or so. These franchises can march on for quite a while unless there is something better to replace it or it dies of exhaustion.

Tank said...

Wait, maybe that's not like stupid pet tricks. How would I know?

I should google that.

Paco Wové said...

too old to stay up that late

Pretty shortly after college, I found that if I was up that late, I had better things to do than watch TV. Don't think I've watched any 'late-night' programming since 1985.
Then about 2000, I gave up on popular culture entirely.

Petunia said...

Letterman stopped being funny a long time ago. The finale was pathetic; the clips of past shows weren't funny, the "day with Dave" was pointless, the Top Ten list was lame. Just a self-congratulation fest for and by someone who should have been off the air years ago.

tim maguire said...

In the big intellectual property battle that accompanied Letterman's switch from NBC to CBS, NBC managed to keep the heart and soul of the show. If he were going to quit while he was still good, that would have been the time.

kcom said...

Well said, Kevin.

EMD said...

Dave was cool when he was the late guy outsider at NBC, and then turned remarkably uncool as the early slot guy on CBS. He changed. He had to because it wasn't the same audience he was trying to please.

Smith's description of that transformation is pretty spot on.

tim in vermont said...

I don't know, I have never watched the show except the snippets in American Splendor with Harvey Pekar.

If the show used to be as funny as those clips, it was probably worth watching in the way the article describes.

SomeoneHasToSayIt said...

All you need to know about Letterman, is that if he had the power, he would gleefully put into office people that would dismantle the constitutional Republic that the Founding Fathers gave us (and that it appears we may be unable to keep).

Fuck the fact that he might be a good dad.

Richard Dolan said...

"Did Letterman dilute his legacy by sticking around so long? It's not exactly dada and surreal to analyze things in those terms."

Well, it certainly seems kind of 'dada and surreal' to ask fake-seriously whether Letterman had a 'legacy' he could 'dilute.' Not that I'm comparing his imagined 'legacy' to a certain urinal, but it does come to mind.

Jeff Gee said...

20 years is a long frigging time to be doing something you don't much like doing, especially if you're doing it in public and not even slightly interested in hiding your disdain.

chuck said...

I watched Letterman's show once back in the 80's. The point of the show seemed to be that it was pointless. I took his point.

David said...

What legacy? He a talk show host. Maybe Dave Garroway and Johnny Carson have legacies, because they invented and refined the genre, but even the immensely talented and canny Carson will slowly be forgotten. Garroway pretty much already has been.

Is Jon Steward going to be remembered like Will Rogers? Probably, since hardly anyone knows who Will Rogers was.

Jupiter C. said...

It's not a good goodbye when his ratings are bad & the ethics of his tenure is stained with liberal bias.

tim in vermont said...

Is Jon Steward going to be remembered like Will Rogers?

The principle differences being that Will Rogers wrote his own stuff rather than mugging for the camera while clips rolled, and Will Rogers didn't hate anybody. Stewart lived on hate.

gerry said...

David as Dad. Oh, pleeeeeeease

DKWalser said...

Dave was an acquired taste that I never acquired. His humor was the kind that was funny and insightful late at night and after a few drinks. In the light of day and stone cold sober, not so funny nor insightful.

I always figured it was my problem. I didn't (and still don't) drink.

rcocean said...

The problem isn't that Dave turned into "Dad" its that he turned into an unfunny, boring, bitter, screwing the babysitter, Dad.

People like me, mistook his 80s NBC shtick for honest-to-goodness subversive rebellion against show biz conventions and pompous "suits". It took for a while for establishment, phoning in in, celebrity loving, Letterman to revel himself.

rcocean said...

Its somewhat shocking that his audience dropped from 7 Million in the 90s to 3.5 million in 2011

His last farewell shows actually had the same rating as his last show with Oprah 10 years ago. Its also interesting that all the aging white hipsters who still watched him never commented on the fact that his show appealed almost exclusively to Old white people. His guests and his audience were whiter than Jack Webb.

bbkingfish said...

I wouldn't think a late-night talk show host would have much of a legacy.

