I Don’t Really Get David Letterman

22 May

David Letterman

In the wake of David Letterman’s last few shows, the winding down of the career on Late Night television that lasted an incredible 33 years, writer after writer, celebrity after celebrity, fan after fan, have come down on blogs, social media, television, and, well, everywhere really to praise and write tributes to Letterman, his influence, his brand of comedy, and his general brilliants. Well, in light of that outpouring, despite my minor terror at admitting it, I need to make it known: I never really understood the appeal of David Letterman.

I don’t necessarily relish being the contrarian and I’m much more unabashed about my other primary contrarian television stance, which is that Saturday Night Live is the most overrated cultural institution of the past 40 years. With that, I’m confident I’m right and everything else is wrong. With my feelings on David Letterman, I feel like I have to be missing something.

I have great respect for many of the people who love and idolize Letterman and who have penned all of these tributes to him in the past few weeks. I love anti-humor, caustic anti-sentimentality, self-deprecation, silly absurdism, and genre send-ups, all among the many types of humor that Letterman seems to be known for, and I still don’t really get anything out of what Late Show with David Letterman I’ve seen.

To be completely fair, I haven’t watched very many episodes over the course of Letterman’s run, but I’ve seen episodes here and there and I made a point to watch the final episode. Sure, there were some funny moments over the totality of the clips shown on the finale, but for a series of clips which seemed geared towards picking out the funniest, most memorable, and most definitive moments, the ratio wasn’t particularly high. The Top Ten lists in particular have never worked for me, and I’ve never been able to figure out if they’re anti-humor that I’m just not enjoying, or they’re supposed to be genuinely funny and they’re just not.

I have three major theories for why I don’t appreciate Letterman.

First, David Letterman is constantly talked about a s being groundbreaking; there was no one like him before, and he changed not just late-night but comedy forever in important, meaningful, and progressive ways.

I am one generation younger than the generation that truly revered David Letterman (obviously people of all ages did, but I anecdotally read the most about praise and influence from this group), and I didn’t really become cognizant of late night television until the mid to late 90s. Maybe what was once subverting tradition now feels like the tradition to me, and thus is less interesting and certainly less groundbreaking. David Letterman may well have been incredibly influential and made a huge impact on comedy, but by the time I really knew who Letterman was in any meaningful way, all the lessons he had taught had already been long absorbed into the mainstream and what was new and revolutionary was now just part of what I expected from any comic.

Second, the generation that revers Letterman most, Generation X, or more or less those who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, knew Dave first from his Late Night with David Letterman show which aired in the ‘80s and into the early ‘90s on NBC. I’ve only seen very little from that show and know a fairly limited amount about it, but from what I have seen and read it seems more radical and more interesting than the Late Show with David Letterman which followed on CBS. The time slot and the ability to be more out there and less buttoned up and mainstream for a smaller, younger audience probably does matter; I distinctly noticed the change when Conan moved to the earlier time slot (Jimmy Fallon is an exception; his show was built for the earlier time slot even when it was on at 12:30). I watched some clips of a Harmon Killebrew theme night which sounded kind of amazing. If someone only had access to modern day Simpsons episodes, he or she would have a difficult time understanding my reverence for the show, and it’s possible that my experiences watching The Late Show simply doesn’t do justice to the ‘80s Late Night.

Third, adoration of Letterman goes hand-in-hand with adoration for late night television as a genre. I’ve said many times that I think the traditional monologue, bit, guest, guest, music, hour-long late night format is hopelessly outdated and boring and drawn out as hell, and since Letterman is best known as one of the key progenitors of that genre, it’s hard for me to gain an appreciation of him even if I would have had he put his comedic stylings to use in other formats. I don’t have the attention span to watch full episodes of late night, and now that we live in an era where the only traditional late night I watch are Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel bits that spread to YouTube, I never have to (and honestly, I often start watching those bits, and am bored before the three or four minutes are up anyway). Maybe if Letterman had poured his clearly formidable talents into another form of comedy, I wouldn’t be writing this article.

To conclude, I recognize Letterman’s place in comedy, the way someone can recognize the importance of The Sex Pistols without ever necessarily wanting to listen to them. Like or not, he’s important, and that’s worth something, and people I respect like him, and that’s worth something as well. Still, I haven’t seen anything in the past month that has convinced me he’s particularly funny, and I’d love some more convincing evidence which would show me why I should care. Maybe one day.

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2 Responses to “I Don’t Really Get David Letterman”

  1. waldinho June 17, 2015 at 6:07 pm #

    please watch

  2. fruchterjesse June 17, 2015 at 6:08 pm #

    yugh. try this one

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