Tonawanda News

April 6, 2014

DUVALL: Letterman leaves immense legacy in late night

By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Television watchers — and I don’t mean people watching TV, I mean people who follow the television industry — have been speculating for years about what would happen when late night legend David Letterman decided to retire.

Well we got that news Thursday. He’ll be done next year.

Obviously I’m not a TV insider so I’ll refrain from the largely mindless speculation about a replacement for the man his fans know simply as Dave. (OK I’ll bite for a moment, Stephen Colbert seems like the front-runner but my choice would be Amy Poehler.)

Instead, I would much rather talk about Letterman’s legacy in comedy. While he spent much of his career trailing Jay Leno in the ratings, comedy fans know that was something of a badge of honor. Letterman was unique, which made him less appealing to dull people. He was goofy but with an acerbic wit. The Midwestern aw-shucks routine belied a crank who never cow-towed to celebrities.

Where Leno was boring, Letterman was edgy and I’ve always thought asking someone who they prefer is as revealing a question as there is about personality and pop culture, right up there with “the Beatles or Elvis?”

To answer the former, I’ve always been a Letterman guy.

His shtick has provided a younger generation of comedians — many of whom revere Letterman as inspiration — with the space to be a little spacy. Comedy fans have Letterman to thank for a late night television landscape that isn’t just a bunch of milquetoast Jay Leno impersonators.

Who else would have looked at Rupert, the sweetly naive owner of Hello Deli across the street from the Ed Sullivan Theater where “Late Night” is recorded, and thought “this guy will be really funny.” But he was. So were many of the bits Letterman did over the years, including his signature Top 10 lists. Some of them are exactly as advertised. Stupid Pet Tricks is, well, stupid. 

The real secret behind Letterman’s genius is he’s unafraid to be unfunny. It gave him the freedom to experiment with zany, goofy, cranky.

You can find traces of Letterman in all the great comedians today — Louis CK, Jon Stewart, Colbert. The list goes on and on.

After all, there’s a reason Letterman, and not Leno, is a Kennedy Center honoree.

Leno practically begged his audience to like him. He started off shows high-fiving the front row. Letterman was just as likely to make fun of someone who turned up to watch his show.

But Letterman, despite the darts sent into the crowd from time to time, deserves credit for the admiration he demonstrated for his viewers. Letterman trusted his audience, the highest praise a comedian can give and a prerequisite for any groundbreaking funny man. If you trust the audience they will follow you where you want to take them.

Letterman, with his trademark wit, deadpanned his retirement announcement thusly: “What this means is Paul and I (longtime band leader Paul Shaffer) will finally be able to marry.”

It has been evident for a while now that Letterman’s time in TV was nearing an end. He’s sunk to last of the big three broadcast networks in the ratings. It feels like the rising generation of comedians has overtaken Letterman’s place. Jimmy Kimmel exudes LA cool and Leno’s replacement on NBC, Jimmy Fallon, is a smooth, multi-talented performer who understands the emerging role social media play in engaging an audience.

It’s Letterman’s time to step away. But he leaves behind a legacy that’s as large, if not larger, than any late night comedian to grace the airwaves.

Thanks for the laughs, Dave. It won’t be the same without you.

Contact Managing Editor Eric DuVall at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.