David Letterman: This Thinking Person’s Talk Show Host

Posted on January 5th, 2004 in Commentary,Television by EngineerBoy

When I was a younger man I regularly watched Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. Then, one day, a new show came on after Carson…Late Night with David Letterman. I watched it a few times…it was sort of weird, and the host was a gap-toothed former weatherman from Indiana with a very skewed, strange sense of humor, an acerbic manner, and a very low tolerance for self-important celebrities and BS, which was a very new (and seemingly counter-intuitive) concept for a talk show host.

He did strange things, like drop stuff off of buildings, run over stuff with steamrollers, and he put on a Velcro suit (and used a trampoline to launch himself up and stick to a wall), a suit of suet (and went into an enclosure and let birds feed off of him), and a suit of Alka Seltzer (and was lowered into a tank of water). He did segments from the perspective of his dog Bob, and he strapped cameras to monkeys and let them run loose in the studio. He had the show’s writers and crew members, who were obviously not polished performers, participate in skits and segments with varying (but almost always funny) results. He had weird recurring segments that only became funny after several repetitions, like “Camping with Barry White”, where the R&B legend would be onstage in a mocked-up campsite, and Dave would join him and get sage outdoor advice. It was weird, it was funny, and it was un-Carson-like.

And I found that I began watching Letterman more regularly than Carson. It eventually became obvious that Johnny was winding down, only hosting a few times a week, and although he was one of the greatest talk show hosts of all time, you could tell he had hit the wall and was just going through the motions. Meanwhile Dave was getting funnier, smoother (for Dave), and more creative. It looked like a shoe-in for Dave to take over the Tonight Show, as he was the natural heir to the late-night throne.

Changing of the Guard

At this point Jay Leno had been installed as Johnny’s permanent guest host, and his ratings were good. Jay was (and is) one of the great stand-up comedians, and he seems like one of the few genuinely nice people in show business. When Johnny finally announced his retirement, NBC was faced with a decision — Jay or Dave. As we all know, they picked Jay, so then Dave moved to CBS to go head-to-head with Jay. I followed Dave over to CBS, but I also would check out Jay from time to time, since I was a fan of his stand-up comedy.

And what I found was that Jay usually had a strong opening monologue, and it was usually longer than Dave’s, and often funnier, in a “stand-up comedy” sense. However, Dave’s monologues were usually wittier and more sublime/absurd, as opposed to punchline/rimshot funny. And for me, ultimately, Dave’s sensibilities stood the test of time and also held my attention and my interest. Jay’s monologues feel like they would be more accessible to sporadic viewers or (and I don’t mean this as an insult) those who just want to have a couple of laughs before bedtime, but don’t really want to have to think too much, or track details over time, or feel they aren’t “in” on the humor because they aren’t regular viewers.

And that’s a real concern with Dave’s show. His humor is a combination of things that are immediately funny, things that are funny only if you know the whole back-story, things that are funny only if you think about them for a while, things that are only funny if you watch the show regularly (and pay attention), and things that are funny only if you have a sense of the absurd. For example, at least once or twice a week Letterman is sure to make a Clinton/Lewinsky joke or reference. Now, if you are an occasional viewer seeing one of these jokes, you may think that you’ve tuned into a *very* old rerun, but what you’re really seeing is a bit that has been played out over years and years and now has a subtle wit to it, even though the actual jokes themselves are usually low-hanging fruit.

And “On Cape” Tonight…

Another recurring bit is that the band will play a song (I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know by Blood, Sweat, and Tears), and Paul Shaffer will perform the vocals as they go to commercial. Then after a couple of commercials we come back to the show, and Paul will step out from behind the keyboards, go to the middle of the stage, grab a handheld mic, and do a *very* melodramatic couple of bars of the song, ending up on his knees on stage in faux exhaustion (a la James Brown). At this point someone (famous) will come onstage with a cape, wrap it around Paul, and console him as they lead him offstage, since it is obvious that there’s no way he can continue, given his state. However, Paul refuses to leave the stage, and throws off the cape and returns to his keyboards, causing the cape-bearer to stare after him, sadly shaking their head in mock pity at how hard Paul is working, and how heroic his effort is to continue the song, even though he is (pretending to be) exhausted. Here is a partial list of people who have appeared “on cape”:

