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[Cultural Attachment]

Later, Letterman: Reflections on a late-night giant who never treated us like idiots

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Grillin’ like a villain: Dave memorably interrogates Paris.
J.P. Filo AP Photo/CBS
Smith Galtney

While I’ve been keeping up with the final weeks of Late Show With David Letterman via entertainment sites and video links, I must admit I haven’t been watching the actual show. Little keeps me up past 11 p.m. anymore, except maybe a House of Cards binge, and as a “cord cutter” who gave up basic cable years ago, I couldn’t tune in even if I wanted to. Unless, perhaps, I dig out those ol’ rabbit ears—the ones I haven’t tossed, in case of a zombie apocalypse—yet the mere act of typing a Jurassic phrase like “rabbit ears” makes my middle-aged joints ache.

But I’m hipper than I thought, according to an article in The New York Times earlier this week. It states that, once Letterman signs off on May 20, he’ll leave a late-night landscape “where late-night TV shows are increasingly not being watched at night, not for more than a few minutes and not on a TV.” Lamenting this viral makeover, fellow late-night host Jimmy Kimmel explains, “People are just plucking your greatest hits, without having to sit through the rest of the show. There’s more focus on singles than on albums.”

Of course, talk shows have been anthologized well before the Internet came along. As a kid, I loved it when Carson broke out the highlight reel. (The tomahawk clip!) And my true introduction to NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman was via a montage-heavy, hits-packed, third anniversary special that aired in 1985. It played on a constant loop on our VCR—the Velcro suit, the stupid human tricks, Chris Elliott. In fact, when I arrived at NYU four years later, I remember walking by Just Bulbs, a store Letterman featured in a remote segment, and thinking, “Wow, I really am in Emerald City!”

Older, grumpier, CBS-era Dave isn’t so easily packaged. In his review of the recently aired David Letterman: A Life on Television, critic and Letterman fan Ken Tucker noted, “The problem with the greatest-hits approach ... is that [it] reduces him to one mode: wacky. And the best thing about Letterman is that he’s never been just funny.” Sure, you can cherry-pick some very funny moments from his 2007 interview with Paris Hilton, shortly after she was released from jail, but the whole thing is a master class in not giving a f*ck. It doesn’t get any better than Hilton taking a stand—“I’ve moved on with my life, so I really don’t want to talk about it anymore”—and Dave knocking her down: “See, this is where you and I are different. Because this is all I wanna talk about.”

That’s a world away from Jimmy Fallon, who comes off like he’s having a slumber party with Taylor Swift. And I particularly dislike James Corden. Last month, his show featured an April Fool’s stunt involving Katie Couric (and her stunt double) taking a nasty fall down some stairs. They played it like it was real, but c’mon! There was a whole studio full of people, and I’m supposed to believe that Corden was the only one who’d rush to Couric’s aid?

I like that Dave never tried to bullsh*t us. I like how he didn’t treat us like idiots. Maybe I’ll even drive to a friend’s house on May 20. That way, I can say goodbye to him in person.

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