Nearly 25 years ago, a gap-toothed comic with hooded eyes and bushy hair smiled his now-famous insincere smile for the first time on his own late-night talk show.
The date was Feb. 1, 1982, and the comedian was 34-year-old David Letterman, fresh from a devastating three-month stint as the host of a hilarious but little-watched daytime program. His new show, NBC's Late Night With David Letterman, came on at 12:30 a.m., which somehow seemed even later in those days. If Late Night failed, as the daytime show had, Letterman might still be able to salvage a career, but he'd probably never get his own show again.
It didn't fail, though. And now — after jumping to CBS' The Late Show With David Letterman in 1993 — Letterman is about to celebrate a quarter-century in late-night TV.
That's a really long time. Johnny Carson, Letterman's role model and greatest supporter, reigned on The Tonight Show for 29 and a half years, so Letterman doesn't have far to go to tie, or top, the record of the old King of Comedy. But even if he doesn't get that far, 25 years of monologues and interviews, comedy bits and Top 10 Lists are certainly a milestone.
Before Late Night, the hot show on network TV had been Saturday Night Live, which was at its hottest during its first five years, from 1975 to 1980. By 1982, SNL had fallen on hard times and TV was overdue for something fresh. No one, however, expected it to emerge on a late-night talk show, a form that had come to seem almost immune to originality.
Carson was undeniably a great star, but everyone knew he'd been going through the motions for years. He took so many vacations that they'd become a running gag on his own program. Tom Snyder, the 12:30 a.m. host that Letterman was replacing, earned brownie points from rock fans by regularly featuring rock musicians on his Tomorrow program (something Carson didn't do on Tonight). But Snyder's style was quintessentially old-school — which was why Dan Aykroyd had been able to skewer him so decisively on SNL.
Letterman, it was clear, intended to pick up the ball that SNL had dropped. He chose his bandleader-cum-sidekick, Paul Shaffer, from SNL's glory days. Same thing with his first Late Night guest, Bill Murray.
If Letterman did indeed aspire to host the smart new show for the young and hip, he would go about it in his own way. SNL had done it largely with blazing satire. He would do it with the coolest of irony.
These days, irony is such a common feature of even the dumbest sitcom that it's hard to recall how rare a commodity it was in the TV marketplace of the early '80s.
One way to think about it is to remember how funny it was in the late '80s when Mike Myers, as Wayne Campbell of "Wayne's World" on a somewhat-refreshed SNL, would say something like, "You're so great," and then shout "NOT!" That was a very primitive form of irony, and the joke was that Wayne hadn't quite caught up to the rest of the world in that department.
We were way ahead of Wayne because, since 1982, Letterman had been shooting magnums of irony into the comedy culture. By the end of the decade, nearly everyone was up to speed.
Not that this cultural shift was generally understood at the time. On the contrary, journalists who wrote about Letterman in his early years on Late Night tended to focus on his Steve Allen—like zaniness. The stupid pet (and human) tricks. The elevator races. The Velcro suit that Letterman donned before jumping up and sticking to a Velcro wall.
Letterman's most potent gambit was to say one thing and mean the opposite. That's where his signature insincere smile comes in. It was deployed most effectively when General Electric acquired NBC, and Letterman, fruit basket in hand, decided to pay a welcome call on the new owners. Our boy Dave was smiling, but he wasn't really happy about the purchase, and everyone watching understood that. The moment became an instant classic when a rude GE security guard rebuffed Letterman, refusing even to shake his hand. (Documentarian-gadfly Michael Moore once told Letterman that moments like this inspired his own work.)
In Late Night's early years, there was a tendency for some people to dismiss Letterman's brand of humor as bright frat-boy tomfoolery. That may be true of his successor on Late Night, Conan O'Brien, but Letterman was on to something that would influence American comedy as profoundly as anything since SNL.
Then, in 1992, something important happened. Johnny Carson retired and his Tonight Show throne was up for grabs. In a very public battle, Letterman lost out to Jay Leno, who had for years been Carson's guest host. But in the process, Letterman got his own 11:30 p.m. (really, 11:35 p.m.) show on CBS.
At the beginning, people wondered if Letterman's brand of comedy would work in the more mainstream time slot. It did, of course, though his ratings eventually dropped below those of Leno. In terms of Letterman's style, though, the biggest change wasn't the time slot or even the network. It was the physical location.
Whether at 12:30 a.m. or an hour earlier, Letterman has always done his show for three audiences. First is the television audience at home; second, and equally important, is the audience in the studio.
At NBC, that audience had been a relatively cozy group in a cramped studio at Rockefeller Center. But at CBS, Letterman's home became the enormous Ed Sullivan Theater, which had been refurbished just for him. When Letterman moved to CBS, his comedy became almost instantly broader, so as to fill that gigantic theater. The more intimate comedy of his NBC days didn't, at least at first, seem appropriate to the new location. In fact, Letterman might have soon lost his way if not for his third audience.
Watch Letterman closely on any given night and you'll see that his third and perhaps most important audience is Paul Shaffer. In their early days — in the hostile corporate climate of NBC — they were like rebel hipsters winking at each other at an office meeting. Nowadays, they're old-timers who, on occasion, share a chuckle at how bizarre the culture has become.
Whenever something unusual happens, Letterman's first impulse is to glance at Shaffer, as if to confirm his own astonished take on the incident. When Letterman cracks a joke that's a tad too easy or dumb or crude for his own standards, you will often hear Shaffer laughing off-camera, not at how funny the joke is, but at Letterman's lapse in taste. Far from being offended, Letterman seems grateful to Shaffer for keeping him honest.
Surviving heart surgery, fending off a stalker, fathering a child: Letterman's been through a lot in these 25 years. Now, with his show's silver anniversary in sight, he might be forgiven for resting on his laurels. In recent months, however, his show has taken a refreshing turn. Instead of satire or irony, he has lately been working on whimsy.
There is nothing new about whimsy, But in the late-night world of our coarsened times, it's almost as rare as irony was in the early '80s. You see the Letterman whimsy in a running gag in which a man stands up in the audience and politely asks a series of absurdly simple questions which Letterman, just as politely, tries to answer. In another regular bit, called "Fun Facts," Letterman reads off a series of supposedly odd but true facts that he's supposedly been sent by a friend of Shaffer's at the Federal Bureau of Miscellaneous Information — items such as "Rachael Ray is a convicted felon" and "Until 1922, the president and vice president shared a bed."
Speaking of the president, the most popular part of Letterman's new whimsy offensive is a bit called "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches" in which, after clips of the most famous orations of FDR and JFK, we are treated to a recent clip of George W. Bush saying something inane or, often, just phumphering. Yes, the humor is satirical, but it's even more whimsical. Bush, in effect, becomes Larry "Bud" Melman, the clueless, inarticulate square (played by actor Calvert DeForest) who brought welcome grace notes of whimsy to Letterman's early years in late-night.
Now, as David Letterman sets off into what is likely the home stretch, it's great to see him rediscovering the gentler side of comedy. Congratulations, Dave, on 25 years. May your best days be behind you — NOTfirstname.lastname@example.org