Monday, April 7, 2014
Late and Lamented
Most people at TV.com know me as "the late night guy." If I wasn't editing a particular show, I had contributed at some point. Though editing the SNL episode guide earned me most of my notoriety, I put more time and energy into the Late Night and Late Show with David Letterman. Where SNL merited more discussion, Letterman had the greater workload. With twenty-odd shows a year, SNL didn't need the near-constant cultivation that LNDL and LSDL needed. Where one show was churning out 190 to 200 new broadcasts a year the older, defunct series was a neverending work in progress. Sometime next year, that aspect of my TV.com career might draw to a close.
I was surprised by David Letterman's announcement that he will retire in mid-2015, but I wasn't necessarily shocked. Rumors of Dave retiring has been floating around for well over a decade. His trademark sarcasm and occasional grumpiness was morphing into crusty old age. The tone of the Late Show had grown both claustrophobic and agoraphobic; Letterman could barely feign interest in his guests half the time, and he was reluctant to participate in remotes or anything outside the cocoon of the Ed Sullivan Theater, walking distance from the hustle and bustle of Times Square.
To call Letterman influential is almost redundant. During his 14 years at NBC --six months as a daytime talk show host, 11 1/2 years hosting Late Night, and occasionally filling in for Johnny Carson in between-- he began a miniature comedy revolution. It wasn't funny in the winking, set-up/punchline sort of way; it could be eclectic, abstract, uncomfortable or all three. The franchise that is now Late Night was a risk of sorts; Letterman was given the thankless task of replacing Tom Snyder, following an awkward fallout with the Peacock. (Sound familiar?) What was initially a low-rent, straight-ahead chatfest quickly became the strangest hour on network television.
When Dave bolted for CBS in 1993, the experimentation of Late Night gave way to Dave's most under-appreciated talent, his ability to interview (and sometimes interrogate) a guest. Case in point: if Jay Leno was inclined to ask Paris Hilton about her perfume, Dave felt more compelled to ask the socialite about her stint in prison. And that actually happened. And maybe 20% of the time, Dave apologized for taking things too far. If Leno often conceded his spotlight to an A-list movie star, Letterman's show was unquestionably about Letterman. He was seldom interested in pandering or kissing ass.
Then there's the records. When all is said and done, Letterman will retire as the longest-serving late night talk show host ever (33 years and change) and most episodes (nearly 6,000 between NBC and CBS). Where Ed Sullivan hosted his show from his eponymous theater for 18 years, Letterman called "The Ed" home for 22. Just about every current late night talk show host has tipped their hat to Dave in the past few days, and the accolades spanned from "The Simpsons" to frequent Late Show guest Keith Olbermann. Even though the Letterman-Leno feud is over, the Ali to Dave's Frazier has kept mum.
After all these years, I will admit that maintaining the Late Night and Late Show episode guides has been a losing, almost Sisyphean battle. With the new restrictions to TV.com editor guidelines, I would have to get special clearance to finish both guides the way I and my predecessor Alan Brewster set out to build over a decade ago. Don Giller and David Yoder, arguably Letterman's biggest fans as well as the comedian's unofficial historians, are both racing to finish an encyclopedia of all things Dave. Letterman's fans formed an online community not unlike a cult sci-fi show, and with the end anywhere between a year and 18 months away, we could be on the verge of a schism or just quietly going our seperate ways. I'm not leaving TV.com --not now, though I've been tempted-- but pretty soon my incentive to socialize and submit information there could dwindle significantly.
I'll miss you, Dave.