David Letterman is stepping down, and it’s time. Once snarky but now cranky, once anarchic and inspired but now complacent, once speaking barbs to power but now the power, he has passed his due date.
Of course there’s no denying Letterman’s importance in the world of comedy, which he radically changed in his early years on TV. When he showed up on the late-night lineup in 1982, he was the great shock of the new. He brought his spiky sense of irony and skepticism to a genre largely defined at that time by gentlemanly joshing around. He replaced the dominant Vegas-styled stand-up sensibility built on punch lines with a more absurdist tone, one in which a joke fail was funnier than a success. He subverted the talk format in the way the Smothers Brothers had subverted the variety show format in the 1960s, leaving them at odds with CBS censors.
Letterman seemed to be the first comic to understand that by the time the nightly news was over, TV audiences were ready to embrace the surreal, to grok the talk-show meta-joke that was Larry “Bud” Melman, to get their Monty Python on. For that, he will always be a pivotal TV figure worth celebrating — which we will certainly do, with miles and miles of words and click-through galleries and clips, when he leaves CBS’s “The Late Show” next year and makes way for Stephen Colbert. He will be praised.
But now, 32 years into his late-night reign — that’s two more years than Johnny Carson — it’s OK to admit that Letterman’s sarcastic bite has lost its power. The self-conscious eye-rolling that made him so innovative for years, that influenced generations of later comics from Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel to Daniel Tosh and Chelsea Handler, has become a routine that, at its worst, comes off as merely irritable and bored. Early on, not caring was his best shtick; now it’s his curse. Too often, he seems to coast on his detached attitude and disgusted facial expressions, instead of using them in service of clever material.
He and the phonier Jay Leno couldn’t be more different comedically; Leno’s safe approach was everything Letterman rejected. But they both reached their burnout phases and began riding on autopilot years ago, less interested in staying creatively vibrant and keeping the talk-show format exciting than in beating the other’s ratings. Their battles, and the interlocking battle of O’Brien losing “The Tonight Show,” yoked them together in a self-referential pissing contest that smacked of that great satire of late-night TV and insecure hosts, “The Larry Sanders Show.”
Now, Letterman is as likely as not to sit passively while a guest prattles through prefabricated material, the kind of Leno-like segment that Letterman once would have tried to disrupt. Recently, he had Amy Schumer as a guest, which is a good thing; she’s funny. But she basically ran through her material while Letterman sat back enjoying her. He was pleasant, distant, and delighted to plug her Comedy Central series, but it was mechanical and had none of the electricity of, say, Letterman’s off-the-handle visits from Sandra Bernhard in the 1980s. Try browsing through old Letterman clips on YouTube and you’ll see the difference between a guy having fun versus a guy in something of a slog.
But Letterman isn’t just a victim of artistic burnout, which is one of the common scourges of TV, an ongoing medium that can turn even the most beloved shows and entertainers into unwelcome squatters. The times caught up to David Letterman and his once incendiary style of humor, and now they are leaving him behind.
The same irony that Letterman ushered into mainstream acceptance, that gave us Stupid Pet Tricks and locals on the streets of New York instead of cutesy animal segments and Ed McMahon, has become the bread and butter of the comedy world — on TV, in the movies, even in advertising, where brand self-mockery and meta-awareness sell beer, computers, gum. Letterman’s comedic style was an “acquired taste,” as The New York Times review of his first NBC “Late Night” episode put it in 1982; now, it is a driving cultural force, not least of all through irony-loving hipsters.
Letterman was a pioneer in the art of hating Hollywood superficiality, in needling famous guests instead of befriending them, of being the anti-Mary Hart of “Entertainment Tonight.” That disillusionment with celebrity, the debunking of the myth of Hollywood self-importance, is all over the place now — not on the E! red carpet, perhaps, but on the likes of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” “The Colbert Report,” and “Chelsea Lately.” Even Letterman’s willingness to rag on his own network has become commonplace; it was the bedrock of an entire series, “30 Rock.”
The newer iteration of Letterman’s style is a little less hostile; it’s too prevalent to be unrelentingly harsh. Nowadays, comics make ruthless fun of pop culture and Hollywood, but with an undercurrent of affection. The subtext seems to be “We tease because we love,” turning a satirical take on, say, “The Real Housewives” shows into a twisted form of celebration. It’s akin to the phenomenon of hate-watching, openly enjoying something because you think it’s bad in a grand sort of way. Contempt, one of Letterman’s trademarks, no longer thrives. It’s hard to parlay contempt into a long comedy career; it can ultimately undermine the comedian himself. Letterman kept it going longer than seemed possible.
Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, Letterman’s current competitors at 11:35 p.m., appear to have caught the tenor of the moment, with Kimmel the slightly edgier one. They are open fans of TV, movies, and celebrities, even while they rib them. Their rivalries are jokes — Kimmel versus Matt Damon, for example — rather than the derisive rivalry between Leno and Letterman. They are able to be both ironic and sincere, toggling between the two without much awkwardness. Louis C.K., one of today’s top comics, is similarly positioned between the two poles.
As many have said, Letterman has not mastered the art of viral clips, something his younger competition — particularly Fallon — excel at. Right now, self-standing clips are essential to a show’s brand vitality, as the business model of TV extends to the Internet. We must be able to watch them the next day, as we might a segment from “The Colbert Report” or a sketch on Funny or Die, which President Obama recently used to drive traffic to Healthcare.gov. “The Late Show” isn’t as easily broken up into detachable clips; it’s more of an hour-long extension of Letterman’s persona.
Good on Letterman for letting go, finally. Maybe in the coming months he will feel a sense of renewal and put some jazz back into his now-metronomic comic beats. Maybe he’ll go out at his best, shaking up the formula, telling us once again why we should miss him when he’s gone.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.