Friday, May 22, 2015

Letterman!


Guess what? David Letterman has retired from television and has ended his long-running late-night talk show. A television series ended.

But for all the navel-gazing self-important praise the show has been lathered with in the last weeks you'd think another pope had stepped down. And maybe in the ceaselessly myopic worldview of the always pungent baby boomers something akin to that did happen.

David Letterman once upon a time was an acerbic comedian who successfully rode his particular brand of gap-toothed snark to great fame and success, and at the same time, in a medium which was still barely fondling its old-fashioned ways of being a mass audience event, he was a fairly potent cultural figure.

But those days passed a relatively long time ago. David Letterman's show has not been anything other than  a late-night habit for his decreasing cadre of fans for nearly two decades. Aside from the "Top Ten" lists he was rarely if ever quoted and the show was notorious for his seemingly careless interviews. Now we hear he was a great interviewer, a skill I've never detected especially, but that certainly ain't been the case for a long long time if it ever was.

David Letterman's great talent was bringing an everyman worldview to the entertainment and sometimes political realms. He was able to cut through the cheese and get to the verve with an attitude which reflected, at its best, a real sense of humanity. And he could be snarky while he pretended to be self-deprecating. And in the early days when he was on NBC, he was really funny with a gang of writers and staff members who knew they were serving an audience which needed some titillation of a moderately cerebral kind. The show also a bit meta when it showed the halls and corridors and offices of the studio for its pranks. It was a glimpse behind the scenes, which made the material a bit more immediate perhaps.

He is still most famous for the inventive velcro-suit, a stunt I think I saw as it originally aired but I'm not sure now. It was hilarious and is still funny, making light as it did of a the "space-age substance" which was catching favor on clothes at the time. It's the late-night equivalent of Johnny Carson's famous moment with Ed Ames when he tomahawked a wooden Indian in the utes. But like that infamous TV moment it was long ago and far away.

Dave Letterman's reputation is built on what he did long ago and apparently an unusual integrity among his peers. I can respect that, but let's not kid ourselves that the show has been anything other than a relic, especially since Leno was eased out a few years ago and the famous competition between Dave and Jay was rendered moot.

Listening to one "newsman" or "sportscaster" after another try to glom onto the momentary glamour of this retirement can be hard when they wax on out of all proportion to the actual import of the event. David Letterman will go into his post-TV life with his millions of dollars and his seemingly happy family and I wish him well. Like Carson before him, I suspect we will see very little of him from this point on. His desire for privacy has always been about the most admirable aspect of his character. He will fade from memory (likely before the beginning of next week) as our rather tiresome cultural mavens find a new bauble to caress.


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4 comments:

  1. I don’t know that there was ever a program that showcased old, new, up & coming, and local bands on television to a better degree than the Letterman show. There were a lot of times I waited up to catch this program – purely for the musical acts. Whether it was Trampled By Turtles (local band), Foo Fighters, Tom Waits, Los Straitjackets, Alice Cooper or 60’s icon Darlene Love coming out to sing her annual rendition of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home”) – Dave’s show consistently delivered for the music fan. He made me laugh pretty consistently too. I’ll miss the whole magilla. Not much on tee-vee excites me anymore (other than old movies on Netflix.)

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    1. Good point about the music. One thing though is his replacement Colbert really has an eclectic ear too and featured a lot of folks I'd never heard of on his old show.

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  2. What seems to have been lost over time is the art of conversation, which occupied quite a bit of television time in its beginnings. I'm barely old enough to have seen the Tonight Show when Jack Paar was host. Guests were not there to plug books or movies and segments could go on for a long time as interesting and eccentric personalities simply talked about what was interesting to them. I didn't catch the original Steve Allen show, but I remember his afternoon show that had a lot of zaniness and improvising, but also some fairly intellectual discussion.
    And public political discussion was certainly more civil and nuanced than the bludgeoning tunnel-visioned rhetoric we have to endure now. I've always been fairly liberal socially at least, but I used to enjoy the level of debate on William Buckley's Firing Line program. There was usually a segment at the end where a very young Jeff Greenfield would stand at a podium and ask questions that challenged Buckley's conservative ideology and Buckley would give reasoned responses that allowed you to follow him philosophically, even if you disagreed with him.He never once demanded Greenfield's birth certificate.

    We now have entire networks devoted to nothing but news and talk that still think their audience is only interested in sensationalism, mud-slinging and devoting most of their 24 hours to only one or two headlines and petty arguments. If the public were given the choice, I think they would prefer more comprehensive journalism, more cooperative politics and more civil discourse.

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    1. Conflict is the goal it seems of many if not actually most of the interviews and political discussions I come across on cable and elsewhere. Buckley's show was just as you say a sometimes somber talk with folks I often disagreed with, but always there was decorum. You have to go to C-Span these days to find expansive conversations about public issues without all the heat, but they are hard to find.

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