By now the news is out: Next year, In 2015, Late Night Talk Show host David Letterman will retire.
A part of me is quite sad about this. I was a fan of Johnny Carson and recall when he retired and, not all that long afterwards, passed away. I loved Carson’s Tonight Show. I loved the naturalism and curiosity, along with -of course- a great sense of humor, in the way he went about interviewing guests. His guests seemed to be instantly at ease and he took what they gave and gave back in spades. He was also superb with his monologues. When the jokes were funny, they were funny, but when they bombed -which they did frequently!- Mr. Carson was at his absolute best, taking what for others might be humiliation and making it solid gold.
David Letterman, I suspect, was well schooled by what he saw Mr. Carson do. Though his humor tended to be a bit “edgier”, he too was the master of taking a terrible joke and making it hilarious. When Mr. Letterman rose up in the ranks and became a talk show host following the Tonight Show, it became THE show to see and I absolutely loved some of his bizarre yet delightful bits, such as his experimentations with different kinds of “suits”, the most hilarious of them being the one made of velcro (the must watch moment starts at the 3:45 mark)…
I watched Letterman religiously in the 1980’s and into the 1990’s and then …well… stopped. I couldn’t tell you what happened. Perhaps I no longer had the time to watch. I was moving from college to work, marriage, and having kids. Time wasn’t such a luxury anymore. Perhaps it was also that the show, which moved from NBC to CBS, seemed to become a little more muted. The bizarre humor slowly tapered off and maybe, just maybe, it no longer appealed to me as much as before. Most likely, a combination of all the above ultimately made me stop watching.
Regardless, after not seeing more than a couple of minutes of Letterman here and there for over ten and probably closer to twenty years, I heard that actor Josh Charles would be on the show a couple of weeks back. It was quite a coup for Letterman as Mr. Charles was at the center of one of the more …sensational… episodes of The Good Wife and, frankly, I was eager to hear what he had to say about the episode (Yes, I’m a fan of The Good Wife!)
So I set my DVR to record the show and the next day I watched it.
The David Letterman in my mind remains the relatively young man of the velcro suit clip above. I was shocked, though I probably shouldn’t have been, at how much he had aged since I last really had a good look at him. I know, aging happens to all of us. Carson aged over the years I watched him, but he always seemed to be Carson. Even as he was retiring from The Tonight Show he appeared to be more or less the same person as before. Letterman, on the other hand, looked haggard, tired.
His opening monologue featured some funny jokes, but I was surprised at how robotic his delivery was. I know I may be guilty of reading too much into this, but seeing the monologue made me feel like Letterman was on autopilot and the monologue to him had become a boring routine.
The worst was to come.
I fast forwarded to the interview with Josh Charles, skipping President Carter (in retrospect, I probably should have given that a look), and found myself even more surprised and, frankly, saddened by what I saw. If Mr. Letterman’s monologue looked like work done on autopilot, his “interview” with Mr. Charles was even worse. Mr. Letterman seemed to barely care about the actor and, especially, his work on The Good Wife. The questions Mr. Letterman asked him were obviously on a piece of paper he was reading off of and he looked (again, I might be guilty of reading too much into this) barely interested in the guy before him. In the end, Letterman wound up talking about Mr. Charles’ marriage and honeymoon and riding elephants.
You just had one of the most fascinating hours of television the night before and then get the actor in the center of that episode to come on your show…and the host focuses on the man’s honeymoon?!
So, fast forward to last night, two weeks or so later, and the breaking news that Mr. Letterman announces his retirement. Had I not seen the episode above, the news of his retirement might well have shocked the hell out of me. Having seen that episode, though, I felt the complete opposite.
Mr. Letterman has been around for a very long time and I’ll always appreciate the laughs he’s given me. But if that single episode I saw of Letterman’s show was any indication, perhaps Mr. Letterman realized it was time for him to move along.
I’ll probably catch some of his final episodes, just like I did with Mr. Carson. When he does finally retire and is no longer on the air, at least I’ll have my pleasant memories…