Fifteen years ago, I was positive David Letterman was on his deathbed. He was in his fifties, which I always heard is when people start to die of bad luck, and his father died of a heart attack at the age of 57. He was having a quintuple bypass – a whole three more bypasses than I knew existed. When he came back, I couldn’t quite believe it. And after that, I regarded each new episode as a minor miracle. Even his retirement is a bit magical if only because it’s 2015. I got to watch him for fifteen years longer than I expected.
Letterman was an unrivaled late night host because he knew exactly where the distance should be. He didn’t oversell the material, and his indulges in spectacle were special occasions and regarded as wearying constructs. He didn’t beg you to laugh. He didn’t want your approval and didn’t ask for it. And he learned every lesson there was to learn from Johnny Carson without following in his aesthetic footsteps as the James Bond of the Midwest.
His approach to comedy was singular because he would do a bit long enough to show you that he could, and then he’d throw it away, or mentally disassociate, or make the audience squirm until the punchline was in the discomfort, the dead air in between the expected beats, and the absurdity of his show’s very format. Some of Letterman’s best moments were impossible to explain if you didn’t intimately know his persona. He was the only TV host who could reliably get laughs out of a protracted sigh or a sideways glance. It was never really about the jokes. It was about the air around the jokes.
Right now, his departure is a reality that won’t set in for good until that night when I ritually flip on the TV at 11:35 and realize there’s nothing to watch. It feels a bit like the end of the late night format. Some of that is because comedy in general has become atomized, but mostly it’s because he left such a huge footprint and his influence was so vast. Letterman writing vets went on to do the best work in American comedy. Without his show as a launch pad, it’s hard to imagine Larry Sanders, Newsradio or The Simpsons happening and having the tone they had. His tone was everywhere. Cynicism without nihilism, intelligence without pretention – comedy that trusted its audience and staked everything on personality.
But there were certain luxuries available to David Letterman that we didn’t used to understand as luxuries. Think of Letterman’s best running gags, his most memorable bits. Most of them worked because you had to know him to appreciate them. The Oprah feud was great because it had no rhyme or reason, pissed away so much time, and culminated in such unreasonable stakes and disproportionate passion. It had to have a loyal audience to accomplish those goals. It was funny because it was played so straight, because so much time was spent in the build-up, because the scope was so insane. It was one of the most triumphant shaggy dog stories in comedy. You can’t condense that bit and preserve its magic. You have to ride along with it.
Which is to say Letterman’s best material wasn’t very shareable or easily abridged. This is the luxury nobody has anymore. Nobody has the luxury of finding a show’s voice without the specter of YouTube and social media looming above them. And that means they can’t build trust in an audience because they can’t build an audience in the first place.
Look at Jimmy Fallon. He’s not trying to build an audience. He’s not trying to build a base. His show is perpetually chasing after an abstract YouTube audience that can’t be counted on to be the same from one night to the next. There’s no trust, because he’s always hopping from one imaginary million internet people to another. He’s so caught up in the post-social media television landscape that every segment feels like an advertisement for a show that never happens.
A late night talk show that is concerned principally with internet traction must be concerned principally with novelty and one-offs. This will slowly but surely create a performer who has to be all things to all people, and is therefore desperate and unknowable. Jimmy Fallon is an easy scapegoat. He is Buzzfeed given sentience, but if he were fired tomorrow, his replacement would still be born into the same landscape.
Everything a Jimmy Fallon figure has to do to satiate the internet beast is detrimental to comedy. His bits have to be short, self-contained, and funny in a vacuum, which prevents any of them from being intellectually fulfilling or emotionally rewarding. He is dependent on virality, and viral culture is about engineering the perfect 7 out of 10 segment and never aiming higher. It usually means creating or saying things so anodyne, sentimental or facile, that they have no personality whatsoever.
When you let the internet win, that’s what you get. You get self-conscious kitsch. A repackaging of sentimental clickbait. Broadness masquerading as populism that irons out all idiosyncrasy. But Letterman didn’t let the internet win. That was what made him, even toward the end of his run, so necessary, even after his passion was gone. While Jimmy Fallon turned The Tonight Show into the world’s biggest-budget content farm, Letterman hung around for a lot longer than he needed and did his job the old-fashioned way, and TV was better off for it. And if Jimmy Fallon is what late night has to be in 2015, then let it die.
My brothers and I have one favorite Late Show moment that makes us laugh hysterically on recollection alone. It’d be nice if it was something everybody remembers, but it’s not. I think it was about 10 years ago. It was a remote segment called “Where In The World Is Biff Henderson?” and Biff was at a Jiffy Lube in New Jersey. Dave asked something to the effect of “well, what are you doing?” and Biff replied: “Not a damn thing, Dave, it’s a Jiffy Lube.”
I don’t ever want to figure out why it makes me laugh more than anything else the show ever did. That’d ruin the magic.