David Letterman, 66, announced during a taping of his show tonight that he would be retiring in 2015.
If you’ve been watching Letterman only since the late ’90s, then you probably don’t understand why people are freaking out about his resignation.
By the late ’90s, Letterman was mostly just another late-night host running through jokes and interviewing celebrities.
But before that, in the early ’80s, he was one of the most innovative, hilarious people on television. His influence extended beyond his show and inspired a number of comics and talk-show hosts.
“David Letterman is the best that there is and ever was,” tweeted Jimmy Kimmel after hearing about Letterman’s retirement. He retweeted someone’s response to his sentiment: “Dave Letterman would tell you Johnny was the best, but he’d be wrong. Dave changed late night.”
Letterman broke into public consciousness not with the “Late Show” — the CBS show he hosts today — but with “Late Night With David Letterman,” which aired after “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,” from 1982 to 1993.
The writers and producers reveled in creating a completely absurd, silly show that was poles apart from the more conventional class and humour of Carson’s “Tonight Show.”
This blurb from People magazine in 1984 captures the brilliance of Letterman:
He is America’s No. 1 smartass. He is also, by far, the most inventive man on TV today. Letterman is a talk show host without fear. He flirts with the boundaries of politeness and humour; he’ll try anything once. Like Carson (but unlike Thicke), he knows what to do when a joke bombs — and bomb they do, for that is the price of experimentation. Once, to apologise for a groaner, Letterman paid everyone in the audience $US1. He’s had a steamroller flatten watermelons and six-packs of beer, just for the heck of it. He’s staged man-hunting duels between a Russian psychic and bloodhounds (the Russian won). He’s worn a Velcro suit and thrown himself against a wall to see whether he’d stick (he did). He’s had as guests a woman who costumes birds, a man who collects snowballs, a woman who collects strange nuts. He gleefully lets people make fools of themselves, and it’s wonderful to watch. For as cynical and near nasty as he can be, Letterman is still one of the more likable and most entertaining people on TV.
When Letterman moved from 12:30 to 11:30 at CBS, he dialed back the weirdness, but was still successful. He was still funny, just not as crazy.
Hopefully in this, his final year, he’ll crank up the subversive, weird stuff that made David Letterman David Letterman.
To give you a sense of the friendly-but-in-your-face weirdness the show thrived on, here’s Chris Elliott appearing as “The Guy Under The Seats.”
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