Only the timing was a surprise. When David Letterman announced his retirement Thursday night, he merely confirmed what many of us have been seeing – and saying – for several years now: Even when his heart was in it, his brain wasn’t. To say that Letterman was “phoning it in” sometimes, in fact, would deeply dishonor all the intense phone conversations you’ve had in your life.
Letterman didn’t need to precede Thursday’s announcement with the explanatory story about spending an entire work day recently trying to identify the kind of eagle in a picture taken by his 10-year-old son Harry. When his wife asked him that night how his day had gone, she meant that night’s show. And all he remembered from his day at the “office” was identifying the young bald eagle in the picture. It was, as the father explained mere days before his 67th birthday, the photo of that bird that occupied his head all day. Erased already was the memory of who had been on the show.
Of course it was.
We’ve seen those Letterman shows – or, in my case, sensed they were coming and switched over to Jay or one of the Jimmies or Arsenio (recently) or switched the set off entirely and went to sleep.
What we’ve been watching on CBS at 11:35 p.m. is, more often than not, a mediocre talk show hosted by the most important late-night talk show host that ever was. (Oprah wins that honor in the daytime.) We’ve been watching a game and professional cog in a machine – a man who’s always ready, willing and able but whose brain has been elsewhere for years. It’s that late-life son who now seems to occupy prime real estate inside his head. Who on earth could blame a 67-year-old man for feeling that way?
When he retires sometime next year, he not only will have surpassed Johnny Carson’s late-night longevity (32 years, from the beginning of his NBC 12:30 p.m. show to his current CBS kingship), he’ll have far surpassed Carson in national impact.
Carson’s show changed American show business. But that’s all. It was Jack Paar and Steve Allen before him who changed America’s sleeping habits. Carson merely added to the population of television insomniacs.
It was Letterman, though, after 9/11 who led all of show business – and perhaps America – through the immediate cultural recovery. At an unprecedented moment in American history, in America’s biggest city, one of its most famous residents gave America unparalleled public grace and continuity. In a business where nothing is more important than tone, Letterman found the perfect tone for what needed to be done during a terrible time.
And when confronted with open-heart surgery, Letterman had previously given America something Carson couldn’t have given to his audience in two successive lifetimes: a true and moving portrait of the mortality we all share, whether we acknowledge it or not. The man who was virtually Carson’s adopted showbiz son had moved into raw, bleeding intimate Jack Paar territory (where Paar was so comfortable that he sometimes made his audiences squirm).
And when his most ignominious professional moment came – when he was blackmailed over his secret affair with an office staffer (Stephanie Birkett) who had, in fact, turned into a very droll ongoing element in the show – he did what will henceforth be known in perpetuity a “Letterman.” He openly and publicly admitted what he had done wrong in a way that not only destroyed his blackmailer’s plan, but put him behind bars.
It was an amazing and typically revelatory shock to the American system in our media age – that if you come clean, people are avid to forgive. What the audience wants is a juicy story, plenty of time to disapprove and make Letterman-style jokes and then forgive the indiscretion enough to keep you around. What the audience requires is the POWER to decide who retains its allegiance.
When Dave invented doing a public “Letterman” for all time, he put the power in his audience’s hands, which instantly found him guilty of being a lousy husband, a foolishly careless father, a hopelessly clumsy boss and then forgave him on the condition that he keep on being a contrite and very good talk show host.
Which he did, until his own monumental lack of interest in the talk show format Carson and his producer Fred DeCordova created became self-evident to everyone.
We may never know what effect lawyer Henry Bushkin’s tell-all book about his client Carson had on Letterman’s decision, but I suspect the book, and its dark ugly portrait of Carson at his worst, was far from immaterial. What Bushkin’s unprecedented book gave us was an intimate portrait of an American legend drawn by an 18-year close associate entrusted with that legend’s ugliest secrets. They are, at times, unbearably ugly to read about.
To many of the people who mattered most, it destroyed forever what residue remained of the Carson Mystique.
As the most important heir of the Carson Mystique, Letterman was fully confronted not only with his own alienation from the gaudy tedium of the job as Carson had defined it but with all the possible besmirchments of his own reputation when the 21st century’s informational bottom-feeders take over.
There’s no way the Green Room of his old NBC late night show will be immune, when the time comes, to the Tell-All squadrons of the 21st century.
At this point in the 21st century, Letterman is not just a misfit in his time but an awkward rear-guard action. Jimmy Fallon, a channel away, is not just a sweet kid, but he’s technologically plugged in. Go to YouTube and watch Fallon sing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in a duet with Billy Joel. He gushes out his Joel fandom openly, then he uses our century’s gadgetry to demonstrate his own sophisticated musicality with Joel in the most charming possible way.
Fallon is, without even trying very hard at the moment, remaking the talk show format he inherited from Carson and Letterman. It was Carson and DeCordova who discovered that the best way to “feed the beast” and supply a steady stream of “celebrity” guests for any show was to give publicists the opportunity to publicize their showbiz products with celebrities on those shows – new movies, records, TV shows, books, Vegas gigs, whatever.
We take all that for granted now, which is why it would seem insane to most of us if a 67-year-old man weren’t intellectually alienated from the task of “interviewing” the latest human baubles thrust into the limelight by the National Entertainment State.
In doing some research into another matter, I found my 1980 review of Letterman’s NBC morning show – that thing that lasted for 90 episodes of “say what?” television, which was being invented on the spot in front of its viewers.
The first thing Letterman ever told us about himself on a show of his own included this: “My favorite movie is ‘Viva Las Vegas.’ My favorite soup is lentil. My favorite restaurant trick is asking for more parsley.”
What struck me back at the very beginning of Letterman’s career is that when Letterman filled in for Carson on “The Tonight Show,” the show was “like a huge closet with all the suits Johnny Carson’s size. Anyone else hosting the show looks like a klutz wearing another man’s clothes, a nervous perspiring imposter.”
That, no doubt, is why Letterman never had regular fill-in hosts for his own CBS late night show. The result is that now, when we know he’ll be gone sometime in 2015, there’s no overwhelmingly logical candidate to attempt the impossible.
Letterman, as much as Carson if not more so, is irreplaceable. No late-night host has ever revealed more about himself at the most dramatic moments. Nor has anyone ever revealed more of what his fellow citizens needed at a moment of unthinkable national trauma.
My dearest hope is that for the next year, Letterman takes every opportunity to throw out what has now become the ossified late-night talk show Carson/DeCordova format and just do the show he wants to do, no matter what.
If he prefers, one night, to tell us at length about his all-day search for the exact species of eagle in his son’s photographs, I’m more than willing to forego an interview with the latest C-list actress starring in the movie opening that week at your friendly neighborhood megaplex.
We know his heart has always been in it. That’s why he’s stayed on the air as long as he has. Wouldn’t it be great, though, to watch him in his final year to do a show that somehow engaged his whole brain, rather than just the part that can run perfectly on autopilot?
How I’d love to see him go out as creatively as he came in.