Perhaps the most welcome thing about David Letterman’s Tuesday night return to “Late Night” — the NBC franchise he launched as host 40 years ago — was how perfectly low-key it was.
Interviewed by the current “Late Night” host Seth Meyers to mark the anniversary, Letterman was fondly nostalgic about his time as a nightly talk-show emcee. After “Late Night,” Letterman went on to launch “The Late Show” on CBS and even today has an occasional interview series on Netflix, but it was “Late Night” that introduced the host’s relentless ingenuity and sparking creativity. So it’s fitting that “Late Night” brought him back into view — and Letterman brought to bear the askew humility that, even after some seven years largely out of the spotlight, felt instantly familiar.
To wit: Among the loveliest moments of the interview was Letterman paying tribute to the show’s in-house band, noting how bolstered he had felt to hear live music daily. This was Letterman in a reflective mood — wistfully describing the changes in his son, now a teenager, and praising Meyers’ work on the show. This latter point suggested how strange it may have felt for Letterman to be out of the game himself.
And Meyers allowing him the space to be precisely that was a good indication of why, exactly, Meyers is Letterman’s heir for reasons beyond sharing the “Late Night” host’s chair. Meyers’ “Late Night” — by far the most cerebral of the current crop of after-hours programs on network TV — has the capacity to support a TV icon working through something small and complicated on the air. The passage of time is a strange thing to contemplate; it’s also the fundamental and unsolvable problem of life, and Meyers’ leavening it with warmth and wit made Letterman’s appearance very special indeed.
Meyers’ “Late Night,” which strikes this viewer each time he watches it as fairly exceptional, exists in a challenging moment. Two leading hosts of other series seem to be pulling the format in two different directions, as indicated by two recent viral clips. The puppyish glee of “The Tonight Show’s” Jimmy Fallon (himself another, very different former “Late Night” host) as Paris Hilton explained her NFT purchase suggests that there’s little one might say to Fallon to which he wouldn’t respond rapturously, or that he’d meaningfully engage with. And Stephen Colbert’s conversation with Whoopi Goldberg about race and the Holocaust epitomized the current “Late Show” host’s tendency to get out over his skis in conversation: It’s clear that it’s important to Colbert to perform erudition while talking about Goldberg’s scandal, but one finishes watching the clip more confused about where Colbert stands than before it began.
These seem at times the two options for late night in the optimized-for-virality era: Weightless goofing off or a sort of faux-scholarly earnestness that comes at the expense of clarity. Letterman began his career in an era before YouTube, and those who stayed up to watch his show had an understanding of what he had to offer that was nourished by familiarity with his talents and his sensibility. That sensibility was complicated (and, it should be noted, was by all accounts deeply informed by Letterman’s creative collaborator Merrill Markoe); it was giddily open to possibility, but nourished by a kind of sorrowful isolation. Letterman’s sense of the absurd came, it seemed, from his position at a remove from his guests, and from the audience.
The present moment seems to demand clips that explain themselves, that are legible instantly to the bored fan scrolling social media. Letterman was a master of the high concept, but his curiosity, and his melancholy, are an uneasy match for the media landscape of 2022. And Letterman, who’s grown a Hemingway-esque beard in his years out of the nightly spotlight and who spent much of his interview with his head bowed, seemed at moments to be coping with that in real time.
Which meant that Letterman’s interview is, itself, unlikely to go viral. It exists for other reasons — at the risk of being heady, for higher reasons. Meyers’ work in sharing the stage made clear once again how cut out he is for his role. It’s not just that, practically alone among current hosts, Meyers has the chops to do an interview like this without making it all about himself. It’s that, in a seat a legend first occupied, Meyers balances irreverence with a sense of occasion. Tuesday’s broadcast was a little piece of TV history. And in Meyers’ hands, it was a conversation. A franchise whose initial greatness came from its host’s quirk and isolation became, thrillingly, a staging-ground for human connection.