David Letterman retires in world where stupid pet tricks are now the norm

In an era of VCRs, personal computers, and cable TV, Letterman brought a different kind of humor to the late night scene – ironic, self-conscious, and embracing of awkwardness.

Charles Sykes/AP/File
David Letterman (right), shown in 2011 with Bill Murray, who will be the last guest on his talk show, is retiring May 20 after 33 years on television.

After 33 years, the longest-tenured late night talk show host on television will finally say goodnight for good on Wednesday.

And though David Letterman was not the first great host for Americans who stayed up past the news for some late-night yuks – a respite from daily drudgery and the often stormy events in the nation and the world – he stood astride two very different media and cultural landscapes and helped to redefine the sensibilities of a generation growing up within the nascent electronic age.

Indeed, at the cusp of an era of VCRs, personal computers, and cable TV, NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman” brought a different kind of humor to the late night scene – ironic, self-conscious, and acutely aware of the all-encompassing rhythms of TV shows, advertising jingles, and MTV. 

For many, “Late Night” was one of the first shows to become unmoored from its time slot – following “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, it aired after midnight in most areas – a must see show for young people especially, who set family VCRs to record Letterman. 

“In the ’80s, it was the beginning of, ‘Hey, this is so good I want to see it, and if I can’t see it at the time, I can see it the next day,’ ” says Paul Levinson, a professor of media studies and pop culture critic at Fordham University in New York. “Now, comedy is there all the time. Probably the majority of YouTube is comedy and slapstick, and in a way Letterman can be seen as the spiritual predecessor of that as well.”

“Dropping something out of a window to see how it breaks, stupid pet tricks – that’s almost a handbook on how to make a good YouTube video,” Professor Levinson continues.

Letterman was preceded by the great Johnny Carson and his comedy of understated bemusement at current events, who laughed at culture and politics with a wink and supercilious smirk back when television was a relatively new phenomenon, a piece of furniture in the living room and a gathering place where millions watched mostly the same shows every week.  

But Letterman’s acerbic and ironic sensibility also struck a deep cultural chord as the electronic era took root. Youth culture in the 1960s and 1970s had a more revolutionary earnestness as sexual mores and racial attitudes simmered with change. But during a time of Reagan conservatism and relative peace and prosperity, the interests and passions of the young were virtually defined by what they watched on TV – and they knew it.

Letterman made jokes about telling jokes, used mock seriousness to make fun of his own celebrity and those of his guests, and relentlessly bit the corporate hands that fed him. When General Electric bought NBC in 1986, he tried to bring a fruit basket to congratulate his new corporate parents during his show, and was famously kicked out of the building.

“Dave’s show was that rare phenomenon: a big, fat show business hit that seemingly despised show business,” wrote Conan O’Brien, the current TBS host who first replaced Letterman at “Late Night” in 1993 when Letterman switched networks to CBS, in a tribute in Entertainment Weekly

“Dave didn’t belong, and he had no interest in belonging," Mr. O'Brien, who also briefly hosted "The Tonight Show" on NBC. "He amused himself, skewered clueless celebrity guests, and did strange, ironic comedic bits that no one had seen on television before. Everything about that show was surreal and off-kilter. Where late night television had once provided comfort, this man reveled in awkwardness.”

Indeed, for the late night hosts that followed him, Letterman has been virtually deified. Dave was the “most inventive and smartest man who ever wore an Alka Seltzer suit,” wrote Jimmy Kimmel last week in a tribute to the Gen X icon in Time magazine. “None of us who discovered Dave on our own and claimed him as our own will ever be able to satisfactorily explain to the younger people who didn’t what he did, what he meant, and what he means. I guess it doesn’t matter. It’s only an exhibition, not a competition.”

There was, of course, the famous competition between Letterman and Jay Leno, who was ultimately chosen to succeed the legendary Carson and who went on to beat the “Late Night” host in the ratings wars the next two decades.

But in the minds of comedians, there was only one with a clear lasting legacy.

“I, like many of you, grew up watching Dave,” said current “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon in a tear-filled tribute to Letterman on Monday. “...If you saw somebody throw a watermelon off a roof, and you go, oh my gosh, adults get paid for doing that? That type of stuff had never been done on TV before.

“This was at 12:30 ... so this was kind of like unexplored space, this is like the Wild Wild West,” Mr. Fallon continued. “And I think this show, what late night has become, is a result of him playing with the genre and experimenting and exploring, and I, like every kid who grew up watching him, will miss him.”

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