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The End of an Era: Good Night Dave!

David Letterman went off the air last night after thirty-five years as a talk show host. And many may not realize it but it is an important shift in television history. From 1982-1993 he hosted the first incarnation of Late Night on NBC developed especially for him as a follow-up to Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Since 1993 he has hosted The Late Show on CBS. And yeah his show has been fairly generic as of late but still every so often boasted better writing, interviews, and jokes than the Jimmys for example. And his sense of humour was really terrific especially back in the day. It’s what got him a number of guest-hosting gigs on the Tonight Show before his own started and there his wise-cracking and self-deprecating style developed into something fairly unique. He also like Carson, took risks at his show pulling off various random stunts and comedy bits, idiosyncratic segments some getting him in trouble, like jokingly interrupting another NBC show in the middle of their broadcast. And that kind of stuff was pretty bold and edgy. And he maintained a spark of that cutting edge into his CBS years doing things and ideas no other show would think of. He had a great rapport with guests, never looking like he needed a script, being friendly but at the same time grating when necessary bringing celebrities out of their comfort zones. One thing we wouldn’t have had without him are top ten lists, which he popularized and were more than anything else his lasting contribution. We make them all the time (you may have seen a few of mine) and the idea we won’t be able to hear ten random jokes a night if we choose will take some getting used to. Cracked.com notes that he basically created youtube: https://youtu.be/ULGPklAhqC8. His show’s also the reason most know the greatness of Paul Shaffer, partner-in-crime to Letterman for most of his run. His show also was an early stepping stone for a number of great writers and comedians including Chris Elliott, Will Forte, Spike Ferestein, and Dino Stamatopoulos who helped him make television history over the years. After watching that montage in that final episode to Foo Fighters’ “Everlong”, it actually looks like a lot of fun was had.
But I think the saddest thing about Letterman leaving is he was the last connection to that holy grail of late night variety: Johnny Carson! Carson who pretty much invented the talk show and whose sharpness, hilarity, and just chatty fun-loving nature outdid almost every late night host to come after him. And Letterman WAS Carson’s successor despite the disputes with NBC and Jay Leno. Now there are a number of 12:30 talk shows, most unnecessary. The only reason that slot opened was because Johnny and the network liked Dave enough. He was his mentor and a lot of his influence was seen in Letterman right up to the end capturing that essence a little better than any of his competitors. Before he died in the mid-2000s Carson even wrote jokes for him! And so that loss is very much felt. The final tie to that Carson era of variety television is broken. David Letterman had a show three years longer than his great mentor and now the landscape of television has changed. In addition to the departure of the amazing Craig Ferguson, it feels like American late night has lost some vital limbs. I like Stephen Colbert so I’m interested in how he’ll turn out, and Conan O’Brien has always been pretty decent, but apart from that there’s nothing worth watching in American talk shows. Without the legacy of David Letterman it’s just recycled bits, poor jokes, scripted interviews, and a lot of unintentional Stupid Human Tricks!

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