‘Late Show’: David Letterman Leaves Behind More Eager-to-Please Latenight Field

David Letterman Late show Exit
Courtesy of CBS

David Letterman looked fidgety, as he often does, listening to Al Franken compliment him. Although the comedy writer/performer-turned-U.S. senator from Minnesota doesn’t do many talkshows, Franken told the CBS host he wanted to pay homage to Letterman “before you become an eccentric recluse” after he retires from “The Late Show” on May 20.

“I have enormous respect for you, not just as a comedian,” Franken said, lauding Letterman as a great broadcaster, a caretaker of the timeslot, and someone who changed comedy.

Franken is right on most counts. Letterman offered a new look and feel to what could happen on latenight talkshows — in a way that has greatly influenced the generation that followed — and it also seems likely that he’ll emulate his idol, Johnny Carson, by riding into the sunset after a staggeringly long run (33 years in Letterman’s case, between NBC and CBS, vs. 30 for Carson) and keeping a relatively low profile thereafter.

Yet latenight comedy has also changed since Letterman started. And one of the things many may miss about the curmudgeonly host is that unlike most of those who followed — and are currently working behind a desk — he never appeared particularly eager to please or be chummy either with the luminaries who sat opposite him or, frankly, the audience.

Simply put, David Letterman behaved as if he needed us less than we needed him. And if he acted like schmoozing with affiliates or having videos go viral or just sending a simple tweet was somehow beneath him, that crankiness and distance was a part of his charm, compared with the neediness of his counterparts.

Letterman has always done things his way, sometimes to his detriment. The tortured, press-shy-genius act certainly didn’t help him when he was passed over by NBC as Carson’s heir in the early 1990s, while Jay Leno and his manager campaigned for the job. Since then, he has grown more withdrawn, doubtless fueled in part by some of the strange interludes to which he has been subjected, such as the extortion scheme that blew up in 2009, forcing him to uncomfortably admit to affairs with several women who worked for him.

Although he made peace with Leslie Moonves after feuding with the CBS CEO in the mid-1990s — in part over Letterman’s on-air barbs about the network’s primetime struggles — he has never really shed the image of the malcontent, the world’s worst highly paid employee, who relishes biting the hand that feeds him.

Tellingly, even with the end in sight, other than announcing a roster of guests, there hasn’t been much hoopla regarding the host’s exit. That’s not out of a sense of restraint on CBS’ part — any network would be eager to trumpet such a moment — but rather an understanding forged through the years that the prickly host requires creative latitude and, like an expensive bauble, must be handled with care.

For Letterman, who just turned 68 (two years older than Carson was when he left “The Tonight Show”), there are certainly no mountains left to climb, professionally speaking. Despite forays into political humor in recent years that angered many conservatives — particularly over his lampooning of Sarah Palin — he hasn’t consistently exhibited the eye of the tiger.

Still, Letterman represents a landmark TV talent, one who made the stodgy old talkshow seem hip, and managed to accomplish that without ever feeling as if he were pandering or catering to anyone’s tastes but his own.

Those who discovered him on “Late Night” in the ’80s might see the close of this chapter as an opportunity to fondly reminisce about Letterman as a guy who did more than perhaps anyone to define his era of comedy; still, once freed of his daily commitment, he probably won’t give any of us a second thought.

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 22

Leave a Reply


Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. 4-21-15 Formerly known as Fern congratulates Mr. Letterman again for next month’s retirement. Variety internet spin magazine has a thoughtful piece about CBS Late Show shift. I didn’t know he was the same age as the Vice President. For the record, his occassional phone assistant, Phil, died of dysentery while visiting Maui.
    Maui’s vog, smog from Hawaii’s fuming active volcanoes, sure doesn’t help. Myth archetype, Pele the Volcano Goddess, has been complaining again. This time its due to Hawaii’s Mayor Kenoi’s spending.

  2. mwallek says:

    Too bad Al has done nothing for the citizens while in office, though I believe his portfolio has grown.

  3. Certain posts here make me laugh. “Shameful womanizing” because he had an affair or two? Give me a break. Arrogance because he stood up to the bull crap that is Jay Leno? No No NO.

    When the whole fiasco between Jay and David occurred I went with Dave and never looked back. I never watched Jay Leno ever again. It wasn’t until he was on Oprah explaining to her that he accepted Conan as his replacement and realized he didn’t really want to leave. Everyone knew he was a liar and a hypocrite and I knew I made the right decision.

    Letterman had a different kind of humor that I could appreciate and I am grateful that he influenced so many because you can see it in their humor as well. Jay Leno? Jay who indeed!

    • Jimmy Green says:

      your post clearly defines what a “no class rube” is, the only other thought I had after reading it was your lack of morality …

      • If you are basing your criticism on David for his morality you seem to overlook much of Leno’s immorality. Or is levels of morality that you are concerned with here? The fact of the matter is Leno has been a clear conniver from the get go. That to me is more bothersome than David having other relationships. Sure it is unfair to his then girl friend (they weren’t married at the time) but it certainly doesn’t make Jay Leno a saint.

