With the news that David Letterman will retire next year, the narrative that has defined the late-night talk show wars for decades finally comes to a close: The mismanaged end of the Johnny Carson era of The Tonight Show, a blundered hand-off with far-reaching, long-term, biz-changing ripple effects. It immediately put CBS in the late-night business, seeded the (staggered) rises of Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, and Jimmy Fallon, and settled and linked the legacies of Jay Leno (The Man Who Stole The Tonight Show. Twice!) and Letterman himself (The Man Who Should Have Been The Next Carson) long before the end of their runs.
We have plenty of time to wrap our minds around what David Letterman has meant to television. This is a hasty, incomplete, off-the-top-of-the-head pass at it. It begins with the obvious: Letterman’s influence is extraordinary, arguably more so than any other late-night talk show host before him. His persona — the one forged in NBC years before CBS, 11:30 and more life matured him; the self-deprecating smart-ass; the loose-canon insider-outsider, speaking snark to power, usually his own network — and his comedic sensibility — honed in the freer, wilder spaces of late night’s later hours; ironic and irreverent; the master of the calculated joke fail; impish tweaker of talk show genre conventions; all originally forged in the late, late hours of l — can be seen in almost all of his younger rivals. Conan, Kimmel, Stewart, Colbert, Ferguson, more — late night will soon officially belong to Letterman’s kids, nerd-comics with writer-humor bent, not stand-up comedian bent, who’ve inherited the fringe terrain that Letterman terra-formed for them.
That said: It’s also probably possible to overstate Letterman’s relevance to those who would be “The Next David Letterman.” All the aforementioned wear so many other pop culture influences on their blazers — including each other — and have been bred for the fragmented, new century social-media age. The end of Letterman also puts a stake in the old monoculture concept of the late-night talk show as the culminating event of a network’s broadcast day, and more narrowly, the bookend to its nightly narrative of programming. Today’s late-night talk shows — viral-culture enterprises comprised of buzz moments and component parts that can be embedded, downloaded, tweeted — are produced with tonight, tomorrow, or anytime audiences in mind. Letterman helped develop this game too. But he, like Leno, doesn’t play it/never played it as well or with as much interest as his successors. And so it goes that Letterman’s retirement also represents another signpost marking the transition of whatever the television business used to be, and what it’s becoming. He’s an old school “broadcaster,” bowing out in an era of niche stars.
Letterman will also be remembered for how he shared so much of himself with his audience, flaws and all. He made indelible moments — and forged deep connections with audience — by exposing his frailty and failings. Taking us through his life-changing, life-saving heart surgery drama of 2000. Confessing to infidelities that made him vulnerable to an extortion attempt in 2009. His first show after 9/11 was a key moment in our cultural processing of that event, and unforgettable, deeply appreciated television. Because of the profound connection he has with his audience and with the culture, I expect his final shows next year to be significant, must-watch TV events that will be attended by much Hollywood royalty — Oprah must appear; my money’s on Bill Murray as the last guest — more so than the final shows of Jay Leno, who routinely beat Letterman in the ratings. Leno may have had the numbers. Letterman meant — means — more. That said? I wouldn’t be surprised if Letterman invites Leno to be a guest during his goodbye week. It would be a buzzy pop moment, and classy as hell.
And so we now wonder who CBS will tap to replace him. As much as I’d like to see Craig Ferguson get a shot, I’d rather CBS break the white male hegemony of late-night TV, and with someone who might be interested in reinventing all the talk show forms, from monologue to band to desk. I hear Chelsea Handler will be available. Or: Key and Peele? So many possibilities. The bad news for whoever gets the job: They have to fill the shoes of a legend. The good news: They should feel free to only worry about being themselves. Because people? There’s no “replacing” David Letterman.