by Julian Spivey
The legendary David Letterman, who’s arguably the most important figure in the history of late night television talk shows, will say goodbye on Wednesday, May 20 after 30-plus years of great laughter and memories. Many things about late night television will never be the same when Letterman hangs up his suit for the last time on Wednesday night, but this should be a time of celebration for one of TV’s true legends and in celebration of Letterman’s career here are the Top 10 Reasons We Love David Letterman:
10. Throwback to TV’s Heyday
David Letterman is the comedian that bridged the gap between television’s late night beginnings and heyday with Johnny Carson to the modern day late night talk show where younger stars like Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers and James Corden thrive. Letterman still gives us that old time talk show feeling though about what the medium is supposed to be through his smart interviews mixed in with hilarious comedy. Someone like Fallon playing games on a nightly basis with his guests is truly a waste of what the medium could and should be, but as long as Letterman was on you could still get quality conversation from the host and guest.
David Letterman is the greatest interviewer in the history of the late night talk show medium and I’m slightly afraid that this great aspect of late night will disappear when he retires on Wednesday night. Most people tune into late night talk shows for the comedy and many will even switch off the program once the celebrity interviews start, but Letterman always made sure viewers watched from start to finish and did so by being a fantastic interviewer whether he liked his guests or didn’t. Letterman was a pleasure to watch when he had a guest on his show that he had a great rapport with like a Michael Keaton or Bill Murray, but could be even more pleasurable when interviewing a guest that you knew he couldn’t stand like Paris Hilton or Justin Bieber and you knew it because he didn’t hide the fact. What made Letterman’s interviews one-of-a-kind too is he didn’t just book celebrity after celebrity on his show like every other late night show. Letterman frequently invited interesting guests like honored military veterans and authors who wrote books on important political or global topics and had interesting and informative conversations like you’d hear on a program like “60 Minutes.” I guarantee those interviews won’t ever be seen on late night TV again.
I previously mentioned that Letterman was the bridge between Johnny Carson and today’s younger talk show hosts and part of the reason why is that he completely changed and innovated late night TV singlehandedly. First of all, Letterman pretty much birthed the “late, late show” aspect of late night television. Before his ‘Late Night’ program began on NBC in 1982 there was no such thing as a “late, late show.” It was basically “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and then that was it until the next morning. But, Letterman gave viewers a reason to stay up into the wee hours of the morning with his irreverent humor and out-of-the-box style interviews and inspired a generation of future comedians, especially late night talk show comedians like Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien. Without David Letterman there’s no telling what late night TV might look like today.
The thing that’s always made David Letterman such a fascinating late night talk show host is his “I don’t give a damn” type of personality that frequently made him seem more dangerous than other talk show hosts. It was more of a thing on his NBC ‘Late Night’ show in the ‘80s, but even today at age 68 Letterman is still, by far, the most seemingly dangerous host in late night television. This is because he doesn’t care if he offends people and isn’t worried or phased by something like television ratings. Part of the reason he seemed so dangerous over the years is his stunts, whether it be hilariously dressing in a suit of Velcro and hurdling himself at a wall of Velcro, wearing a suit of Alka Seltzer and dunking himself in a giant tank of water, driving around town constantly giving pointless traffic updates, working a drive-thru at a local Taco Bell or spraying passersby outside of the Ed Sullivan Theater with water he’s always seemed unpredictable and outrageously funny because of it.
One of the things I’m going to miss the most about David Letterman’s show is his taste in music that gave his show a more unique and independent feel than any other late night talk show. For instance, David Letterman’s love of Americana has led to incredibly talented artists like Jason Isbell, Rodney Crowell, Sturgill Simpson and others being broadcast on his show multiple times. When’s the last time you saw somebody that wasn’t from one of the big three genres or top 40 charts on Jimmy Fallon’s programs? Letterman always booked the best musical guests on his show and I worry these great forms of independent or non-radio music will ever get the chance they deserve again on late night.
5. Sense of Humor
David Letterman has always spoken to the hearts of many of his fans because of his style or sense of humor that is incredibly dry, witty, sarcastic, sardonic and cynical. It’s a type of humor that has frequently turned viewers off, because they mistake it for being mean spirited or cruel, but the honest fact is that some people just flock to that type of humor. It’s a style of humor that really fits my personality and half the time I credit Letterman for that – as I think many others probably do, as well. If you like sarcastic, dry and witty humor Letterman is probably your comedy God. There just seems to be something so intelligent about this style of humor. But, at the same time Letterman was also one of the most absurd comedians on television with great bits like throwing stuff off of the Ed Sullivan Theater rooftop just to get a laugh when it shattered or busted upon hitting the ground or the many, terrific non-sequitur jokes he’d tell during his nightly monologue.
This is something that’s briefly been brought up in a few of the posts preceding this one, but David Letterman’s grumpy, sarcastic, “I don’t give a damn” attitude or really personality has over the years become incredibly endearing to his loyal fans. Sure, it’s been a reason why a good portion of the television audience has never cared for him, but in a way that just makes us fans love him even more. Letterman is our guy. If Jay Leno was your guy that just made us feel more intelligent and like we had a better and more challenging sense of humor than you do. I guess what I’m saying is Letterman’s fans were as often as prickly as he was and that’s how he became so endearing to us.
Some late night talk show hosts seem a little fake. Jay Leno always seemed fake. Jimmy Fallon, even though he’s incredibly funny and often innovative in his own special ways, can come off as fake. David Letterman never seemed fake and a lot of that had to do with his honesty. Letterman is very likely the most private person on television – maybe ever on television – but when he’s given us insight to his personal life whether it being about talking about his heart surgery, his son Harry, his emotional response on his first episode back after 9/11 or especially his admission to having affairs with members of his paid staff he’s always been honest and truthful with us. We admire him for that. It’s why Letterman has always seemed like the most realistic comedian on late night.
I think if one were to tell David Letterman that he’s the most important figure in late night television history that he’d say that’s ridiculous and that his hero and mentor Johnny Carson was and always will be. And, while Carson’s impact on late night television was huge and he certainly influenced Letterman and Jay Leno I don’t believe there’s anybody who has influenced more of today’s late night hosts than Letterman. Jon Stewart, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien have all gone on the record before on their respective shows and in print on how much Letterman’s comedy and shows impacted their lives and careers. Letterman was the comedian they idolized and grew up wanting to be and now that they’re successful they aren’t forgetting him as his time on television comes to an end.
1. Part Of Our Lives for So Long
David Letterman has been on television for so long, longer than my entire life in fact, that he’s become ingrained in many of our lives. He’s become much more than just a television personality. He’s become our friend, our comedic hero, a nightly appointment for us over the years. It’s to the point that many of us aren’t sure what we’re supposed to do with our nights once Wednesday’s episode comes to an end. It might sound ludicrous to put that much importance and emphasis on something like a television show, but to us Dave is more than just a television show. He’s someone who’s shared his life with us for half of his life and most, if not all, of ours. He’s someone who’s personally given me more laughs than anybody else in my lifetime and I’m not sure there will be another comedian or really anybody in general who will ever come close. It’s incredibly hard to say goodbye to somebody who’s been there for you every night for so long even if it was just inside of that box on your entertainment center. I’m glad we’ve had the opportunity to spend so much time with Dave over the years. I wonder what the first night without him will bring.