George Stephanopoulos

Greg KinnearThe show then returns to commercials, and when we come back the band finishes the song, and Dave thanks whomever was on cape. They come out and take a bow, and that’s it. They don’t get to talk. They don’t come sit by Dave. They don’t get to plug their latest project. In fact, in many cases the person “on cape” doesn’t really have anything to plug, and seems to be doing it just to do it. The occasional viewer might end up asking themselves what the hell was that??? when they see an unlisted, uncredited, unannounced celebrity of the stature of a Bill Murray or a Jane Pauley just come out to do some weird little shtick with no PR upside. The occasional viewer might get excited that the person “on cape” will be interviewed, but then be disappointed when they take a bow and leave. The occasional viewer (as well as the regular viewer) might see somebody who is not instantly recognizable (like George Stephanopoulos) come out “on cape” and ask themselves who the hell is that??? and have to wait to find out until the show comes back from commercial.

Tim Robbins

Don Rickles

Donald Trump

Whoopi Goldberg

Al Franken

Jack Black

John Malkovich

Jane Pauley

Marv Albert

Bill Murray

Kareem Abdul Jabbar

James Earl Jones


It’s one of those bits that, again, may be confusing and even irritating at first, that may even seem stupid after a couple of times, but over the years it develops into something sublime and enjoyable. When Marie and I hear the opening notes of the song we cannot wait to see who might be on cape. It’s one of those things that makes us smile (because of how absurd it is), and sometimes laugh (at the varying effectiveness of the emoting of those “on cape”), but it only works because we’ve seen it so many times that we “get it”. There’s no punchline, no setup, no dialogue, no “joke” of any kind, but it sure is funny and entertaining. This bit is a microcosm of what makes Dave’s show funny.

The list of these strange little humorous bits goes on and on, and I will not belabor this article by describing them all in detail, but they include Will It Float?, Is This Anything?, Potatoes or Gavin MacLeod?, Know Your Current Events, visits with Rupert Jee (owner of the “Hello Deli” next door to the Ed Sullivan Theater), sending pizza to the strippers at the joint across the street, dressing staffers in costumes and seeing if they can hail a cab on Broadway, etc, etc, etc. It’s all very weird and strange, but also funny and absurd.

Absurdity And Wit Are The Keys

And that really sums up the differences between Jay and Dave, for me. Dave is absurd and witty, while Jay is humorous and funny. I have met many people in my life who are missing the absurdity gene, and will classify anything that isn’t ha-ha funny as “stupid”. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is stupid, The Simpsons is stupid, the stand-up comedy of Steve Martin is stupid, anything that isn’t clearly a “joke” with a “punchline” is stupid. And I find that these same people almost always dislike the Letterman show. Dave is “rude” and “stupid”, where Jay is “nice” and “funny”. But to me, Dave is a witty and incisive interviewer, while Jay is content to lob scripted, softball questions and straight lines to his guests. Dave is absurd, witty, and sarcastic, where Jay is funny and sometimes a bit mean-spirited. And the Letterman show, while always building on tried-and-true bits, also seems unafraid to push the envelope and experiment with things that they’re not always sure will work. This feels especially true since Dave’s bypass operation, and it seems that he returned with renewed vigor and fearlessness, and the show feels more like his old NBC show (brasher, funnier, more creative).

And, finally, the birth of Dave’s son has given him a more grounded, earthy feel. It’s been pretty amazing to hear him talk about his son, and to watch him be simultaneously humbled, awed, and inspired by parenthood. Dave had always been just a touch too arrogant for my tastes (said the pot to the kettle), but parenthood seems to have dialed that down a notch or two to a more accessible level (but without making him an Arsenio-like star-butt-kisser). I’d be willing to bet that Dave is on his way back to the top of the late-night ratings, but I’d never do that because I know it is only an exhibition, it is not a competition, so please, no wagering.

3 Responses to 'David Letterman: This Thinking Person’s Talk Show Host'

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  1. James said,

    on January 20th, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    Wow. You have hit the nail on the head. Dave is by far the wittiest host on TV. Watching anything from his old guest spots on game shows during the late 70s, thru his show during the 80s and 90s to todays version, his wit is phenomenonally quick and sharp. During his earlier years he was infinitely more acerbic and cutting, which he has, probably wisely toned down. Leno is more a everyman humourist, not taking the chances and strange jokes Dave will take. This probably reflects in the larger audience Leno draws. I think Dave peaked in the late 90s and the show today, while great, lacks the zip and boldness of his earlier years. Still a comedy genius though.

  2. travis said,

    on April 23rd, 2014 at 2:24 pm

    Keep Lettermen around dung it

  3. travis said,

    on April 23rd, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    what will old poeple watch.but what about the old people

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