David Letterman’s stationary victory lap leading up to his final “Late Show” on CBS Wednesday has brought visits from heads of state (President Obama and former President Clinton), old friends (Julia Roberts and Steve Martin) and old feuding partners (Oprah Winfrey and Cher), along with comedic musical salutes (Billy Crystal, Martin Short and Adam Sandler).
But perhaps the most touching and telling tribute came last week when actor and inveterate prankster George Clooney performed one of the greatest stupid human tricks of them all: handcuffing himself to the man who has given us more than 6,000 hours of late night comedy over 33 years.
"You may be going off the air, but you belong to us for the ages, my friend," Clooney told Letterman.
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We can’t let go of Letterman – and he won’t let go of us, even long after his last signoff Wednesday. He leaves a late night comedy landscape filled with hosts he helped shape in his irreverent and inventive mold.
Conan O’Brien’s Claymation episode on NBC’s “Late Night” marked an ode less to “Davey and Goliath,” than to David Letterman, who tweaked stodgy talk show formats by variously putting guests in dentist and lawn chairs for whole episodes. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, no doubt, absorbed Letterman’s initial sardonic approach to interviewing, and their shows’ remote bits with straight-faced mockery are extensions of Letterman’s early forays into the streets of New York (remember “Just Bulbs?”).
Chelsea Handler, who is set to return with a new show on Netflix next year, and Jimmy Kimmel put a smirk into their voices that screams Letterman. Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers and Craig Ferguson all benefited from Letterman turning the 12:30 a.m. timeslot into a comedy laboratory where bits like “Lick it for 10” could be tried out with little judgment.
While he’s enjoyed a two-decade-plus run on CBS, Letterman made the most of his NBC years, introducing wacky bits (his Velco and Alka Seltzer suits), wackier guests and recurring characters (Larry “Bud” Melman and Brother Theodore, to name two), while offering unpredictability that wasn’t always his doing. Madonna and Cher’s profanity-fests, Crispin Glover’s unhinged adventures in karate, Penn and Teller’s insect invasion and Andy Kaufman’s wrestling antics made “Late Night” the most entertainingly dangerous place on television.
Letterman matured, but never mellowed on “Late Show,” which started in 1993. Paul Shaffer and the band took on a greater role. So did New York, as Letterman elevated the city to a key character, turning deli owner Rupert Jee and souvenir store workers Mujibur Rahman and Sirajul Islam into celebrities. Letterman transformed Broadway into the site of live concerts (including Paul McCartney playing atop the marquee of The Ed Sullivan Theater) and converted W. 53rd Street into a falling zone where televisions, watermelons and paint cans plunged from the roof.
Quirky traditions became part of the show’s fabric: Jay Thomas tossing footballs at a giant meatball atop a Christmas tree and the great Darlene Love blowing the roof off the house with her classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” Drew Barrymore flashing Letterman was a one-time event, though never forgotten.
For all the spectacle, Letterman became a stronger and more gracious interviewer during his CBS years. He made his mother, Dorothy, a regular player, sending her around the world for bits built around a gentler kind of humor than the laughs he supplied in the past.
Letterman, a paragon of Midwestern reserve, became more open and vulnerable with age and the unforeseen. We lived with him through heart surgery and a sex scandal, both of which he addressed with disarming candor. He let us share his joy at his late-in-life fatherhood. He shined brightest in his first show after 9/11 when he captured our outrage and disbelief as he helped us begin to laugh again.
Letterman never approached the near-universal popularity of his hero, Johnny Carson, who ruled late night in a past, less fractured era. And Letterman could never beat his peer and frenemy Jay Leno, to whom he lost “The Tonight Show” succession fight and the ratings battle over nearly two decades of competition. But Letterman outdid Leno, and arguably Carson – not just in endurance, but in influence.
Not that he’s taking credit, though he seems more comfortable than he would have in the past with all the valedictory accolades – some of them quite emotional (sure, it’s not hard to imagine Ray Romano welling up, but who would have guessed Norm MacDonald was a sentimentalist at heart?)
Letterman, the cranky old uncle of late night, seems finally to be enjoying himself as his TV run nears its end. He’s hinted that he’ll be back in public life in some form, unlike Carson who all-but disappeared after retiring in 1992, save for a couple “Late Show” cameos and secretly writing monologue jokes for Letterman. It’s a good bet Letterman will give Colbert some time to settle into the Ed Sullivan Theater before finding a new stage (it probably won’t be as Oscars host).
George Clooney and the many of us whose Letterman fandom dates to his 1980 NBC morning show could come up with far more than 10 top reasons for him stay. But we’ll give the 68-year-old comedian, who was never handcuffed by TV convention, credit for knowing his own heart. He was never tops in the ratings book, but he’s up there in TV history as he leaves on his own terms, which may be the smartest human trick of them all.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.