I will freely admit that the recent episode in which Late Show host David Letterman announced his impending retirement was the first full episode that I have watched since I first saw his show live nearly two years ago. That isn't a knock against him or his show - though I don't think anyone would argue that both are well past their prime, he nonetheless remains a refreshing presence on TV screens, his youthful irreverence supplanted by the bracing, virtuous crankiness of old age. I simply no longer have a schedule that allows me to dedicate one late hour of every night to regularly watching late night TV (I struggle enough at times to keep up with shows that air weekly, let alone nightly). And yet even though I knew his departure was theoretically imminent (I had heard him say recently that he probably thought that he had, realistically, no more than two years of the job left in him), the news that he was set to formally announce it hit me pretty hard in the gut.
Like anyone with a cultural memory that extends beyond her birth, I cherish Johnny Carson as the Platonic ideal of a late night host, even if his tenure had no unshakable impact on my life at the time. I remember watching him, I remember when he retired, and I certainly remember impersonating him as a toddler in order to impress my mother's friends. Yet it is mostly as an ideal that he exists for me. I've gone back and watched all the highlights, the archived episodes, and they're great. He's great. But he retired when I was nine, and I hadn't fully developed my cultural sense of the world yet, and certainly not my sense of humor.
That's not to say that I originally watched Letterman either, even when he moved over to CBS to start his own show in the wake of Leno's despotic takeover of Carson's legacy. I honestly don't remember when I started watching him, but it certainly would have been because my mother did. And the more I caught of his antics, the more attached to them I grew. It's appropriate that the earliest memories I have of his show are from around Christmastime (rotating pies, to be precise), as he would soon come to be a defining element of the season for me and my brother. However the relationship started, over the course of my adolescence Letterman became a cornerstone of my burgeoning sense of humor. Between his show and Seinfeld, it's hard to say what was more formative to my growing idea of what was funny. Yes, he was perpetually trounced in the ratings by Leno, but aside from confirming my worst suspicions about my fellow man, it was also a blessing in disguise – the underdog position always suited him better and brought out the best in him, and was testament to his disinterest in pandering to an audience.
And now he's on the way out. And with him, most likely, whatever last bit of relevance the late night format had. Letterman is the last of the old guard, a grumpy relic from a time when it was virtuous to be a malcontent, the last of the great bastards. His departure is a major cultural blow.
And so, from the home office in Sioux City, Iowa, here are the top ten reasons that I will miss David Letterman.
10) Because even though he was past his prime, few things in my life have been as thrilling as finally seeing a Letterman taping on my last visit to New York.
9) Because of moments of such amazing stupidity as this:
08)Because he was the last link to the fading days of classical show business. You don't see Don Rickles going on Fallon's Tonight Show. And yes, these guys are antiquated, but it's this sense of his place in history that has always set Letterman apart from his late night counterparts, even when he was doing everything he could not to emulate it.
07) Because even though it was way too late, he was man enough to admit he was wrong to censor Bill Hicks and dedicated a portion of his show to the late comedian's mother in order to apologize and run his excised bit in full.
06) Because there were certain people who would only do his show, or at the very least would very clearly save their best for him, and to see that was to know that you were in on something genuine, that you were tuned to the right cultural frequency.
05) Because when he goes, he takes Rupert, Biff, and Big Red with him.
04) Because as much as I love Conan, who may be the more direct influence on people my age, he never would have been able to indulge in the sublime insanity that he did during his Late Night prime had Letterman not paved the way. Dave turned the form of the Late Night talk show completely inside out, and created some of the most inspired, transcendent comedy of all time in the process.
03) Because he made the show an extension of his life to the extent that, in recent years, some of hi most private moments were lived out in part on the air. When he had live-saving bypass surgery, he brought his doctors on to thank them. When he found out he was going to have a child, he shared the exciting, potentially terrifying news with us. And when someone attempted to blackmail him with proof that he was having an affair with one of his interns, he immediately came clean not only to his partner to the public, admitting his sins on the air but refusing to give in to extortion.
02) Because he was such a formative influence on me and my sense of humor that I still catch myself involuntarily copying his delivery in conversation, and affecting his posture when seated around a table with friends.
01) Because of Jay Thomas, a meatball, and Darlene Motherfuckin' Love.