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David Letterman: From Avant-Garde to Palace Guard

In the 1930s, Peter Arno's dowagers and Monopoly men stick figures railed against FDR. But today, it's the left who are now America's Ruling Class. They don't enjoy having their walled-off worldview violated; and expect their servants, whether on TV or in print, to defend against any attacks that bubble-up from below.

As Mike Meyers' Dr. Evil character once told Mike Meyers' Austin Powers character, there's nothing more pathetic than an aging hipster, and those who strike the pose of "cool" often age very, very badly indeed, eventually becoming the old guard they themselves used to parody. No one will confuse David Letterman with Bob Hope, but as Mark Steyn wrote in 2003, shortly before Hope passed away after reaching his centennial, there was a time in the early part of his career when Hope almost singlehandedly invented the modern stand-up comic style, much the same way that Letterman reinvented the talk show:

Success on that scale breeds a particular kind of contempt. Younger comics who for 30 years have despised Hope as a pro-war establishment suck-up forget that he more or less invented the form they work in: the relaxed guy who strolls on and does topical observational gags about the world we live in. When he started eight decades ago, there were no “stand-ups”; it was an age of clowns – weird-looking guys in goofy costumes taking frenzied pratfalls and telling ethnic gags in stage dialects – German, Irish, Negro.

But forty years later, Hope became out of touch with the times, and it cost him, badly, dating him as a man of the past:

He only put his foot wrong once. He was the American everyman and he wanted to be every man’s American, fun for young and old alike. But Vietnam placed huge strains on that notion of a universal popular culture. For the first time in his career, Hope had to choose sides and it wasn’t so much that he chose wrong but the way he chose. “Students are revolting all over the world,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re revolting about, I just know they’re revolting.” The limitations of his technique – of being a frontman for a factory of joke generators – were suddenly exposed. The reliable formulae, the old portable puns sounded sour and small-minded. Unimaginably, the guy who’d always been one step ahead of the times was behind the times. Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon can complain about the way “speaking out” on Iraq is hurting their careers, but Hope’s a sharper example of how taking sides can change public perception: in a late Sixties poll of American high schools’ favourite entertainers, he came second to the Beatles. By the time the war ended, he’d lost that generation forever.

In the Depression, Herbert Hoover ran for re-election on the slogan “Prosperity’s Just Around The Corner”. On stage, Hope said he’d run into a lady in the lobby. “She said, ‘Young man, could you tell me where I could find the rest room?’ And I said, ‘It’s just around the corner.’ ‘Don’t give me that Hoover talk,’ she said. ‘I gotta go.’” That’s a perfect Hope gag: genially pointed – exactly where he wanted to be. After Vietnam, he never quite recovered his timing. In the 1988 Presidential election, he thought Dukakis “sounded like something you step in”. HIV? “Did you hear the Statue of Liberty has Aids? She’s not sure whether she caught it from the mouth of the Hudson [the river that runs along Manhattan’s west sure] or the Staten Island ferry [pronounced “fairy”].” Hope isn’t “homophobic’ – his closest professional confidante these days is a lesbian daughter – but he couldn’t seem to get his groove back. In transforming himself into a one-man laugh corporation, he’d blunted his own comedic instincts.

That last line is key. David Letterman arrived at a time when the TV talk show was a moribund institution. As hip and cool as Carson was, the structure of his show -- and all of the talk shows that mindlessly imitated it -- seemed permanently trapped around the era of Mad Men. By the early 1980s, it had become petrified. When Carson passed away in early 2005, James Lileks wrote:

Lost in all the eulogies this week, I think, will be recognition of how unhip the Tonight Show was for a while. Not Lawrence-Welk unhip; it always had enough residual Vegas swank to keep it from becoming a relic from the grandpa demographic. But what had seemed cosmopolitan and urbane to a kid was fossilized and irrelevant to the know-it-all 18 year old. Everything had changed for you, but nothing had changed for them. The drunk jokes. Hi-yo. Doc’s fashion sense. Remarks about the band’s wild ways, or Tommy Newsome’s impassivity. Ed fargin’ Ames throwing the tomahawk – was it funny because he planted it the yarbles, or because it resembled homo erectus? Both? That was still funny, but you had to sit through a lot to get there. Get out of your car, cut off your Slausen – if you smiled at that, it was because you remembered how cool you felt the first time you knew that line was coming. But it wasn’t hip. Saturday Night Live was hip. SNL was now and the Tonight Show was most definitely then. Carson always did that golf swing. No one you knew golfed.

Letterman's show, debuting in the early 1980s, was the perfect antidote, grafting the sensibility of SNL onto the talk show format, bridging the gap between the post-'60s Saturday Night Live and the postmodern Seinfeld.

