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David Letterman’s Legacy

When he retires next year, David Letterman will have been at a late night desk for 33 years. That’s longer than anyone else, and it’s a record that will never be surpassed. But Dave wasn’t an overnight success. In fact, he spent the first half of his life preparing to host a late night show, and the last half actually doing it. His time in the wilderness included jobs as a DJ, TV weatherman, TV sitcom writer, ensemble cast member of a variety show, stand-up comedian, and host of a failed talk show that wasted his brand of wackiness on the wrong audience at the wrong time of day. In 1982, NBC corrected that mistake by giving Dave his own show at 12:30am, following Johnny Carson, the man he idolized and eventually wanted to replace. In the end, Carson lobbied for Dave, but NBC gave Jay Leno “The Tonight Show”, and Dave found a home at CBS.

Though Dave’s hero was Carson, it would be a mistake to say that he was solely a product of Carson’s style. In fact, Letterman is what I refer to as a hybrid pioneer of late night. His wacky stunts and lightning fast wit is all Steve Allen. My favorite Allen ad lib slipped out while he was interviewing a little girl, who said she liked to go to the beach. “What do you do at the beach”? asked Steve. “I dig,” said the girl. “I’m hip,” quipped Allen without a pause. Fast forward to last week, when Dave introduced a high school student who had been accepted to all eight Ivy League colleges. Dave looked into the camera, and as an afterthought said, “He’ll probably end up just going to four or five of them.” Pure Allen.

What Dave inherited from Carson was mastery of the wry comeback. Take for instance the night he tried to interview space cadet Joaquin Phoenix who showed up incognito. At the end  of the segment Dave said, “I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.”

Then there’s the gravitas of Dave which was handed down to him by Jack Paar and Dick Cavett. It’s a rare ability which served Letterman well immediately following 9/11. It let him know just when to return to the air, and just what to say when he got there. Dave also inherited Paar and Cavett’s intellectual curiosity, which he has demonstrated time and again when interviewing serious people about serious topics. Like last week, for instance.

That’s when former President Jimmy Carter visited the Ed Sullivan theatre to plug his new book, “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power”, which details horrific abuses against women throughout the world. Within moments after the interview began, Dave had abandoned his notes, and engaged Carter in a lively, unrehearsed dialogue about how to combat abuse. He then wandered seamlessly into a discussion about everything from the Crimean conflict, to alternative sources of energy.

But Dave is also a master of timing, and knew when and how to break the tension of a serious conversation. At one point Carter mentioned that he has 12 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren, “21 in all” said Carter. “You have your own Congressional district, don’t you?” quipped Dave. And at the end of the interview, Dave lifted the mood by saying to the former President, “I thought you were going to be a lot funnier.” The Carter interview was vintage Letterman, and it’s why we watch him, because no other TV host in any time slot, on any channel, could have pulled it off with such aplomb.

Much has been written lately about how the new generation of late night hosts is taking younger viewers away from Dave, the same kind of viewers he had attracted in years past. But guess what? Back then, those viewers included the likes of Fallon, Kimmel, Meyers, Hall, Ferguson, Stewart, Colbert, and O’Brien, all of who have, in some way, copied or embraced the Letterman style. In that regard, Dave not only influenced those guys, he made it possible for them to carve out their own non-traditional niche within a very traditional genre.

Dave once said, “I can’t sing. I can’t dance, and I can’t act. So what else would I be but a talk show host?” Maybe so, but David Letterman turned out to be the most complete and best damn late night host in history, and that’s no small feat. Although I don’t know what the size of his “feat” have to do with anything.

Dave, I’ll miss you. You’re hip, and I dig. !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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