I can honestly say some of my earliest memories involved comedy. I remember being maybe no more than five years old, lying on the rug of my parents’ room and watching either Saturday Night Live or Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Sure, there was The Tonight Show with Jay Leno too but that’s something best left in the past. I didn’t get all the jokes at such a young age but SNL, Conan, and all those late night shows left more of an imprint on me than any Saturday morning cartoon ever did. And as I grew older, I leaned in more and “studied” these shows as much as I could. Conan got better and better and I saw Saturday Night Live transition from the Will Ferrell era to Amy Poehler, and now to Taran Killan. As those shows changed and evolved, there was a man who was almost the same age as my oldest tito and wore the worst combination of bright socks and dark shoes, telling jokes with his two gapped teeth front and center.
I didn’t like David Letterman the first time I watched him. The Late Show felt a little dated to me compared to Conan. Paul Schaffer and the CBS Orchestra weren’t as funny as the amusingly weird Max Weinberg and the Max Weinberg 7. Plus, David Letterman didn’t have an Andy Richter. It was only later on that I realised I mistook calm and straight comedy for bland and boring. I grew older and a little wiser. I learned from Dave that comedy didn’t have to be loud or cruel or stupid. I started to see the genius of David Letterman and just how much he pushed the boundaries for people like Conan to come in. He didn’t resort to copying skits and segments from other people as Jay Leno did. Dave showed that weird can be good and more importantly, successful. Without David Letterman, we might not have a Conan O’Brien, a Jon Stewart, or God forbid, a Stephen Colbert.
After more than two decades hosting The Late Show, David Letterman is set to retire. It may be because he thinks he’s too old, or maybe it’s because other people think he’s too old. Either way, I don’t think that age is the problem. Call me a snob or a purist but the problem with late night shows now isn’t old age, but the lack of comedy. The rise of viral videos paved the way for Jimmy Fallon to completely change how people watch late night talk shows now. Fallon and his crew decided to leave actual comedy (the thinking, the writing, the editing, and the presentation of it) behind and instead make celebrities act and do stupid things as they smile for the camera. By doing so, Fallon has focused not on creating a great 40-minute show but a five-minute YouTube clip. And last I checked, that’s not what a late night variety show is supposed to be.
Back in 2010, five out of six late night shows worked their asses off to write and perform the best comedy they could do on a daily basis. The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, The Late Show with David Letterman, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, The Daily Show, and The Colbert Report were the standards on how to create a truly funny variety show. Today, almost half of those shows have ended or will soon end and in their place, in the current iron throne of late night, sits Jimmy Fallon and, to his side, his Diet Coke version, James Corden.
Maybe David Letterman isn’t leaving because he’s old but because he’s mad. After helming The Late Show for over 23 years, the last thing he wants to do is play party games with celebrities. He said as much when he talked about making viral videos in an interview with Rolling Stone. “I hear about things going viral and I think, ‘How do you do that? … I think I’m the blockage in the plumbing.”
“I still enjoy what I’m doing, but I think what I’m doing is not what you want at 11:30 anymore,” he says, but just because something is popular doesn’t mean that it’s the best. Dave is a comedian first and foremost and comedians do jokes, not histories of rap. And with his departure, we can only hope that Stephen Colbert, a man who’s mastered the art of presenting intelligent, snappy, and multi-layered comedy, once he steps into Dave’s shoes, bright socks and all, will continue Dave’s tradition and kick Jimmy Fallon’s ass.