People are fascinated with ... nothing, I guess.
— Johnny Carson
One thing the mediasphere does not need tonight is one more white dude extolling the virtues of David Letterman. But, ah hell — whaddya, say, Paul, do we need one more? Ladies and gentlemen: one more!
The full-time folks have ably covered this departure from floor to ceiling — read Emily Nussbaum’s personal eulogy or this worthy account of Dave’s connection to the equally funny-cynical Warren Zevon, plus people sharing their own favorite memories in this NYTimes comments thread. (A Tribune columnist made an interesting observation that the end of both Letterman and “Mad Men” in the same week has some cultural currency, though the observation is about as far as he goes.) Were I still on the journalism clock, I’d have filed my own middling appreciation piece days ago and tonight would be live-blogging the big goodbye. While I struggle to stay awake late enough to see the finale (stay warm, kettle), I’ll instead … review the academic literature.
Letterman lit? It exists. (He was introduced, after all, on his very first show as “a man of science.”) Much study of late-night TV examines the political content — like this one of the 2000 campaign or this broader analysis of topical humor (worth looking at if only because one of its authors’ names is David Niven, which sounds like a Letterman gag anyway) — but some occasional studies have tried to illuminate what makes Dave’s smirk work. This empirical study tries to see the show through the eyes of its viewership, which was found to be critically competent in interpreting the show “as a sophisticated parody of conventional television talk.” Around the turn of the ’90s, comm scholars Patrice Oppliger & John Sherblom wrote some of the best scholarship about Letterman’s humor, aligning it with balance theory and simple incongruity. They cite a great Esquire piece by Tom Shales, in which he observed: “The trick is to make a great display of saying nothing. … No one has mastered this art better than David Letterman.”
Of course, that success seeded Hollywood for numerous imitations and evolutions of the nothingness bit — chief among them being “Seinfeld,” the “show about nothing.” Letterman generated a meta-narrative to generate laughter not at the absurdity of life but at the absurdity of the possibility for absurdity, at the absurdity itself. Given the spotlight and the opportunity to do something big, on a big budget, nonsense was the only thing that made sense. Some of the lines that still give me the church-house giggles — “Too much soda,” “A little dialing music, Paul,” “I can’t get this darned jar open!” or “Midnight, and the kitties are sleeping …” — don’t make any sense out of their original and immediate context. The looming big farewell has provided good clips round-ups and memory montages, but this was a show never written for the archives. These gags were what-if, why-not, whatever.
That was profound in its own way. Every generation relies on a giggling absurdist who faces existential questions head-on but always goes for the gag. For the boomers, Woody Allen handled that with an eventual grace; for Gen-X, Letterman filled the bill with hometown humility. What Colbert will offer a new audience, who knows? As much as I’ve adored his work on Comedy Central, I remain disappointed CBS hired another white guy in a suit. I suggested on Twitter that Margaret Cho should have been a candidate to replace Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show,” but she could’ve been a great pick in this venue, too.
I won’t assemble a clichéd top-10 list of favorite moments. Just some random recollections — The menacing lips of Larry “Bud” Melman. Chris Elliot popping up from under the seats. Kathy, the foul-mouthed librarian. When actor Jimmi Simpson showed up on “The Newsroom” and “House of Cards,” I recognized him as Lyle the Intern. The stuff I loved as a suburban teen staying up late: dropping stuff from a five-story tower, all those sticky and combustible suits. Every creepy and awkward appearance by Richard Simmons. Every exasperated appearance by Jack Hanna. The infamously scary appearance by Crispin Glover. The night I first noticed that David Sanborn was sitting in with the band. “They pelted us with rocks and garbage!” “Mugs!” (that one’s for Chris). The music guests, who so often seemed to sound terrible in that NBC studio. The odd appearance of one of the subjects of my research, just a few months ago. McCartney on the marquee. Eddie Vedder wearing a pink triangle button. Tribute band week. The home office when it was in Tahlequah, Okla. I’ll miss the annual Halloween costumes, the yearly science experiments. Most of all, I’ll miss how the on-air absurdity was so often perfectly punctuated by Paul Shaffer’s “haaaaa!” Where are the stories about Paul? What the hell’s Paul gonna do?
I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.