        What it comes down to is the fact that Jay Leno has always been a faker, a player, a yes-man. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of thinking going on there. If you ever watched Dave – he was clearly thoughtful. Maybe the viewer would have difference in opinion. But it was clear: he was a thinker. He was the thinking man’s comedian of our time. Of course I was a big fan of Johnny Carson and NBC screwed up because the heir apparent was David Letterman and they were on the wrong side of history.

  4. Jimmy Green says:

    Only recently did he learn to wear a coat and tie without appearing as if he slept in that $2500 suit. Sad, bitter, and sleazy sums it up. His jealousy for Leno was so obvious it became a pitiful self-loathing routine. His contempt and arrogance towards his wife and recent son resulted in shameful womanizing with his own staff. It’s only a month away before he becomes Dave who?

    • Big L. HOU says:

      Have you noticed that jay Leno hates being out of the spotlight and shows up on a show, a shopping mall grand opening, a cameo, whatever will keep him visible? A little insecurity there. I agree with you Mr. Coate. Completely.
      Thanks Dave for years of entertainment. Mr. Carson would be proud!

    • Dave says:

      What do you know of his “shameful womanizing”? Clearly very little.

      Neither of us knows the nature of the relationship w/ his now wife (whom he was not married to at the time of any affairs), so neither is in a position to judge. However, a goodly portion of his staff, especially his closest producers and assistants, are women who have been with him for decades. Dave is a loyal boss. And if he were a typical womanizer (who simply uses woman) it’s doubtful that he would have had so many women stick with him for so long.

  5. Mantle Head says:

    He’s an asshole…

  6. Thomas says:

    Dave was always a distant second to Jay, and I think that ate at him over the years. His humor morphed from edgy to just plain mirthless and mean-spirited. Add to this his sexual exploitation of women he worked with, and his political pandering ( haven’t we all had enough of that at the end of a long day ), and Dave became easier to bypass and harder to respect. Dave will always be Number 2 in most peoples’ books but he did manage to stay on TV for a good long stretch, no mean feat these days. Despite that, his departure will be a breath of fresh air.

  7. Mitt Zombie says:

    Dave is no ass kisser, got to respetc that.

    Jimmy Fallon is 90% ass kisser.

  8. occultology says:

    Late Night “Talk Shows” are what they were designed to be since the days of Steve Allen and Jack Paar — the Pentagon’s dog and pony show designed to program the subconscious minds of Mr. and Mrs. America, right before they drift off into sleepyland. It is in this seemingly innocent concept that all TRUE discussions regarding such Social Engineering Projects as the JFK/MLK/RFK Assassinations, Gulf of Tonkin Non-Incident, Fake Moon-Landings, 9/11, Sandy Hook Hoax, (etc., etc.,) can continue with NO Critical Thinking, nation-wide, being allowed to coagulate. Haven’t you ever wondered why no one ever talks about anything of any substance on network television “Talk Shows”? It’s because they can’t, and are not allowed to, by the dictates of this control system. All “Talk Shows” are structured by, and continue to prop up, the corrupt Black Magic Occultists who manipulate the world stage false paradigm programming.

  9. Tony Copelin says:

    I was young when I got the chance to watch his daytime comedy show. i thought it was genius.I watched Late night on NBC as well and loved it. No one messed with Dave. i stayed with Dave on his move to CBS, Thats where he started to lose me. Instead of grumpy,he started to get just a bit mean. He was so negative most of the time. I actually started watching Leno more than Dave. He is an all time great but I have to admit,it was sad to watch his later years.

    • I agree with you, Tony. His NBC years were fresh and weird and edgy. It was late, late night and all the rules were gone. That’s when he’d wander outside and interact with the people on the street; he made stars out of the ordinary guys who ran the shops downstairs at Rockefeller center–the touristy knickknack sellers, for one; he brought his crew onto the show and established them as characters; he went up on rooftops and threw watermelons off just to see how they splatted. He’d bring oddball nobodies onto the show and interview them–there was one repeat guest who may or may not have been a half-crazed lowlife, and he was obnoxious–but Letterman made him interesting. One night Letterman was (so the story goes) so disgusted with the quality of that night’s show that he insisted the network broadcast it as a tiny rectangle in the middle of the TV screen. THE ENTIRE SHOW was shown as a tiny block in the middle of the screen.

      No one could or would do those things now. Calculated PR pieces and celebrity promotions are the norm. The big networks are closely tied to the movie studios and music producers; it’s all about marketing. I loved his NBC years, but once Letterman moved to CBS he became just another talk show host. I stopped watching him years ago.

  10. Marc Nichol says:

    can’t forget years of stalking from that woman…who eventually died

  11. John Cowlen says:

    There was absolutely nothing like Late Night with David Letterman that had ever come before it. It was inventive, irreverent, hugely influential, and damn funny. Nothing beat packing a bowl and turning on that show back in the 80’s when I was a teenager. The move to CBS was almost surreal. An awesome set, high-end graphics, and you were on top of the world. But, all good things must come to end, I guess. Congrats on 33 years, Dave, we’ll miss you!

  12. Happy John says:

    I thought he left years ago to join the National Communist Party and run for office.

  13. Lenora Robinson says:

    Thank you David. The word “landmark” is correct. Nothing more to be said, as that says it all.

More TV News from Variety