David Letterman has been a staple on late night for going on 30 years now, not only entertaining thousands of people around the world, but spearheading a still-evolving era of comedy as revolutionary as any in comedic history. When Letterman was recently honored by President Barack Obama, Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein hailed Letterman as “one of the most influential personalities in the history of television, entertaining an entire generation of late-night viewers with his unconventional wit and charm.”
Looking back at Letterman’s debut on February 1, 1982, who would have through that the gap-toothed dork that was given the 12:30 slot after Johnny Carson would become among the most influential entertainers in history. Letterman’s impact on not just comedy but American culture in general has been a theme covered ad nauseum by publications since that fateful day. Times have indeed changed since the debut of Late Night with David Letterman on NBC in 1982, and his influence on the times is imprinted on the minds of the majority of comedic actors working today.
As none other than Jerry Seinfeld explains, “He did the thing that everyone’s tried to do since and has never done … [W]hich is take the talk-show form and redo it. The mindset was, ‘We’re tired of pretending there are no cue cards and no cameras and nothing’s rehearsed. It’s late, and we’re going to take over this piece of territory and do our own thing.’ Now that mindset is everywhere.”
Letterman has come a long way from his home in Indianapolis, Indiana, where his father was a florist and mother was a church secretary. His first foray into show business came as a weatherman on an Indianapolis television station, where he once famously congratulated a tropical storm for being upgraded to a hurricane. One day Letterman and his then-wife Michelle packed up his 1973 Chevy truck and moved to Los Angeles with a dream to get on TV. After making a name for himself at the Comedy Store, Letterman was invited to perform on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Carson took an immediate liking to Letterman and his stand-up comedy style, inviting him to guest host for him just a few months after his first appearance. Letterman would go on to guest host the show 51 times.
Eventually NBC decided to find a home for this rising star, and after a brief daytime comedy show, Late Night with David Letterman was introduced to America. “In 1982, Letterman got the 12:30 a.m. slot at NBC and changed American comedy,” explains New York Magazine’s Peter W. Kaplan. “When NBC and Carson Productions gave Letterman his show … they were laying the groundwork for a pervasive culture of irony. Letterman’s program created a sensibility that permeated TV, movies, literature, music, art, and magazines: The ceaseless joke of cultural debunking became the surgical tool that guided a generation of college students to strip the show biz skin of the past 50 years.”
Letterman immediately made a mark on the television landscape, airing ridiculous comedy bits the likes of which had never seen the light of day before. One of Letterman’s more famous bits is when he was dressed in a suit of Alka Seltzer and was dropped in water:
Looked at through a modern lens, the performance doesn’t seem remarkable, but the bit is vintage Letterman sillyness that nobody had seen before he came along. Letterman has always been a source of inane entertainment, with skits like stupid pet tricks, the Top Ten list, will it float?, know your current events, beat the clock, viewer mail and more dotting a career that continues to influence the biggest names in the biz.
Letterman broke from the norm by putting everyday people on his show, including his mom, Rupert Jee, purveyor of the Rupert Jee Hello Deli, stagehand Biff Henderson, and perhaps the most well-known, Larry “Bud” Melman. “Letterman’s early remote bits where he would walk around Manhattan and interview perplexed local business owners also forever changed the culture,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Browne. “Looking back at the early remotes, it’s easy to see some of the origins of reality TV: regular folks put on camera and turned into stars.” If there is one blemish on Letterman’s impressive career its his influence on the development on the reality TV culture that would evolve more than a decade after he first made it on the air.
Johnny Carson announced his retirement in 1992 and most people assumed Letterman, Carson’s pick to succeed him, would take the show. But it was not to be, as NBC execs decided to go with a more traditional comic in Jay Leno. The late night wars holds its own place in history, inspiring a book and later an HBO movie. Leno famously gained an edge in his quest to steal the show from Dave by hiding in a supply closet and spying on an executive meeting. That way he knew what execs thought his strengths and weaknesses were, as well as who was on his side. Instead of taking over The Tonight Show from Carson, Letterman moved to CBS at the 11:30 time slot to compete directly with Leno. Carson not only chose Letterman over Leno as his successor for The Tonight Show, but continued to send jokes to Letterman until days before his death.
Over the year’s Letterman has seen his fair share of memorable moments. Andy Kauffman and Jerry Lawler had their infamous feud on Letterman. Drew Barrymore chose to serenade Dave on his birthday with an impromptu strip tease. Letterman’s interview with a visibly ditzy Farrah Faucet turned many heads. When Michael Richards, Seinfeld Kramer’s, lashed out with racial slurs at a group of audience members, he chose the king of late night’s show to apologize. Letterman was the first entertainer back on after 911, doing what he perceived as his part in helping the USA return to normalcy. During the Writer’s Guild of America’s strike of 2008, Letterman’s company Worldwide Pants was the first to come to an agreement with WGA, signaling his comradery with workers, even growing a beard in a show of solidarity with the crew. His production company Worldwide Pants has produced several TV shows, including Everybody Loves Raymond, Ed and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.
And Letterman is famous for giving his life to his show. Before his heart bypass surgery, he had not missed a day of work due to illness in his 18 years of late-night. And Letterman’s notoriously-private life has also took a back seat to the show, as Letterman waited until he was 65 years old to have his first child Harry, named after Dave’s father.
