Culture Fail

LettermanCF David Letterman will retire from hosting The Late Show in 2015. He announced it on his April 3 show to the gasps of the literally dozens of people who still watch network late night talk shows. Johnny Depp, one of the guests on the historic episode, reported staff and crew members were crying backstage when he made the announcement.

I don’t blame them. I’ll be crying, too, when print journalism finally kicks the bucket. But these soon-to-be unemployed stage hands really should be the only ones mourning the transition of TV’s undisputed king (of undeserved accolades) into retirement.

When is the last time anyone under the age of 70 laughed at one of Dave’s Top 10 lists? I think the last time I did, the list included references to Charlie Sheen as an A-list actor, and a joke about Betamax.

So it is with no sadness in my heart that I say to David Letterman, “Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….” (I hope that reads in print as a snore.) Because that’s how I react any time somebody says, “Oh my God, did you see [insert late night show] last night?”

Let me guess: ___________ did a monologue of easy jokes, then he (that’s right, he, don’t forget, women need not apply for this demanding job) did a couple of sketches/man on the street gags, then he had one to three guests talking about what a rewarding experience working on the new comic book movie was (for the actors), or how their biggest influence is Johnny Cash (for the singers), or if they’re an actress under 30, how they’re really not that glamorous, and they prefer to watch Star Wars or football (men aged 18 to 40, start your erections and glare regretfully at your wives. Women of all ages, feel bad about yourselves for not being as hot or as cool).

Am I close? That’s because all these guys have been doing the same thing for over 50 years now. It’s an infomercial. They’re pitching entertainment products during the show, and then, in their ironically funniest bits, they cut to actual commercials.

Nobody was guiltier of this laziness than Letterman. The guy has been eating off his “Well, he’s funnier than Leno…” (high praise indeed) reputation for over a quarter century, all while his “comedy” has grown increasingly irrelevant.

The medium is dead. Internet and cable should have killed the late night format. But like dinosaurs stubbornly trudging through a tar pit, they don’t see the asteroid looming on the horizon.

Jay Leno was made to eat dirt by the intelligentsia for supposedly being an unfunny hack who ruthlessly stole the job given to Letterman, and then Conan O’Brien.

They were right; he is an unfunny hack. But the idea that Letterman is doing a measurably better job is preposterous.

So the dance continues, as they shuffle hosts trying to recapture that golden 18 to 40 demographic that will never return; call it rearranging deck chairs on The Chevy Chase Show. But Johnny Carson has been gone for more than 20 years now and the networks are still scrambling. And the best two things the format has given us since his departure are both scripted HBO products: The Larry Sanders Show, the brilliant fictional late night talk show of Garry Shandling, and The Late Shift (1996), a dramatized account of the real life battle for The Tonight Show… between Jay Leno and David Letterman.

By Ygal Kaufman