Note: this article is featured on Luminary Daily.
My generation, full of twenty-somethings in a digital age, often connect most with late-night hosts whose names start with Jimmy or Conan. Jimmy Fallon’s segments always seem to go viral, Jimmy Kimmel always has major celebrities come onto his show after sporting events or awards shows, and their taped segments become Internet sensations. Even Conan O’Brien, who moved through NBC’s carousel of late-night programs to arrive at TBS, has notable Internet popularity.
One thing all of these comedians have in common? They would be nowhere without David Letterman.
Dave, as he is affectionately called by fans and friends, was on late-night television for 33 years. 33 years! That’s twelve years longer than I’ve been alive. That’s hard to process but undeniable in its power. He’s a man that formed the minds that came after the unforgettable Johnny Carson, and one that has largely been tied to Jay Leno due to their behind-the-scenes battle for The Tonight Show.
Yet one thing is certain: Dave will have the longer-lasting influence over Jay. He may not have received the staple of late-night television from Johnny (which some believe was his rightful inheritance), but he did settle into his own groove on The Late Show. He definitively made his mark away from Jay Leno: the latter was in Los Angeles, Dave was in New York; the latter was a people’s man, Dave was a grumpy old curmudgeon even when he was in his 40s. Most importantly, though, Dave molded the comedians that are considered essential pieces of the late-night puzzle today.
Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien both gave him heartfelt farewells on his last night, with Conan noting that Dave’s appearance on his struggling Late Night program in 1993 effectively made him succeed. After all, Dave had established himself on that same program and saw Conan’s potential, and the red-haired clown remains enormously grateful to this day. Kimmel remarked on the same notion, tearing up while discussing Dave’s gracious staff and writers for letting him perform on the show before he got his job at ABC.
Dave never seemed to love the spotlight, nor did he ever seem particularly pleased with the world around him. But he had his moments, and his people that he particularly admired: Bill Murray was both Dave’s first and last guest, and never spared the opportunity to dress up as ridiculously as possible when he was given the chance.
Dave’s favorite band is the Foo Fighters, and his favorite song is “Everlong.” They performed that hit a while back when Dave had some bouts with sickness, and it clearly brought him joy. He never seemed to connect with new artists like Justin Bieber, who had a notably awkward interview on his program.
Dave had an eclectic batch of interviews, most notably the ones involving famous women going a little crazy. Drew Barrymore flashed everyone in the audience (and on television) while standing on top of Dave’s desk, and Madonna went through a series of expletives that the censors had to have disliked. He’s had presidents visit, celebrities issue public apologies, Oprah…the whole she-bang.
And how can we forget his Top Ten lists? While many say that the lists have lost their sense of shine and splendor over the past few years, the stars and famous faces that bring themselves to the fold make the lists feel simultaneously timely and timeless. The writing on the show has never been the best of the late night shows; I have always felt that Conan had the best monologues and Jimmy Fallon had the best written sketches.
That’s because Dave’s specialty was his interviewing style. It was blunt, often repellent to some, but never unengaging. He always made the guests feel like they were having a conversation or at the dinner table catching up, and the crowd surrounding them was just a footnote. The best way to describe Dave, at least how I saw him, was that he was the grumpy old family member at your reunions that maybe not everyone wanted to see, but everyone knew he had to be there. He was just too important.
No one knows what Dave will do next. Him and Paul Shaffer, his long-time house musician, haven’t really revealed what their plans are, which is all the more exciting. I don’t see Letterman making many more public appearances or showing up in films or Broadway shows. I see him lounging on his couch, watching the people that he has inspired do great things.
Dave is essential and vital to late-night television. While he maybe didn’t directly influence his incumbent, Stephen Colbert, the comparisons will undeniably emerge within a few weeks of Colbert’s September launch.
The fact remains, though, that no one can fill Dave’s shoes because simply no one else is like Dave.