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Critic’s Notebook

Letterman upended late-night genre

The Boston Globe’s Matthew Gilbert lists the top 10 Letterman moments. Video by Emily Zendt
The Boston Globe's Matthew Gilbert lists the top 10 Letterman moments. Video by Emily Zendt
David Letterman Greg Allen/Invision/Associated Press

In a way, when late-night king David Letterman leaves his throne Wednesday, it won’t really matter, will it? He’ll be gone, and yet he’ll still be everywhere in our culture, not least of all in the hearts of the good people of Generation X, whose comic sensibilities he so perfectly defined.

Letterman has, without a doubt, been among the most influential presences in the last 30 years of American popular culture. We seem to say that a lot about our older icons these days, especially in light of their farewells; but Letterman, currently enjoying star-studded thanks and adulation in the final episodes of his “Late Show,” is truly up there with Oprah and Springsteen and Spielberg.

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Arguably, he has been even more socially dynamic than his mentor Johnny Carson, having set a particular tone — of sarcasm, self-reference, and heavy winking — for decades of entertainment. And he has certainly left a bigger, more distinctive mark than any of his fellow hosts, including Jay Leno and the current ratings topper, Jimmy Fallon.

Now 68, Letterman’s a Midwestern boomer who, in the 1980s, followed his own absurdist path and forged a new post-“Saturday Night Live” way to make great variety TV. Among his tools: weirdly compelling remote sequences, random real people, a grumpy aspect, and mundane inanities including sticking himself onto a wall wearing a Velcro suit and placing himself into a vat of dip wearing a suit of potato chips.

From his late-night perch at NBC beginning in 1982, on a stage that he sometimes abandoned for the streets of New York, Letterman became a driving force in the then-new age of ironic detachment, the era of air quotes and casual mockery. He was the Hawkeye Pierce of the world of entertainment, the sardonic guy sitting back and laughing at the predictability and ridiculousness of human behavior.

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He constructed a talk show that matched his temperament; it was more like a deconstruction of talk shows, as he subverted the conventions of the genre by mocking them — pet tricks, top 10 lists, his own monologues and punchlines, celebrity interviews, and fame itself. He turned a spotlight on the most unlikely people, not least of all the nebbishy Larry “Bud” Melman, a character (played by Calvert DeForest) who was a send-up of a talk show sidekick, the inverse Ed McMahon. From his very New York desk, Letterman heaped scorn on the shiny, happy people promoting their movies, and he enjoyed making them uncomfortable.

He was hate-watching Hollywood.

David Letterman subverted the conventions of the talk show genre with segments on pet tricks, Top 10 lists, and monologues.Heather Wines/CBS/CBS

Recently, Letterman asked guest Julia Roberts why he was compelled to frighten young actresses during his heyday. “Because I think stupid people annoy you,” she said. Her answer was right, and it simultaneously explained the essence of his long-term effect on entertainment, which, before him, was wont to automatically celebrate the superficiality and stupidity of the fabulous world of showbiz. How could we have been so surprised when, in 1995, Letterman proved to be one of the worst-ever hosts of that back-patting festival known as the Oscars?

Everything Letterman did on NBC in the 1980s was in synch with the emerging zeitgeist of the time, with Talking Heads and Spy magazine and the media-savvy, meta-minded trash brains who would go on to make “Beavis and Butt-head” and “South Park” and even “The Simpsons.” His “Late Night” spoke to, and even nurtured, viewers who preferred tonal edge and off-kilter camera angles to the dull nicey-niceness of, say, Mary Hart and “Entertainment Tonight.”

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By the time Letterman left NBC for CBS in 1993 after not getting “The Tonight Show,” his irony and absurdism were no longer the stark alternative; they were hitting the mainstream. An entire network, Comedy Central, seemed to have been created in his wake. His bite and his satire of late-night tropes were becoming de rigueur. Meta-awareness became the bread and butter of hip TV, from the news spoofery of “The Daily Show” to the self-referential jokes of “Arrested Development,” “30 Rock,” “Just Shoot Me,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Scrubs” — the list is endless.

In 1993, David Letterman announced his move from NBC to CBS.Alex Brandon/AP/File

It’s hard to imagine cringe comedy without Letterman’s sneer hovering over it. And it’s clear that Letterman helped shape reality TV with his Stupid Human Tricks segments and his fondness for chitchat with real people, particularly local store owners. In 1986, he showed up at the home of a viewer, Colleen Boyle, who had written him a letter criticizing his footwear.

That transformation from alternative to mainstream was the beginning of the end for Letterman, creatively. These past few weeks, we’ve seen the scope of his popularity as A-lister after A-lister, from George Clooney to Bill Clinton, has sat next to him and paid homage. That’s a dead-end position for a person who made his name laughing at the self-seriousness and artificiality of late-night TV. His persona has been based on not being the standard or the cliché, and now here he is being celebrated as the grand poobah of the genre. He is no longer speaking barbs to power; he is power.

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Letterman has been at half-mast for years now, a slow decline in energy and motivation that started not too long after he moved to CBS and the large Ed Sullivan Theater. In recent years, his attitude has been weary, irritable, running on empty. His latter-day battles with Leno, and his investment in the years of competition between them, showed him in an unflattering light — and they dated him, too, since the younger hosts such as Jimmy Kimmel and Fallon avoid such ego-driven clashing. He seemed more focused on the contest than on creative renewal, and he became increasingly willing to sit while his guests blathered out prefabricated material.

And yet, and yet, the absence of Letterman will matter, in a way.

So much of pop culture is in the hands of the young, as, perhaps, it ought to be. But it’s also nice to have an adult in the room, a person who has been through plenty publicly and is still standing, a host with enough earned gravitas — after 9/11, after his own quintuple bypass surgery, in the face of the coming death of his friend Warren Zevon, upon getting caught in a sex scandal — to sit at his desk and talk to America vulnerably, and even movingly. There are only a few people in entertainment who can handle those kinds of landmark moments with grace, with honesty, and without a hint of irony. Letterman was one.

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President Barack Obama taped an appearance on the show on May 4.NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.