Tonight I said goodbye to my all-time favorite late night talk show host, David Letterman. The web and TV have been full of much-deserved tributes to Letterman in the lead-up to his final Late Show broadcast. Even though he wasn’t always the most watched or even most liked host, it’s nice to see all the appreciation for his absurdist humor and deliberately prickly demeanor.
Letterman leaves behind an incredible legacy, but his greatest contribution to late-night comedy is unfortunately the least emulated. Letterman’s show was smart. Not just because he was smart, but because he assumed his audience was too.
A perfect example of what set Dave apart from his competition can be seen in every opening monologue. Content-wise, there was little difference between Letterman’s openings and anyone else’s–same format, same cheesy and predictable punchlines, same shallow mockery of celebrities and politicians. The difference was that Dave knew these jokes were dumb, and he knew his audience knew it. Leno, Fallon, even Conan all tried to play these awful bits for big laughs. Dave knew better. He knew they were lame. He knew that making fun of Bill Clinton or Kim Kardashian was low-hanging fruit. If a joke didn’t hit, he’d just give a wry smirk and move on. In fact, he sometimes seemed to deliberately parody the format and style that he helped institutionalize.
Additionally, Letterman brought on smart guests and had smart interviews. Short of Sterwart and Colbert (who will be a more-than-worthy successor), no other host brought on more artists, political leaders, or writers. And even if it was just some Hollywood actor, Dave never let an interviewee get away with simply plugging their project.
My absolute favorite interview Dave ever did was with then-Presidential candidate George W. Bush. Letterman had been trying to get a Bush/Gore debate on his show for months. Supposedly Gore agreed to it immediately, but wound up appearing on the show alone. Eventually, a terribly unprepared Bush came on just a few weeks before the election.
I was 14 when I saw this broadcast, and it’s the exact moment when my political consciousness was born.
I could go on and talk about how much my sense of humor or taste in music was shaped by Dave. But I can’t imagine recreating ‘Will it Float?’ in the school cafeteria or being introduced to Warren Zevon because of Late Show are unique to me. Instead, I’d rather give credit to Dave for teaching me that there’s no need to dumb yourself down for anyone else’s sake; people are generally smart enough to figure things out. And if someone isn’t, the people who are probably think it’s hilarious.