Letterman’s Late Night Legacy


“I’ll be honest with you… It’s beginning to look like I’m not gonna’ get the Tonight Show,” David Letterman joked in his final monologue. It’s funny, because it’s true. It’s also funny because it comes from pain. After years of hosting Late Night on NBC, Dave was the heir apparent to replace Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. All he ever wanted to be was Johnny Carson. But it didn’t happen. The Peacock gave the gig to Jay Leno. So began the bitter Late Night wars of the 90’s, which are well documented in the book The Late Shift.

Dave’s presentation was irreverent, and very anti show-business. He wore khakis, not a suit. His hair was disheveled. And couldn’t he get that gap between his two front teeth fixed? Maybe that’s why the Peacock went with the other guy. Or maybe they were worried that Stupid Pet Tricks, Top Ten Lists and throwing watermelons off of tall buildings wouldn’t play as entertainment for middle-America in an earlier time-slot.

It did. Dave moved his show across the street to CBS, and for 21 years, it did.

Here’s the thing: after Dave came Conan O’Brien, who inherited Dave’s desk at NBC. And he wasn’t trying to be Carson. He was more like Dave. In fact, all of the current crop of late night talk shows owe a debt to Dave. And they know it. During Dave’s final week, he was mentioned in each of their monologues multiple nights. Seth Meyer’s band played the Letterman theme. Kimmel had tears in his eyes, and could barely get the words out to tell us what Dave meant to him. Kimmel aired a re-run on Letterman’s final night, so that he could watch Dave say goodbye. Jimmy Fallon joked that viewers were DVRing the Tonight Show, in favor of watching Dave live. When the clock struck 11:35pm, Conan literally told viewers to change the channel and watch Dave. When will that ever happen again?

So, no, Dave, you never got the Tonight Show; a television institution whose alumnus included Jack Parr, Steve Allen, and Johnny Carson. But in my opinion, you got something better: you became your own late-night institution. You got to be David Letterman. And the impact you had on the television landscape is undeniably EVERYWHERE.

For kids who grew up in the 80’s, who thought the Tonight Show was alright, but Dave was funnier… You were our Carson.

I hope you see that.

“Producer Dan” Roberts

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