If you haven’t heard, David Letterman is riding into the late-night sunset “sometime in 2015,” to be replaced by Stephen Colbert. (Also: how are you enjoying that rock you’re living under?)
It’s somewhat earth-shattering news, really. Letterman is the last of the old guard—he spent the better part of the past four decades defining what a late-night host is supposed to be in America. And what one's supposed to look like. There were the big-rimmed glasses. Then came the giant shoulder pads. Followed by a whole lot of pinstripes. Then there was that run of billowy double-breasted suits that he just refused to button. But toward the end he’s reverted back to his sartorial sweet spot, the trad two-button blazer and power tie. What we’re saying is: it’s been one helluva ride.
WE’RE IN THIS THING TOGETHER: Honeymooners, All in the Family, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Roseanne
The remains of the World Trade Center were still smoldering less than a week after 9/11 when The Late Show with David Letterman returned to regular programming, the first non-news broadcast to do so. The show that night opened in silence – no music, no credits, no monologue – just a pensive, shaken David Letterman seated at his desk.David Letterman: Welcome to The Late Show. It's terribly sad here in New York City. We've lost [thousands of] fellow New Yorkers, and you can feel it. You can feel it. You can see it. It's terribly sad. Terribly, terribly sad. And watching all of this, I wasn't sure that I should be doing a television show, because for twenty years we've been in the city, making fun of everything, making fun of the city, making fun of my hair, making fun of Paul—
Letterman gestures to his loyal sidekick who, true to form, smiles and bows his head in deference. The audience laughs. Not a big laugh, but certainly the biggest on national television that week. And as Archie Bunker once said…
Talk show hosts aren’t usually the most sartorially advanced folks, but once upon a time, there was an exception. Allow us to roll back the clock 30 years or so, and introduce you to a young man named David Letterman…
We’re not much for posthumous praise, but now that he’s gone, it seems worth taking a moment to remember why everyone cared about Harvey Pekar in the first place.
When new art forms pop up, all sorts of strange voices can suddenly bubble up to the surface. In Pekar’s case, it was a kind of curmudgeonly skepticism, which happened to dovetail perfectly with the loving grotesque school of comics pioneered by R. Crumb. The result was funny, aggressive autobiography from someone who seemed to genuinely have no illusions about the world. (You can see good examples here, here and here.)
A lot of buzz today has focused on his ongoing Letterman feud—a tragedy in twoacts— but it’s a pretty good example of what modern culture has lost. Unlike everyone else on the talk show game, he thought behind-the-curtain corporate shenanigans were more important than ever appearing on television again. It’s a high standard for honesty, and it’s unlikely anyone will live up to it again.