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 Since then, he has grown more withdrawn, doubtless fueled in part by some of the strange interludes to which he has been subjected, such as the extortion scheme that blew up in 2009, forcing him to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.