David Letterman accomplished something that no one else could – he made late-night television hip again. Johnny Carson (Great American Things, June 28, 2009) was always cool, but as his show neared its end, his younger audience was losing interest. In 1982, David Letterman moved into the spot formerly held by Tom Snyder, and made staying up after midnight worthwhile again.
Letterman kept the form of a talk show – monologue, band, guests – but never seemed to take any of it too seriously. And he introduced elements that were sometimes irreverent, sometimes banal, and made them both eminently watchable and wildly funny.
Many of the segments are legendary – the Top 10 List (from headquarters in some remote burg), Stupid Pet Tricks, Viewer Mail, visits with Larry “Bud” Melman, Throwing Things off a Five-Story Building, visiting his neighbors in New York, such as the gift shop owned by Mujibar and Sirijul. He used his production staff in gags, notably announcer Bill Wendell and bandleader Paul Shaffer. And you knew two things: no two shows were going to be alike, and you were going to laugh out loud at some point in the show.
When Letterman was passed over for the Tonight Show in favor of Jay Leno, he packed up his show and moved to CBS. Most of the bits also moved, though names had to change to “protect” NBC’s intellectual property.
In recent years, Letterman has grown crustier. In fact, I’d say that the best late night host now is Craig Ferguson, host of The Late Late Show. But just as comics of the last generation all owe a debt to Carson, comics of the next generation can thank David Letterman for leading the way in late night innovation.