“Letterman was a turning point in American cultural history,” Michael Long writes at NRO. His article went online after I wrote my piece on Letterman, Leno, Colbert, and HBO’s Late Shift, or I would have certainly excerpted it there. But it’s worth reading the piece in full, for a reminder of how Letterman’s original late night show at NBC in the early to mid-’80s was the beginning of Weimar-esque irony absolutely permeating the American media’s overculture. To the point where even the New York Times published a piece late 2012 titled “How to Live Without Irony.” For which they found themselves pilloried for even suggesting the idea, by leftwing Websites who wish to remain permanently trapped behind the Irony Curtain.
OK, sorry about that last pun; here’s how Long’s piece concludes:
Before Dave, irony was like that little jar of allspice your mom got out once a year for Thanksgiving. Dave decided it would go well with everything, and it turns out we agreed. We live in Dave’s world now, communicating by sarcasm, and not liking him doesn’t make it any less true. Dave dragged a narrow, curmudgeonly worldview from obscurity to majority. Not even Carson pulled off anything that big.
Unless you have seen Letterman in his most amazing, early days — those desperate, late-night NBC shows where he built on Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen by narrating the sidewalk traffic as a passing parade, or broadcasting his program in Spanish, or pestering people just to ask “What’s in your bag?” — he’s just a grumpy old man to you now, in the same way that Leno’s early (lantern-)jaw-dropping talents are forgotten in favor of his later vanilla appeal. (Another lost fact: It was Letterman who made Leno a star, and together they defined the cutting edge of comedy in the 1980s.) But Dave was a giant, bigger than even Jolson and Hope, whose achievements were, relative to Dave’s, parochial and of their time. Letterman’s mark is on culture and language, and is so ubiquitous that few even know we used to speak and act some other way. But that’s how giants do it.
But as the policeman who found Lenny Bruce immediately after he shuffled off to the great night club in the sky was quoted as saying, “There is nothing sadder than an aging hipster.” Though perhaps even more pathetic are aging ironists, as their worldview becomes insular and reactionary, and their performance becomes freeze-dried and formulaic.
Of course, as far as formulaic at 11:30 PM at CBS, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.