I don’t have too much to say about the 30th anniversary of David Letterman’s talk show, which as a warning means this is going to be long post.
Technically, Letterman hosted Late Night with David Letterman on NBC for 11 years and Late Show with David Letterman for 19. I never watched much of Late Show. I think the only full episode I’ve seen was a live taping my friend Renee and I attended in 1997. Letterman came out prior to the monologue and promised the audience a great show. If that didn’t happen, he vowed to “personally fight every one of us.”
That was the Letterman I remembered from Late Night, which I did watch fairly obsessively during my childhood. I recall my enthusiasm when it started airing on Fridays (replacing Friday Night Videos). The promos declared that we could now enjoy the show “five thrilling Daves a week.”
The 1987 intro for Late Night encapsulated New York City for me in just under a minute and fueled my excitement for my first trip to the city that year. It was a strangely alluring world of oddballs and hustlers. Letterman, the midwesterner, held court over them all. This included regular guests such as Sandra Bernhard, Chris Elliott, and Andy Kaufman.
There was an edginess to the show back then that hasn’t been duplicated. Some might point to The Daily Show or The Colbert Report but both are fairly mainstream. That could be a result of the Internet. Maybe if Facebook had been around in the late ’80s, there would have been forwards of various Letterman bits: Elliott as Marlon Brando, Crispin Glover’s on-air breakdown, and Bernhard’s appearance with Madonna. I’m glad that wasn’t the case. I preferred feeling as if Late Night existed in my own private world.
I don’t think they’ll ever be another Late Night with David Letterman. Actually, there hasn’t been one since the final episode in 1993. He probably viewed it as a younger man’s game and ceded the stage to Conan O’Brien. For anyone a decade or so younger than I am, Conan was probably their Letterman, and they also got to see him lose The Tonight Show to Jay Leno.
It’s uncertain how long Letterman will remain on late night. He’s already outlasted his mentor Johnny Carson. Leno will have hosted The Tonight Show for 20 years this May (give or take a few misguided months in prime time). Jon Stewart turns 50 in November. The late-night field is aging. Jimmys Fallon and Kimmel are not really 11:30 p.m. material. It might seem a curious suggestion, but I think the person best suited to host a Carson-style Tonight Show would be Stephen Colbert. I’ve seen him out of character and he possesses Johnny Carson’s class and middle-American hipness (in contrast to Stewart’s decidedly New York hipness).