David Letterman is retiring next year, which means all those obituaries from 2000 are being slightly rewritten and every news site worth its salt is publishing a “who should replace him?” slideshow. Well? Who should?
Obviously there’s no good answer. Letterman is a product of a time when people actually watched late night television. In 2014, the stakes have been dramatically lowered. Late night hosts are competing with the internet now. Network rivalries and matters of brand legacy are outmoded clichés for entertainment writers and pundits. It makes the Conan debacle seem ridiculous in retrospect: a passive-aggressive wrestling match for millionaires. The whole idea of timeslot-based television is anachronistic. It won’t be long until enough boomers die for streaming television to become ubiquitous, sending late night TV into the death-spiral of kitsch.
But despite late night’s march toward irrelevance, Letterman’s retirement is still upsetting because he’s the last line of defense against Jimmy Fallon. If all social media clickbait rose up out of the muck and took form in the dark, it would look like Jimmy Fallon. He is Buzzfeed made flesh and given sickening consciousness. His desperation for approval and social media legitimacy is suffocating. He’s the archetypical guy at a party who comes up to you and says “hey, why aren’t you having fun?” and you can’t just tell him he’s trying too hard because he’s turning the corner toward being incoherently drunk. Then he comes back later and asks if you know where to get coke around here.
And Letterman is a respite from that, as he was a respite from Leno’s equally pathological need for approval. As comedy grows more and more characterized by middle class twee sensibilities, by awkwardness and self-conscious sincerity, Letterman has always been the anarchic constant. He straddles that line where not-giving-a-shit ends and nihilism begins. While Fallon deals in the comedy equivalent of those listicles about how your favorite 90s cartoons are actually subversive, Letterman’s off in his own world, throwing bowling balls off of buildings.
Letterman always has exactly the right level of detachment from his own show. He’s hyper-aware of the mediocrity inherent to anything that’s on 5 times a week, and he’s so dissociated from the nature of his material that even the most formulaic joke about an ephemeral tabloid item takes on a more enduring punchline: we’re all gonna die. None of this matters. It’s just a show. And when a joke bombs, it’s hard to feel bad for him, because he’s not interested in validation anymore. He’ll just stand there and let jokes die. There’s a comfortable distance in his eyes, the same distance Carson had, that says I’m only here tonight because I never died of alcohol poisoning.
The result is that he assuages the shame inherent to watching a talk show and engaging with pop culture in the first place. He’s fed up with entertainment and fed up with the whole notion of late night TV. It gives his show a sense of misanthropic lawlessness. Even his best interview is one moment of awkward silence away from devolving into “oh gosh, talk shows sure are stupid. I want to exit society immediately.” And when this approach works, it’s funny in a way that Jimmy Fallon could never be. It’s unburdened by social media pandering, and it holds up better, but it probably won’t ever happen again.
Now, I haven’t seen any of those slideshows about who should replace Letterman, but presumably Conan O’Brien, his protégé, is under consideration. He’d be fine. But late night TV is on its way out as a significant cultural presence, and anybody who takes the job will have to figure out how to be watched 45 seconds at a time if they ever want to make the front page of Reddit.
Here’s our solution. CBS should just save America a couple years of annoyance by not replacing Letterman at all. Test patterns. Stock footage. Tom Snyder reruns. Anything. Let late night comedy die of natural causes.