The artists he interviews may have a legacy due to the enduring nature of (some) of their works. But Dave's shows went straight into the dumpster at their conclusion, none of them ever to be seen again.

Laurel and Hardy have something of a legacy. Dave Letterman will not.

el polacko said...

letterman had a few good jokes/routines the first couple of years and then he repeated them, over and over again, for the next thirty years. how many jokes about how the weather is affecting a squirrel's nuts does anybody want to hear?

HoodlumDoodlum said...

rocean said...The problem isn't that Dave turned into "Dad" its that he turned into an unfunny, boring, bitter, screwing the babysitter, Dad.

And yet weirdly all the stuff about his liberal "use" of his young female interns, trading jobs for favors, keeping a cozy lil' love den in the office...none of that in any way sticks to Letterman, or at least none of it tarnishes his reputation with the Media. I mean, #WarOnWomen, but I guess let's not forget that's only for confirmed righties.

CatherineM said...

This was my fave letterman bit from the late late NBC show at 27:51 minute.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iITAfzwiqAM.

I watched the show ending montage and was delighted to see a quick still included. I was Colleen's age in that clip, and my dream would be Dave showing up to meet me at my job, and my nightmare that he filmed my messy bedroom after my brother let him in.

He was not Carson in this period on purpose. Why do the same show after Carson?

He wasn't outwitted by Jay, Dave was told he would get the Tonight show when Carson retired. In the meantime Jay was guest hosting which turned out to be the better job and Jay had a vicious agent while Dave didn't think he needed one. They both did OK. I never liked Jay.

Dave's ratings are down because of Kimmel. Kimmel has the edge. Also, it's 2015 and there are 1000 more channels than when Letterman started on CBS.

I hated his need the last few years of political crap. "The water in this country has been ruined by fracking!" Really Dave? His appearance on Seinfeld's web show the former Porsche driving daredevil tried to school Seinfeld on CO2. I loved that Seinfeld told him he would not drive Letterman's Nissan Leaf.

Coupe said...

I thought maybe I am too old to understand the jokes, or the humor in whatever his monologue was about. Same with Carson, and chin face.

Thinking maybe, I had to be younger to tune into their messages.

Like a lot of shows today, I don't laugh when the laugh track says I should laugh.

I think it all started with Mary Tyler Moore, and Rhoda. Sometime about then I had my fill of television comedy.

Since then I've been working late at night on my anti-gravity vehicle, and I think I'm getting close now, but I still have to find a way to handle the 50 g's of acceleration...

eddie willers said...

As creative and innovative as the show was, it owes a big debt to Steve Allen's work.

As Krusty the Clown said: "If you're not Steve Allen, you're stealing my bit".

Joe said...

The original Letterman show (the daytime one) was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen. He continued this, though with less zaniness, on NBC. Before moving to CBS, he started playing it safe (I think to convince the powers that be that he could do the Tonight Show) and never got back the old charm. Moving to fancy new digs with the jump to CBS didn't help any and arguably hurt.

Right after his return from open heart surgery, he had several brilliant shows, but the show soon became tired, boring and, worse of all, completely unfunny.

Big Mike said...

@lgv, no you aren't. Letterman was never fit to lick the soles of Jay Leno's shoes after walking through a cow pasture.

readering said...

Letterman did not stay 15 years too long. He stayed 5 years too long. When Leno grabbed back the Tonight Show in 2010 Letterman should have given Conan his show.

Birches said...

It was okay for him to make a long soft landing into old age, to become Dad. Nothing really that wrong with Dad. The culture needs its Dad too. I mean, I might not want to watch Dad nod at celebrities for an hour every night.

Leno was Dad. And because it was sincere, it was comforting to watch Dad. Letterman just got old.

walter said...

"Dave was getting old and we were getting old"

Yeah..butt screwing interns was supposed to keep him young.

Barry Dauphin said...

In the meantime Jay was guest hosting which turned out to be the better job and Jay had a vicious agent while Dave didn't think he needed one.

Well, Dave was outsmarted.