May 21, 2015

TV Retrospective: "The Late Show with David Letterman"

Left to right: Joaquin Phoenix and David Letterman
The pop culture landscape looks a lot different than when David Letterman first stepped onto the scene with Late Night in 1982. NBC's competitor The Tonight Show went through four hosts (two of which were Jay Leno), Arsenio Hall went through two shows, and dozens of imitators and fans inspired by his work have made their mark. However, the landscape in general has changed. In an era when Letterman was young, viral videos and reality stars were baffling concepts. Even the way that news and comedy is consumed has changed so readily that it is hard to see his departure last night from The Late Show as anything but a relic. But if one was to understand the past 30 years of pop culture, one would be foolish to ignore Letterman.
Over the closing two weeks of his show, a lot was made readily clear of why Letterman mattered. In an era where the talk show has grown increasingly inconsequential, he embodied ethics that brought life to them. He wasn't about doing segments that were scripted for Youtube success. He was about the atmosphere and doing things sporadically. His opening monologues were anarchic messes that often featured nonsensical segments that existed for a five second gag. His best interviews were the ones where something went horribly wrong. He was unable to make a conventional interview segment, only choosing to be nice if he liked you. 
He had bite and while that may make him seem like a curmudgeon, especially in his older years, it was distinctive in ways that noteworthy competition Leno or Jimmy Kimmel couldn't provide. Where they sought to change with the times, he existed in his own bubble. He didn't embrace celebrity culture, instead making segments where he used staff members to prank people on public streets. For a show as polished as The Late Show was, it still could embody anarchy when Letterman was in a grumpy mood. 
The host may have softened in his elder years, but his farewells even had a sense of  authenticity that reminded you why you cared. As The Foo Fighters played "Everlong" over a montage of clips and pictures, the show made more sense. He may still be the oddball when dissecting 80's and 90's talk show hosts, even sparking fights with many including Leno and Oprah Winfrey. However, there was something to his energy and prankish attitudes that reflected the possibility of TV and entertainment in general. In an era where viral videos and public pranks are the norm, it is hard to understand The Late Show's big appeal such as when a younger Letterman worked at Taco Bell or did a segment on Cabin Boy at the Oscars. He was someone having fun and in the process creating iconic segments like Will It Float? or his more consistent Top 10 Lists that came to define his career.
There have already been countless websites dedicating their own honor to his impressive and inimitable career. Even other hosts such as Conan O'Brien (who succeeded Letterman as Late Night host) have paid their tribute. His place in comedy is something only comparative to Johnny Carson. It is a legacy of one man (mostly) showing up every night and putting on a show his way. He wasn't afraid to screw up or admit his faults. He was candid in ways that few others have been. He had his good and bad nights like everyone else. However, his persona was what kept us watching.
As the final episode aired, opening with the presidents from over  his career including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barrack Obama calling him a menace, there was an odd sentiment in the insult. Letterman never wanted to be the best. He just enjoyed messing with people; which is what talk shows nowadays don't do effectively enough. The landscape has changed from his bare bones beginnings and even he has as a person. The fact that he has lasted this long is a testament to his endurance. The fact that his farewell has remained a prominent subject is even more so. Whatever comes next will not be able to boast the honor of having such an impressive run of guests and bits. There may be some memorable videos, but Letterman did them first. For that, he deserves respect.
The Late Show will be handed over to Stephen Colbert in the fall and a new era will start with the young blooded competitors. It is eerie to see Conan O'Brien as the elder statesman now, though even he is over on TBS after an infamous contract battle on NBC. While he remains just as prominent in being edgy and creative, even he is unable to fulfill the holes left by Letterman. He is, at best, a younger version of the idealism. What will late night look like now that there's Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Kimmel - all from roughly the same generation - competing? 
Who knows what Letterman will do next. However, he left an amazing legacy that is now immortalized in various videos on, ironically enough, Youtube; a website that feels geared towards his humor. For generations to come, we will watch segments like the famous one with Joaquin Phoenix, Drew Barrymore, Madonna, Andy Kaufman, Bill Murray, Harvey Pekar, Tina Fey, George Clooney... stop me if I ramble on. While it may be a bias, The Late Show has earned a legacy far more impressive than The Tonight Show equivalent during Leno's first run. Only history will tell how influential he is. For now, his absence - even if it's momentary - will be felt. Here's hoping he stops by once in awhile to mess with us again.


OVERALL RATING: 5 out of 5

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