For Letterman, Class Clown Wasn’t Enough

In TV’s creative circles it’s common, perhaps even expected, to say you don’t pay attention to ratings. Some performers and writers wear their ignorance regarding Nielsen data almost like a badge of honor, offering proof they put art ahead of commerce.

David Letterman, clearly, didn’t adhere to that philosophy. And he seemingly paid a psychic toll for it, one that emphasized the wrong side — or at least, the least flattering one — of his two-decade battle with Jay Leno.

Because of the public nature of the “Tonight Show” succession process, Letterman’s career was always going to be defined in part by his competition with Leno. Yet the host allowed the commercial part of that struggle to gnaw at him, when Leno’s public response to the flip side of that problem — basically laughing off any questions about peers and the press preferring Letterman by saying, “We’re both making boatloads of cash, hold the violins” — sounded so much healthier.

By contrast, instead of basking in the adulation of fellow comics and critics, Letterman accentuated the negative. The host acknowledged as much in a New York Times interview, in which he talked at some length about how he slipped behind Leno and took much of the blame for it.

After having been the top-rated show his first few years on CBS, he said, “Then I lost my way a little bit. Quite a little bit. And at that point, there was not much I could do about it. People just liked watching his show more than they liked watching my show.” Asked about regaining his footing, Letterman said that he didn’t really settle down “until it couldn’t be more clear that Jay was the more popular show.”

That is, however, a questionable read on what transpired. Leno’s audience rose for a number of reasons, a complicated calculus that included things like his embrace of the O.J. Simpson trial (see “The Dancing Itos”) and NBC’s ascent in primetime, inasmuch as “ER” premiered in 1994.

The fact Leno’s program was broader is also hardly an indictment of Letterman. After all, TV’s most-watched shows — think “NCIS” — seldom garner the kind of accolades showered on less-seen properties, from “The Wire” to “Mad Men.”

Moreover, despite the understandable effort to paint latenight as some sort of mano a mano duel — a clash of the titans, Jay vs. Dave — from a ratings and revenue perspective during their heyday, the market could clearly accommodate both of them. The media loves a good feud, and while this one was hardly fabricated, the truth is there was ample room for the two hosts to coexist, whether they did so peacefully or not.

If Hollywood is really “high school with money,” Letterman was the cool guy, not the most popular one — the class clown, not the homecoming king. And that perception, as well as his show’s wacky irreverence, helps explain the pedestal he has occupied among others in the industry, including the paeans of tribute from his latenight brethren, such as Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien, with the latter writing of Letterman’s influence, “Not one single writer-performer in the last 35 years has had Dave’s seismic impact on comedy.”

Granted, Letterman is hardly the first comedian with a complicated psyche. But he managed to last longer than anyone else has or likely will behind a latenight desk and inspired a generation of comics, all while conveying a sense of bemused detachment, as if he couldn’t quite believe anyone would pay him millions for the privilege — or for that matter, watch.

Letterman might not have been the No. 1 choice among viewers for most of his CBS run. Yet as human tricks go, that list of accomplishments is anything but stupid.

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