As Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad wrote in Saturday Night, their mid-1980s history of the early years of NBC’s long-running late night show, Lorne Michaels, the show’s creator and producer “never liked the way Bob Hope would make jokes about the President one day and play golf with him the next. It led, he was sure, to pulling punches.”
In the 1980s, David Letterman (whom Lorne in the mid-1980s considered a successsor of sorts to the original humor of SNL, according to Weingrad and Hill), loved nothing more to skewer sacrosanct politicians. When a youthful-looking 40-something Senator emerged out of nowhere to become vice president and appeared to be in deep over his head, Letterman was merciless. Flipping through his 1990 compendium of Top Ten Lists, it seems like half the riffs are Dan Quayle jokes.
Flash forward almost twenty years. Today, there’s a former senator whose ego is the size of Alpha Centuri, but with even less inside the Beltway experience than Quayle, and now holding actual power (as opposed to Quayle’s largely sideline job as veep). He’s seemingly punch drunk and fumbling badly in the early going (how badly? Even Time magazine has now taken notice). So where does Letterman aim his satire? Not at the president, where such japes could cost him a potential tee time, but the president’s grass roots critics.
Way to aim high, dude! You’ve transformed yourself from being the ’80s answer to Ernie Kovacs, into your current role as the host of Merv: The Next Generation.
Update: Doing the work that American talking heads such as Letterman no longer do, Gina Cobb has “The Top Ten Signs Your Presidency is in Trouble.” (H/T: CG.)