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David Letterman: In the end, irony beat cornball

David Letterman (right) with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr of The Beatles.Associated Press/file

It seems a bit unfair that David Letterman’s legacy is marked so indelibly by the fact that he lost out on “The Tonight Show.” Yes, when Johnny Carson retired in 1991, NBC gave the seat to Jay Leno, whose upbeat comedy was deemed a better fit for a broad national audience than Letterman’s deadpan, minor-key brand of humor. It was striking that Leno, who grew up in Andover, seemed to speak more to Middle America, while Letterman, an Indiana native, resonated with cheeky coastal elites. Sure enough, after Letterman — whose show “Late Night” followed Carson — decamped to CBS and started a rival show in Leno’s time slot, Leno generally came out on top in the ratings.

Even so, it’s Letterman who will leave the more memorable legacy. His “Stupid Pet Tricks” became an absurdist staple. His top 10 lists, which began as a parody of popularity charts, became a ubiquitous gag that’s still widely copied today. If anything, in the age of BuzzFeed listicles — “22 smells New Yorkers will never forget” — creating strange juxtapositions by arbitrarily ranking things takes on a whole new relevance.


Indeed, even if Letterman’s ironic approach never made it to “The Tonight Show,” his brand of comedy won the war. As his career on the talk-show circuit comes to a close — Letterman announced plans Thursday to retire next year as host of CBS’s “The Late Show” — it’s noteworthy that the late-night talk show scene is largely in the hands of Letterman’s comic heirs.