Thursday, January 28, 2010

My David Letterman problem

David Letterman used to be my Johnny Carson.

As a child, Carson's Tonight Show was a marvel not because the man was such a wit, but because -- of this I was certain -- he was the reason grown-ups stayed up late. On those rare occasions I was awake to hear the raucous horns of "Johnny's Theme" and listen to Ed McMahon's guest and host introductions, I felt a sense of accomplishment typically reserved for only the most weathered adventurers: I had burst forth through the sacred barrier that separated kids who had to be in bed by 9 pm and adults who could stay up as late as they wanted.

Letterman's Late Night became that type of show for my generation. Even though the program's 12:30 am start time made it difficult to watch on a regular basis, the fact that we "got" Letterman granted us passage to our own sense of adulthood and cultural relevance. Johnny was their guy; Dave was ours. I entered high school about the same time Letterman's show was gaining steam, bringing with it a different comedic sensibility that spoke directly to me and nearly everyone I knew.

Carson had the raucous horns, but Letterman had the raucous shows: Kaufman/Lawler, Crispin Glover, Cher, Harvey Pekar: anything could happen on any given night.

Letterman's done plenty to charm his way into America's collective consciousness: those NBC baddies took The Tonight Show away from him; dude had major heart surgery; his beloved city was attacked by terrorists; his mom would visit; he devoted a show to Warren Zevon as the musician was dealing with his terminal illness; he visited the guy who replaced him on Late Night, a fellow named Conan O'Brien, and then poked fun at his own appearance when his pants rode too high up his leg during the interview.

That's a lot for any entertainer, and there's even more where that came from.

But I've found recently that I've developed something of a David Letterman problem.

Dave's kind of creepy. Not "harmless creepy;" just plain creepy.
A big part of it is the sex scandal. He's done his best to laugh it off, casting it as "creepy" with a wink and a nudge, but I can't help but think it's simply "creepy," wink and nudge need not apply. Over the years, Letterman served as something of a public spokesman for many, many people in this country, using his stage to condemn straying politicians and moronic celebrities when their actions required condemnation. I can't say David Letterman spoke for you, but he sure spoke for me on a number of occasions.

So to find out that this fellow spent a fair amount of his time abusing his position of authority to make time with young female staffers ... well, that requires some sort of condemnation, doesn't it? Some sort of karmic make good? This guy abused his own celebrity to bed a bunch of women while supposedly dating just one woman, the one who, incidentally, gave birth to his only son. And did I read it right that he brought one of these women on vacation with him ... and his eventual wife? Don't tell me these women threw themselves at him. Come on, Dave's cool, but he's grandfather old. If he's not their rich and famous boss, he doesn't enjoy anything approximating this kind of attention.

But who delivers the public's condemnation this time? Not Dave. Honestly, his attempts to joke around the situation just seem ... well, off-putting. I can't think of any fancier way to put it. (And, being a writer, I always go for fancy.) No one else has really touched the subject. He got a lot of credit for addressing the topic right away on his show -- announcing it there, even -- but he didn't really have a choice but to address it: the guy's on TV every night. He can't simply run away and hide like Tiger Woods.

This matters if you've ever been in an office situation where the boss is making time with an underling of the opposite sex. I have: it's a caustic situation. Nell Scovell did a great job covering this for Vanity Fair; click here to read it.

Dave's bitter.
Let's adopt, for a moment, the commonly held belief that NBC screwed over Letterman by naming Jay Leno Carson's Tonight Show replacement. I had no doubt then or now that the move worked out to Letterman's benefit. Despite putting on a good show when he visited Los Angeles for a week of programming, Letterman's a New York guy. Period. You try to move him to Southern California on a permanent basis -- like, say, for The Tonight Show -- and it fails. Maybe not as badly as Conan O'Brien's stint failed, but it fails nonetheless. You did see how well his Oscar hosting gig was received, right? Letterman needs New York like peanut butter needs jelly.

Seriously, I cannot eat peanut butter without jelly. Unless it's wrapped in chocolate. But I digress ...

NBC gave Jay Leno The Tonight Show for a number of reasons, including:
  • He asked them to.
  • He was pulling equal or better ratings than Carson, depending on how you look at the figures.
  • Carson's show was getting long in the tooth.
Here's something a lot of people forget: before he announced his retirement, Carson's Tonight Show was not exactly a ratings or cultural powerhouse. Compared to Arsenio Hall, he seemed tired. Worse yet, he seemed to grow more irrelevant. But once he announced his retirement, those last months of his show generated an urgency you don't typically find in television.

And for Dave not to lobby beforehand for that job ... well, how about a little "call to action" next time, eh?

The fact that Leno was already serving as The Tonight Show's permanent guest host made him a front runner for the full-time gig. Anyone who didn't get that at the time simply wasn't paying attention. If you want a promotion at work, for a job currently held by someone else, don't you think you'd let that little tidbit slide out at your next meeting with the boss? I would.

But what we saw recently -- Letterman's glee at all the Leno bashing, joining in for an assortment of potshots himself, such as "Big Jaw" (... and he has writers for this?) -- was that Letterman is still bearing a grudge.

Let's take stock:
  • Makes $30+ million per year
  • World famous
  • Has/Had a harem of women at work
  • Still really, really bitter about something that happened over 15 years ago that worked out in his best interests anyway
What's wrong with this picture? If you said "eternal grudge of almost biblical proportions," you win. But that doesn't make Letterman an epic bad-ass. It makes him a great big whiner.

Dave's tired.
I tuned in, pre- and post-Conan O'Brien imbroglio, and saw something I never really noticed before: Dave looked tired.

Not faux-tired, acting as if he's plumb tuckered out by all the crazy people in the world. Physically weary.

When I thought about it, I realized, why wouldn't he be tired? Excepting the short break between NBC and CBS, the guy's been doing the same show for over 25 years. Twenty-five years! I get tired simply typing that.

Compared to Craig Ferguson, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon (yes, I like his show; bite me), Letterman lately seems out of step. Maybe in his head he's getting ready to wrap it up, and his body can't help but betray some of that? I suspect he will wrap things up relatively soon, within a couple years certainly. To his credit, the man's been a show business workhorse for far more time than most entertainers, putting out much more energy than any one- or two-picture-a-year movie star could. Even the best and brightest on Broadway would have a problem matching this guy's output.

But I don't want to tune in for tired. I don't want to tune in for the same bits, cleverly rearranged, that I saw 10 years ago. I'm a grown-up now and I need a good reason to abuse my right to stay up as late as I want.

I cannot underscore enough the place this man held in my cultural heart over the past couple decades. But here's my problem: as time goes by, I find that my David Letterman has been replaced by some other David Letterman, one who perhaps spent too much time in an echo chamber filled with sycophants telling him he's a genius and the suits really screwed him over when they gave Leno The Tonight Show.

I have lots of late night talk show options nowadays, and find I'm exercising them more and more. But there's only so much time in the day, so something has to give. In this case, it's Letterman. And that's okay: somewhere along the way, the David Letterman I grew up with was replaced by some other guy I find nowhere near as appealing. That's too bad. Still, for a very, very long time, I had the right David Letterman at the right time, and that was enough.