But as Anne Beatts, a writer on the first iteration of Saturday Night Live once quipped, "you can only be avant-garde for so long, before you become garde." And as with Bob Hope and the Vietnam war, Letterman was equally flustered by Iraq. Hope would have been around 64 during the Tet Offensive; Letterman was about 59 when he told Bill O'Reilly in late 2006 he wasn't sure if he wanted America to win in Iraq:

In now a famous “You Tube” moment, Bill O’Reilly of the Fox News Channel, went on Letterman to be the recipient of the host’s rude and sophomoric antics. As the segment shifted into high gear, O’Reilly asked Letterman a pointed and direct question: “Do you want the United States to win in Iraq?”To the surprise of no one but his sycophants, Letterman could not or would not answer the question. When pressed by O’Reilly to answer, the best he could do was to play to his mostly left-leaning audience for cheap debating points and say, “It’s not easy for me because I’m thoughtful.”

As I wrote back then:

How thoughtful do you need to be? it's an A or B question: do you want the US to win, or Al Qaeda, the Baathists, and Iran? Letterman, who, 20 years ago, was once the master of postmodern irony, became its unintentional victim as he unwittingly echoed Jack Benny's classic gag when he retorted to a fictional mugger shouting “Your money or life, pal!” on his old radio show: "I'm thinking it over!"

Which brings us to Letterman's attack on Andrew Breitbart last night:

David Letterman, speaking to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow on his show, asked about the Shirley Sherrod incident and took it upon himself to slam Andrew Breitbart. At one point during the interview he asked her “how much time, energy was wasted on this a*shole ****ing around?”

Maddow described Breitbart as a “spinoff from Matt Drudge, from the Drudge Report.” Breitbart, indeed, used to serve as an editor of the Drudge Report, but her intentions in mentioning the Drudge Report probably amount to the effectiveness of the site to sway public debate– not to mention millions of viewers visiting per day. Two targets for the price of one. After all, anyone from MSNBC at this point has to be pretty bitter due to their horrific ratings.

Of course, to no ones surprise, she continued to spew the lefts talking points on the matter, reaffirming to Dave that Fox News ran the story as “factual”– when, in fact, they didn’t run the story until after 9 p.m that night, as Fox News anchor Bret Baier confronted Howard Dean on the same lies the mainstream media picked up and ran with. Any opportunity they get to attack Fox News and Conservatives, they utilize to the fullest.

We've reached a point where, while English still is the dominant language in the US, but it really doesn't matter: the right and the left are speaking two entirely different languages, and the left simply cannot comprehend what is being said on the right. At some point around 2003 or 2004, when the pressure cooker burst, Letterman moved much further away from the center-left position that Carson held down so well for decades. You knew Carson was liberal, but he was fair, and became the gold standard for talk show hosts by allowing everyone in America to safely tune-in. With Letterman? Much like Saturday Night Live, if you don't share his nihilistic worldview, you're not wanted as part of his audience -- and America knows it.

At Breitbart's Big Hollywood site, editor John Nolte responds in a style that should be all too familiar to Letterman:

Top Ten Things We Learned From

David Letterman Trashing Andrew Breitbart

10. No one will ever say that David Letterman is “too smart to believe what he believes.”

9. Whatever was left of Dave’s edgy sense of irony died while engaging in a serious discussion about the ethics of journalism with… Rachel Maddow… of…. MSNBC…

8. Dave hasn’t figured out that “scaring smart people” puts your ratings in the toilet.

7. Dave will believe any lie told by a humorless partisan wearing purple glasses.

6. Two negatives do not equal a positive. Maddow’s inability to feel joy plus Letterman’s similar affliction equals less audience pleasure than a discussion about undercooked meatloaf between two nursing home residents.

5. Somehow the career of Johnny Carson’s former protege’ has hit so many classless lows that his calling someone a #$%*& [email protected]#!& on national television doesn’t even rate.

4. Contrary to popular belief, for five minutes Dave is in fact able to restrain himself from leering over the words ”Palin” and “Sarah.” …and to not make jokes about the statutory rape of teenage girls.

3. The only time anyone notices Dave’s show is when he embarrasses himself.

2. Dave’s still cranky since learning Bill Clinton now narrowly leads in their contest to see which gray-haired old lefty can score the most intern tail.

1. I guess Andrew won’t be getting a personal tour of Letterman’s creepy Edgar Allen Poe off-office sex-with-employees room above the Ed Sullivan Theatre.

And speaking of Top Ten Lists, Ace has one of his own. Note the theme that runs through it of an aging host who's lost the Zietgeist and his aging audience.

Johnny and Bob could relate.

Related: At Commentary, Peter Wehner on "Democrats and the Benighted American People."

Dan Riehl adds, watch Letterman "go on about getting the facts right, while getting them completely wrong. It isn't about facts at all with these people, it's about the narrative." Or as Lileks noted back in late 2003, "we live in an era of non-contiguous information streams. I believe one thing; someone else believes another – and the bedrock assumptions are utterly contradictory."

Related: Another former NBC comedy vet long past his shelf-life melts down as well today: “This is not ‘Saturday Night Live,’ Al.”