On the Retirement of David Letterman

My first impression of David Letterman was simply, “That’s a mean man.” Whether this impression came from my intense childhood sensitivity or from my intensely opinionated mother, I do not recall. But he was definitely not as warm and grandfatherly toward his guests back in the NBC years.

Later on, I came upon another impression: “That’s a lazy man.” Is there any easier comic construct than a list of ten things? You don’t have to write segues, and only a couple of them need to be funny! I read reports of Letterman adjusting his job to provide more time at home and more time for leisure. He started taping two shows on Thursday to have a standard 3-day weekend. He would often skip rehearsal entirely.

(I am certain this laziness drove Jay Leno crazy. Leno was a good enough joke-factory and a student of ratings. He and his staff would study viewer habits and move segments around to maximize the show’s draw throughout the hour. Letterman could not have cared less. Leno visited the affiliates and thanked them for their loyalty to NBC. Letterman, after a point, could not be bothered to produce prime time anniversary specials for his own show. Leno made sure not to jar his audience out of their near-slumber as they ended their American day. Letterman put a camera on a monkey and let it run around the studio.)

Now I see that the meanness, perhaps viciousness, and laziness, perhaps carelessness, of David Letterman is much deeper, much more important, and much funnier than I could fathom as a child. David Letterman, because he was too lazy to try to be funny and too mean to protect viewers from the truth, allowed the world’s ridiculousness to shine, passively but brilliantly.

“This is funny,” he seemed to be saying for the entire hour. Maybe not the comedy, maybe not the guest, maybe not even the host. Everything in Dave’s world was funny: a man standing up, a man telling a joke, the failure of said joke, merciless repetition of the failed joke, the words within the joke, the routine of monologue-guest-guest-song, the interjecting musical genius Paul Shaffer, the assured announcer relaying nonsense, the fact that people were there to watch live, the fact that people watched at home, the post-50’s, post-60’s, post-70’s American malaise, his dystopian vision of a rat-infested New York City. Trying to make all of this funny does a disservice to the fact that it is already funny.

Late Night was the perfect place for someone wholly unwilling to protect himself, his guests, and his audience from the shakiness and shoddiness of human life. (This may be why some of us never got used to him in the earlier slot.) This was not a show that molded you into a comfortable consumer. A television host is supposed to maintain some modicum of authority and control, right? No, Dave could be interrupted or accosted by any number of characters, animals, or just Chris Elliott. And would Mr. Elliott stride from backstage to premeditated applause? No, he popped up from beneath the stairs between audience sections as if to say, “Even the ground you walk upon is neither reliable nor trustworthy.”

Chairs, desks, (worldwide) pants, men’s suits, men in suits, network executives, pencils, velcro, cereal, watermelon, fluorescent lights, air conditioning, teeth, hairpieces, cat food, booze, language, emotion, touching. These are living components of our boring lives that, when you look at them long enough in a certain light, become hilarious. And if you can’t find what makes them hilarious, their sheer banality drives the laugh.

For the most part, even with his late liberal combativeness, Letterman did not seek to ridicule those in power in the manner of Jon Stewart or Bill Hicks. He ridiculed the whole shebang, just by looking at the camera, just by having the job. (It’s funny, he’s a hero and a legend to me, but I don’t understand why someone let him get on TV in the first place. He seems mystified by it, too.) The entire construct of our society is flawed in tiny ways and massive ways. Watergate, Vietnam, the assassinations of the 60s: these made Americans question a great many things, but no one implied the goofiness of the whole human enterprise in the near-mainstream until The Late Show with David Letterman. College kids laughed as they breathed a collective sigh of relief and reefer. It was as we all suspected, but didn’t dare express. It was truth so obvious, it’s even funny to think that it needed a teller.

True laziness is letting the world convince you that it is static and whole and righteous.
True meanness is making the act of walking through this life unnecessarily heavy and labored for yourself and others.
The only true joke is taking the world too seriously.

Letterman’s 33 years on late night television answered the question “What really matters?” with a potentially depressing answer, “Uh, not much.” But that’s where the looking long enough in the right light comes in. As if to telegraph the theme of his life’s work, at the end of his final broadcast, he turned to his wife and son to say “I love you both and really nothing else matters, does it?”

Uh, no, not really. Thank you, Dave, for being our national smart ass: smart enough to see the silliness of all but love and a big enough ass to obscure that fact in an anarchic dust storm of entertainment.

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