When David Letterman first burst onto the late-night airwaves, his blistering, ironic humor was a gale force gust of fresh air, destined to clear away the dust of what had become a creaky, out-of-date format during Johnny Carson's long reign. Three decades later, Letterman has co-presided over what has become the talk show's most noxious period, a time when canned gags, scripted chats and easy laughs have sucked the life out of what was once TV's most vibrant genre.
But when all seemed lost, out of disaster came light. For the past two nights, as Hurricane Sandy kept the audiences and much of his staff off the streets, Letterman took to the airwaves in what seemed a kamikaze mission — performing to an empty studio, with a bare handful of pre-scripted gags in his quiver and a largely celebrity-free roster of guests. And the result has been magical: a performance that took the talk show back to its roots, restored its host to humanity, and reminded us of just how good David Letterman can be when he steps away from Late Night's gigantic machinery.
Forged at the dawn of television, the nighttime talk show for decades represented not just the best of TV but the best of American culture at large. Meant to be turned on after the kids had been safely tucked into bed, the late-night talk show was an oasis where urbane and witty hosts sat back for urbane and witty conversation with well-spoken actors, writers, artists, and "personalities." From Steve Allen to Johnny Carson to Dick Cavett, the shows were the antidote to prime time's bombast.
However, by the time Letterman entered the scene in the late '70s, the format was showing its age, feeling stodgy and out-of-date to a culture now prizing youth and coolness above men in business suits drinking martinis and swapping tales of the links. Letterman's first after-hours show was essentially an unhinged spoof of the genre, featuring fantasmagoric sketches mocking the genre's seriousness, a carnival of bizarre invented stars brought forth alongside the "real" ones, and blistering celebrity interviews fueled by the host's brutal determination to knock down the fussy pretensions of the mighty.
Three decades later, what was biting and revolutionary has become a formula. Tongue-in-cheek shtick has become such a staple of late night that it's hard to imagine anyone ever took the genre seriously. As the shows have turned from a quiet corner of network programming to a nice little revenue generator for their corporate overlords, the gags have become bigger, broader, safer, and more predictable, and the interviews — guided heavily by pre-show discussions — have lost their spontaneity, their sense of fun, play, and intelligence and have become largely scripted enterprises in promoting new products.
Even as a new generation of would-be rebels has joined the field with Conan and Kimmel, the tendency has mostly seemed to take the format further down the same path it's been heading — to go bigger and have more canned bits, more Internet-ready fodder, longer monologes, louder audience huzzahs.
This week, Letterman threw all that away. In a pair of shows — often awkward, clunky, poorly lit, and almost unscripted — he sat back and just talked, chatting with a largely celebrity-free roster of guests. In doing so, he reminded audiences just how much fun it is to listen to a wit as great as Letterman is just talk. Near the top of Tuesday night's show, Letterman told a meandering, punch line–free tale of his day wandering through the hurricane landscape that was nearly Garrison Keilloresque in its leisurely pacing toward no particular direction, and every word of it was enthralling. Revisiting his old contempt for the pomposity of celebrity, he brought out his middle-aged production coordinator to play the role of Kate Hudson for a mock interview. The Top Ten list he played as a satire of the overproduced monstrosity it has become, reading through Magic Marker on poster board cards held up by a young staffer crouching in front of his desk. Joined by a guest from The Weather Channel, Letterman had an almost joke-free conversation about Sandy, its causes, and the recent history of weather patterns, talking about the events in a smart but straightforward tone, free of histrionics as one wishes they would discuss it on the news shows.
Obviously, a minimalist chat hour that in many ways resembled a podcast more than a late-night show isn't for everyone, and there is little danger that network bosses will look at Letterman's tour de force evenings and declare, "This is the future." Still, as talk shows, like everything else in our culture, fight for attention in a crowded media space, it is good to be reminded of just how powerful an evening of simply hanging out with smart and funny people can be.