Along the way Letterman has become a favorite not just of people around the world, but of entertainers all over as well. “I loved doing that show. Dave’s my favorite. Dave’s who I watch,” says Louis C.K., arguably today’s hottest comic. Louis C.K. actually was a writer on Letterman.
When Bill Cosby guest hosted for Letterman while he was recovering from quintuple bypass surgery, he refused to sit at Letterman’s desk out of respect for the host. And his respect emanates outside the world of comedy. When Letterman returned from surgery, he asked the Foo Fighters to play Everlong on his first show back. The Foo Fighters were so eager to please Dave that they cancelled a South American tour they were in the middle of just to come play at Dave’s comeback episode.
Artie Lang, who starred on Howard Stern and appeared in Dirty Work refers to Lettermen as an “an innovator and an original,” who created something, “something different.”
Robert Morton, who was Letterman’s executive producer from 1993 – 2000, explains how his old boss influenced comedy:
While he impacted the world at large, of course Letterman’s biggest impact was in his own arena, late night. “It can be argued that Letterman himself precipitated the expansion of late-night talk” explains Katherine Fry. “His influence and appeal increased steadily until, by 1995, he was the most-watched and highest-paid late night television talk show host in the United States.” While Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are undoubtedly the hot flavor at the moment, their shows would never have existed if the road wasn’t paved by Letterman.
Obviously a comedian can’t be measured in Awards, but he has those in spades. In addition to the Kennedy Center Award, the show was awarded a Peabody Award for the show’s ability to “take one of TV’s most conventional and least inventive forms — the talk show — and infuse it with freshness and imagination.” Letterman and his staff have 12 Emmys to go with 67 nominations. TV Guide ranked Letterman #45 it its list of the Greatest TV Stars of All Time. Forbes listed Letterman as # 14 on their list of most powerful personalities in entertainment. Letterman hosted 1995 Academy Awards. So you don’t have to be a comedy expert, (whatever that is) to appreciate Dave, but its clear critics love him.
Not only that, David Letterman fights terrorism! “Satellite broadcasts of the US TV shows Desperate Housewives and Late Show With David Letterman are doing more to persuade Saudi youth to reject violent jihad than hundreds of millions of dollars of US government propaganda, informants have told the American embassy in Jeddah” according to the secret cable “David Letterman: Agent of Influence” produced by the US Embassy.
Is Letterman for everyone?
This day and age the kids are worried about the latest Youtube clip, the hottest tweets and, for the hippest of the hip, Google Plus. They often and don’t respect their elders or know their history, its a shame really. Letterman is definitely not for everyone. Some just don’t care for him. That’s OK. Some like the plain vanilla of Leno, who is on record as saying he aims to do what works, “cat jokes work” he explains. Leno gets higher ratings appealing to an older audience with plain vanilla jokes that have been regurgitated since TV’s inception. Someone enjoying traditional humor is not incomprehensible. However as often happens when a person is so widely respected, the haters will come out. In Dave’s case critics often lash out with anger at superficialities like his famous gapped teeth. While some people can accept that a brand of comedy might not be for them, others react with intense and unwarranted hostility. Small minds often react with anger to what they don’t understand.
Dave’s faced some powerful critics over the ages. Who can forget Sarah Palin’s misguided efforts to “Fire Dave.”
More recently Letterman earned the ire of Mitt Romney who imagined that, since he had appeared on Leno more often, Dave “hated” him. The imagined hatred was of course a figment of Mitt’s imagination. You will find many Letterman haters have created a fantasy world, where their creations are fact simply because they yell louder.
The blind fury misguidedly aimed at Letterman has even come from the Middle East, where a prominent Islamist blogger declared Jihad on Dave. Dave dealt with it the only way you can deal with ignorance, with humor. “Backstage, I was talking to the guy from CBS,” he explained. “We were going through the CBS life insurance policy to see if I was covered for jihad,” Letterman quipped on his first show back after the incident.
As Dave has said, “The worst tempered people I have ever met were those who knew that they were wrong.”
When CBS was fortunate enough to extend their contract with Letterman in 2002, President and CEO of CBS Corporation Leslie Moonves credited Letterman with being the rock that the CBS empire was founded on, saying “David Letterman put CBS late night on the map and in the process became one of the defining icons of our network … His presence on our air is an ongoing source of pride, and the creativity and imagination that the Late Show puts forth every night is an ongoing display of the highest quality entertainment. We are truly honored that one of the most revered and talented entertainers of our time will continue to call CBS ‘home.'”
“Letterman is best known for .. his brash, wry, somewhat cynical sense of humor, which was, at first, unconventional, attracting a cult following, but which has gone on to define the young, hip, media-savvy generation that is his main audience, and inspire countless comedians and talk show hosts who have followed him.” reads his Bio.com Biography.
Has Letterman lost some of his energy over the years? Sure.
Is he a cranky old man? Maybe.
Does he tape multiple shows on the same day and then air them later? It seems that way.
Can he make blockbuster movies with the likes of Will Ferrell? Probably not.
Can he slay an audience with one-hour specials fine-tuned over months like Chris Rock or Jerry Seinfeld? Maybe not.
Is he part of a rarefied group of entertainment icons like Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, men that were not just icons in their day, but who through innovation and dedication influenced not only comedy, but the entertainment business as a whole?