Letter Box

After 21 years as host of CBS’ Late Show and another 11 on NBC’s Late Night, David Letterman announced his retirement from late-night television last week. Letterman made the announcement on last Thursday’s Late Show in a characteristically loose and ambling stream-of-consciousness monologue full of pathos, bathos, self-deprecating humour and sardonic wit. It was a welcome contrast from Jay Leno’s mawkish farewell and crocodile tears on the eve of his (second!) departure from The Tonight Show in February. Even in goodbyes, the gulf in class between the two late-night hosts is palpable. Because while Leno’s conservatism (both political and comedic) kept late-night talk shows rooted in the past, Letterman opened up the genre, overturning conventions from within and dispensing with formality in favour of funny.

Don’t believe me? Ok, let’s consider how many people in television have ripped off Letterman since he started compared to Leno. And Bill O’Reilly doesn’t count, he just happens to be a disgusting Republican who’s bad at his job. When you see an entertainment show in which the crew, the audience and members of the public feature as prominently as the talent, Letterman did that. Plagiarism of Letterman was so rife, it even prompted an episode of talk show docu-satire The Larry Sanders Show in which host Larry tries to imitate Letterman’s ensemble of backstage performers against the stern warnings of traditionalist producer Artie’s about the ‘talent moat’. Conversely, Leno was all about heritage and keeping the talk show anonymous, bland and without formal innovation.

Letterman made the tone of late-night talk television casual, its humour offbeat and its attitude embracing of the alternative. His interactions with sidekick and band leader Paul Schaffer were parodies-cum-deconstructions of talk show traditions and his shows meandered in ways that seemed to defy their Draconian time restrictions. Leno’s Tonight Show looked like a corporate junket or infomercial in comparison. Sarcasm, irony and the surreal were Letterman’s calling cards not the flash-in-the-pan satire that Leno used to peddle to appear relevant. Letterman’s skits, like the infamous Top Ten List and Oprah Log, jabbed at the heart of American popular culture rather than superficially brushing it with cosy lampooning, and he incorporated cult and sideways figures (Bill Murray, Harvey Pekar) into the canon of celebrity guests.

Liberace returns from grave as Letterman's last guest!

Liberace returns from grave as Letterman’s last guest!

Leno’s safe, nostalgic version of late-night talk beat out Letterman in ratings for most of the 90s until the CBS host gradually eeked out a lead in the 2000s, consolidating his primacy during Conan O’Brien’s ill-fated tenure on The Tonight Show prior to Leno’s return. However America thought of him in the ‘90s, European TV saw Letterman’s style as the future of light entertainment. Kings of British primetime talk television entertainment throughout the 1990s and 2000s Jonathan Ross and Chris Evans imitated Letterman’s informal, self-referential and participatory approach to television to the letter. MTV Europe’s Most Wanted, an influential music talk show from the early 1990s presented by Ray Cokes, was undoubtedly guided by Letterman’s improvisatory technique and onscreen use of the crew and viewers.

It’s unsurprising that the template for a new generation of late-night TV hosts should come from Letterman not Leno. Leno’s successor Jimmy Fallon is defined by a Letterman-like breakdown of late-night talk show form rather than the previous era’s intransigence. Current CBS Late Late Show host – and legal heir to the Late Show host seat – Craig Ferguson takes Letterman’s leisurely variety of hosting to a new level with his near-formless set-wandering. From Letterman, comedy elite late-night hosts Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert take their spiky personas and dry interviewing style. Although, Letterman isn’t done yet. In the closest thing to a real-life episode of Columbo, Letterman’s 2012 interview with David Cameron exposed the British Prime Minister as the vapid, disinterested moron he is.

By contract and tradition, Letterman was supposed to inherit The Tonight Show following Johnny Carson’s exit from the host seat in 1992. Letterman was beaten out by Jay Leno who ruthlessly made himself NBC’s preferred choice in the course of brutal negotiations. Leno would deny another Late Night host the right of ascension after forcing out Conan O’Brien from a brief Tonight Show tenure in 2010. Currently, Letterman’s CBS late-night follow-up Craig Ferguson stands in the position Letterman did 23 years ago, with a contract specifying that he should take over his network forerunner but facing the possibility of being bought out and replaced by a ringer. For the sake of innovation, creativity and comedy, I hope that TV talk show history doesn’t repeat itself.

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