What’s Filling the Hole that David Letterman Left?

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David Letterman

In late May this year the last week of “‹The Late Show with David Letterman “‹aired, and drawing to its close late night hosts across the TV networks publicly paid their respects. Conan O’Brien used the opening monologue of “‹Conan “‹to reveal that when Letterman came on his show in the early 90s, it was a guest spot that allowed his prior show, Late Night, a chance to continue despite network threats of cancellation. Somewhat still fresh to late night show-hosting, Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon both talked in length about what having Letterman to watch growing up meant to them. Though it was Jimmy Kimmel, on Jimmy Kimmel Live“‹, and Norm Macdonald (a guest in Letterman’s final weeks), who touched on that particular quality of Letterman’s that made him beloved by some many comedians; a mundane, often stupid, blunt style of comedy drawn from real life.

Letterman was very often mean to guests. He poked fun at comic artist Harvey Pekar till he cracked on air in the late 80s, had Paris Hilton on in 2007 and only asked questions about her jail time, and even heckled Richard Simmons, who would return time and again, only to finally snap at Letterman to stop tormenting him. Some odd characters won Letterman over despite his wisecracks, Harmony Korine, for example, although Letterman never did let an opportunity go amiss to keep the guest unsure as to whether he would turn on them at any moment. This was awkward at times, though when a guest got the joke, it was hilarious and true to Kimmel and Macdonald’s tributes: memorable television.

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Writer Bret Easton Ellis said it best when discussing the recent Frank Sinatra documentary “‹Sinatra: All or Nothing At All“‹ on his podcast, “Sinatra was just a man, unapologetically”. David Letterman’s career is proof that an audience likes personality, and someone who ‘does it their way’, so to speak.

Imagining a landscape of people tuned into Letterman around 11.30pm on weeknights is to imagine night-shift workers and people who can’t sleep, thousands of lights across a country blinking on and off. It’s not the time for breaking news, but the “‹killing time “‹kind of hour. Australian TV has no equal as far as a late night host is concerned, and one has to wonder if it’s the five nights a week or the fighter spirit to come back up from a punch that’s missing.

Talk of late night ‘kings’ is still often discussed, with ratings as important to a show’s longevity as collective memory of an episode or moment. Jimmy Fallon is currently on the throne, and this is curious as apart from the show’s ‘viral’ segments, usually involving a celebrity in an oddball situation, not much else of the show is spoken about. Fallon gets a lot of entertainment news coverage, but do people stay up late to watch him, or is his top spot down to over-­saturating the media? And can anyone remember one game of celebrity charades to the next? This same confusion is explored by the use of an Andy Warhol quote at the beginning of Tim Burton’s Big Eyes; “I think what Walter Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”

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This reliance on ratings to determine success is really only promoting over earnestness in new hosts like Fallon. To be overearnest is to also be humourless, and if TV networks cared so much about eyeballs on screens you would think they would care about pandering or exhausting the viewer. Not every episode needs to go viral, not every guest is fantastic, because as Letterman demonstrated on many occasions, banter is often a rich source of comedy and the best test of whether someone is interesting or not – ­ much like anybody would judge a new acquaintance in real life. In contrast, TV ratings, likes and shares, going “viral”, are systematic of the kind of popularity contest most should be too cynical after High School to buy into. More importantly, it is not the kind of environment that breeds talent. It may be exciting, everyone might talk about it, but in a few days ­ they don’t.

That’s not to say that people aren’t consuming content, because everyone’s obviously watching a lot. It used to be ‘I’ll stay up for Letterman, then bed,’ now, you could accidentally be up until 3am in a YouTube hole. It must be easy to foresee ad revenue, but it will soon be indigestible. Comedy, especially a late night variety show, has a duty to be relatable enough so that viewers get the joke, because what’s a bigger joke than life?

H.J.

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