Days of Change

The Late Shaft

May 20, 2015

There’s  a saying that a liberal is a conservative who hasn’t been mugged. In some ways, a conservative may be a liberal who has never been fired. I know I’ve never hated business as much as when I’ve been laid off or replaced. I kind of wonder if the same thing happened to David Letterman the second time NBC took a show away from him.

Ace of Spades has a pretty good analysis of why Letterman isn’t funny. I take issue with others who say Letterman was never funny. Ace is pretty on point by saying that Letterman hasn’t been innovative for over 20 years and he certainly hasn’t been cool or interesting in over a decade. My teenage self, however, still smirks at Letterman throwing a tray of lasagna from the window of a building and watching it hit the ground.

David Letterman was a Midwestern boy who was a comedian, actor and a weather guy and had various other on-air gigs until he got the chance to host. NBC gave him a run on a daytime talk show which bombed after a couple of months. Since the late 70’s, Letterman was the permanent guest host for Johnny Carson at the Tonight Show after Johnny decided on more vacation time and less of a grind on his show.

NBC eventually gave Letterman the time slot vacated by Tom Snyder, both to increase revenue and keep Letterman from being poached by another network attempting late night talk. Letterman couldn’t keep his guest hosting duties, but Carson kept his seat warm by hiring Joan Rivers as his new permanent guest host. She was older than Dave and was unlikely to become the new host.

I can go on and on about Letterman v. Leno, but the essence is that when Leno was made permanent guest host in the late 80’s, NBC saw Carson as a falling star and wanted a replacement who wasn’t Dave. I think it’s not out of line to say that Baby Boomers warmed to the hard-working, show focused Leno and Gen-Xers liked the iconoclastic Letterman. Carson wasn’t direct about it, but he always preferred Letterman, especially in the face of Leno’s disloyalty to Carson, mirroring that of Joan Rivers.

When Letterman lost the Tonight Show, he seemed to lose the will to host a talk show at all. He made a point to bring over as many gags from his old show as possible and continue to reuse them. The scandal of the war made him number one for a while, then the scandal of Hugh Grant started shifting the audience to Leno. Finally, Dave couldn’t beat Leno, so he chose to outlast him.

Jay Leno may not be a conservative, but he is the model of the enterprising capitalist. He worked hard, he refined his skills and he negotiated his way to the Tonight Show. When NBC wanted to switch things up to keep Conan O’Brien, (who replaced Letterman at NBC) Leno was able to work his way back to the Tonight Show. He was finally told he was no longer wanted after 20 years. After his retirement was announced, Letterman finally announced his. David Letterman was on at 11:30 longer than Jay Leno.

If the Late Night talk show era didn’t end with Johnny Carson, is certainly has with the end of David Letterman. Leno worked on his show constantly. Dave was able to phone it in and he basically did. The networks still made plenty of money on each property. Jimmy Fallon and Seth Myers (NBC talk shows are basically owned by Lorne Michaels) are more popular on YouTube and DVR than live.

Letterman is a liberal tool. I’m not sure how much was always there or how much came from his own bitterness. Ironically, many of his fan boys eventually found true rebellion in conservative values. Dave’s fans left him as much as he left his fans.

As I write this, I’m watching the last Letterman show. It started with 4 presidents (two Republicans, two Democrats) saying “Our long national nightmare is over.” If the Bushes can get over it for a night, so can I.

Goodbye, Dave. It’s time for you to go.


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