So it’s the last 3 days of David Letterman, and I must admit it’s a develoment I have complicated emotions about. I’ve been a great fan of his subtle subversion of the talk show format ever since Late Night with David Letterman started appearing after Johnny Carson in 1982.
I felt he was badly served by NBC when it came time to choose Carson’s successor on The Tonight Show in 1992 since he was so clearly Johnny’s favored replacement and had devoted 11 years to preparation.
Moreover I found Jay Leno to be crass and shallow. If you say that was totally in the Carson tradition of zingers that didn’t zing and lame sketches that went horribly wrong; well, yes, but at least Johnny seemed to have a clue when his material was less than stellar while Jay displayed a profound ignorance of it and a complete disregard for his audience as he blundered through an avalanche of one liners that, in the sentiments of one reviewer, rewarded you only with the predictable unexpected so you could smugly congratulate yourself on how intelligent you were to ‘get it’.
In short Leno was boring and still is.
David on the other hand was novel. You never knew what to expect and were rarely disappointed. If you didn’t ‘get it’ it wasn’t like failing a test, it was more like a ‘wow, I had never considered that’.
A skill that Johnny and Dave share and that Jay totally lacks is interviewing. Jay simply parrots the PR the Publicity Flack has prepared and gushes. Dave actually listens and has conversations.
When Dave accepted a contract with CBS in 1993 I was was happy for a number of reasons. First, I thought he would kick Jay Leno’s ass which he did for a number of seasons. Also he was moving back to New York. I understand why Johnny moved to Los Angeles, better climate for him, easier to get the movie stars and Las Vegas entertainers who were his bread and butter guests.
Still, I felt the Tonight Show really lost its edge as an interesting show when it moved out of The Rainbow Room. I have this private theory that too much sunshine makes you kind of, well, impaired, and not only the monologues declined but so did the IQs of the guests with many of them seeming barely able to work out which bit of the couch they were supposed to be sitting on. In its Western iteration The Tonight Show has all the charm and wit of one of the more forgettable 80s sit-coms like The Hogan Family.
So Dave was coming back to New York! And we would get Broadway and Theater Actors! People from Overseas! Politicians and Business Titans! Also your regular average New Yorker who was right there on the street outside instead of baking in a traffic jam on a Los Angeles spaghetti highway miles and miles away from the studio in suburban Burbank.
Oh and the regular Hollywood types too, so sorry you had to fly First Class breathing the same air as the Hoi Poloi.
And Dave did it right too. Renovated the Ed Sullivan Theater, a cavernous space just as big as it seems on TV that he never had any trouble filling. He set up his own production company, Worldwide Pants, and hired everyone from Late Night who was willing to leave.
He wrote the checks and made the hiring and firing decisions. CBS had no one to deal with except for him which would prove significant as we’ll see in part 2.