The first time I watched David Letterman was summer vacation of 1982. My initial impression was, “Who is this gap-toothed weasel and what did he do with Tom Snyder?” I was not a normal 13-year-old.
By the end of the week, Dave was my new favorite way to stay up too late, excepting of course for pacing back and forth in front of my brand-new phone, trying to work up the nerve to call a girl. Any girl.
Letterman came on after Johnny Carson — who I started watching seven or eight years earlier, any time I could manage it — but was nothing like him. Carson was the master — urbane, smartly-dressed. Los Angeles via Iowa.
Dave was… not those things.
Letterman was awkward — crude, wore sneakers and sweaters. New York via Indiana.
Carson’s guests were people my grandparents knew and watched. Dave had on any and everybody — from stars barely older than I was, to the world’s (then) oldest usher. Carson put on a black wig and did a passable Reagan. Letterman barely acknowledged politics existed. Carson did skits featuring chesty spokesmodels. Dave climbed up to the top of a five-story tower and dropped off two water balloons filled with guacamole.
Carson inspired me. Dave cracked me up. Carson was who I wanted to be. Dave was who I wanted to watch.
I stopped watching Dave a few years back. Not for any particular reason — I’d just kind of outgrown watching latenight TV. If anything, Dave was probably knocked off by my DVD library. Hardly his fault.
But everything I’ve read about him the last couple years makes me glad he hasn’t been a visitor to my living room of late. This item seals the deal:
Mr. Obama’s visit, to be followed on Tuesday night by another guest of note, former President Bill Clinton, happens to dovetail with a larger strategy for “The Late Show With David Letterman.” The comedian has been reshaping his program around a longer, more ambitious, more politically pointed monologue — the kind viewers associate more with that long-running late-night show on NBC.
“When he began in television, Letterman was virtually apolitical,” said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse. “Now he’s moved to the point where he could be called a political comedian.”
Letterman’s genius was what one writer at Liberty magazine called “post-ironic humor.” Essentially, Letterman found humor in the badness of television itself. The unspoken premise of his old Late Night show on NBC, and again at CBS, was, “If you think TV is bad, wait’ll you see the crap we get away with.”
And in his heyday, that was a premise that worked.
Dave hyped dweeby Paul Schaffer‘s little group as “the world’s most dangerous band.” He read little lists of ten not-quite-funny items with pomp and seriousness. He gave the best lines on his show to his crewmembers, and to strange anti-stars like the fictional Larry “Bud” Melman. He got serious laughs out of lame-ass catchphrases like, “They pelted us with rocks and garbage.”
It worked because Dave was poking fun at the conventions and cliches of television — and at himself for playing along with them, albeit subversively. The joke was, he was in on the joke.
Irony is when your actions result in the opposite of your intentions. Post-irony is when you go ahead and take the stupid action — with perfect knowledge beforehand of what the screwed-up result will be. Dave was the post-ironic master of making great bad television, on purpose, five nights a week. Letterman was television’s funniest screw-up, goofing his way to the top.
That was his shtick. And, man, it did work.
But politics and Dave mix like Carson and Arsenio. These days, Letterman is an institution. After 30 years of television, his subversions are the conventions. But instead of continually seeking to subvert and undermine, now he’s aiming lower — at his audience. Instead of taking us for a joyride through the often-idiotic world of TV, he’s telling us we’re the idiots, because we’re not all New York hipsters with properly conventional politics. Letterman, it seems, has finally forgotten his Indiana roots.
Well, maybe I am dumb, but I can tell the difference between good-bad TV and bad-bad TV. And Dave’s TV is just bad.