May 21, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Finale Review: “Late Show With David Letterman”


It’s been a heavy week for epochal TV.  On Sunday, Mad Men sold us one last Coke, and tonight marked the end of David Letterman’s reign, one that’s lasted into a fourth decade on the air and has had an almost incalculable influence not just on late-night TV or even TV in general, but on our very perception of our culture.  We see authority figures in a different way post-Letterman, and we absorb our news and entertainment differently.  In his own realm, there wasn’t any part of talk-show hosting that Dave didn’t upend, from the emotional affect of the host to the format.  He broke every rule, and stayed around long enough for his rules to become the norm.  It’s become obvious that we all missed the point when, back in the 1990s (footnote to history:  I was the final NBC lawyer assigned to that network’s version of his show), we looked at Dave and Jay Leno and wondered Who is the new Carson?  Neither was, but Letterman, for all his (reciprocated) admiration for Johnny, wasn’t even trying to be.

Part of Letterman’s genius was that he was both detached and intimate.  With the eagerness of a precocious child and the dexterity of a clinician, he disassembled the pieces of the “TV talk show,” then figured out how to make the gears work even with some of the parts left out, and others inserted upside-down or backwards.  On the other hand, there had never been a host more willing to let the audience in on his feelings:  it was anyone’s guess what Carson really thought about his guests, but Letterman was fearless about letting his boredom and contempt show, or sometimes (less frequently) his delight.  He essentially invented what we now call “viral videos,” wearing velcro and Alka-Seltzer suits for stunts, throwing objects from roofs, and abusing the general public through neighborhood proxies (Rupert Jee of Hello Deli, with Dave’s voice in his ear) or his own fast-food headset.  And on the rare occasions when he expressed profound feelings directly, as in his first shows after his open heart surgery and 9/11, the impact was tremendous, because for all his carefully cultivated facetiousness, it was always clear that no one in the business had more integrity.

In truth, as the decades have piled on, and Letterman has become a leading representative of the comedy establishment as he himself had reconstituted it, he’s been more an attitude than an anarchist.  We’ve watched the biggest stars make their way to his couch in these last few weeks, Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and Bill Murray paying their final respects to the master, and there hasn’t been the old sense that absolutely anything might happen on that stage.  That may have been the sign that it really was time to leave.

Tonight’s final show was, as these valedictory things tend to be, more of a ceremony than a conventional episode.  There were clip packages (Dave with kids), an all-star final Top 10 list whose presenters included Murray, Tina Fey, Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock (unusually, the microphone wasn’t turned down when Dave made the circuit of the guests and softly thanked each for their contribution), a rather straightforward mini-documentary about a typical day in the life of Late Show, and a lengthy and gracious thank-you to everyone who’d worked on the show from Les Moonves and Paul Shaffer on down.  He made time to say nice things about Stephen Colbert, who will replace him next fall.  In the end, Foo Fighters saw him out with one of his favorite songs, as a bang-up montage of photos and short clips traced his decades on the air.

It had to be frustrating that for the bulk of their shared tenure, Leno was ahead of him in the ratings, and even after all his success, it clearly still bugs him that he never got to wear the mantle of the Tonight Show (tellingly, his next-to-last episode featured a montage of TV news people mistakenly reporting that he was retiring from that show, and there was another Tonight Show gag in the monologue tonight), yet Letterman exits with a distinction that neither Carson nor Leno could claim:  he’s leaving entirely at his own volition, without any network hands pressing at his back.  For a guy rejected by his first network, and a rebel who seemed at the time an uncertain fit for his more conservative second home, it’s a special triumph to have outlasted every doubter.

As for Colbert, he’ll take over with something close to a blank slate, because although the character known as “Stephen Colbert” hosted a comedy talk show for years, Stephen Colbert never has.  No one really knows what he’ll do, but whatever it is, it will inevitably be influenced by (and unfortunately for him, compared to) the man who preceded him.  There aren’t a lot of true visionaries in the world of entertainment, but David Letterman has been one of them.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."