Last night David Letterman broadcast his last episode as host of CBS' Late Show, paving the way for his replacement, former comedy central host/faux pundit, Stephen Colbert.
I should mourn Letterman's retirement, because I was a fan of his blend of comedy and performance art when I first stumbled upon him on a summer night in the mid-to-late 1980s. He was different, he was daring, he was edgy, he seemed sincerely interested in his guests and their work, and he wasn't afraid to tweak the noses and the expectations of not only the audience, but the elite New York corporate establishment that signed his pay checks.
Back then it was him and the audience against the stuffed shirts of the establishment, and it was exhilarating. It showed that late night talk shows, which were becoming stuffy institutions had possibilities to be something more than just a place for celebrities to plug their next product.
He made the talk show cool again.
Then it died.
Not quickly. It was a slow and painful death, but it was a death nonetheless.
The first was the severe thrashing he got at the hands of NBC in the War of the Tonight Show succession between him and Jay Leno. At first it looked like Letterman had the upper-hand, since he was the handpicked successor of the retiring Johnny Carson. However, neither he or Carson saw just how bloody this war was going to get.
Leno won the Tonight Show, through a combination of what the network thought was his more mainstream appeal and compliant personality, as well as the ruthless machinations of his then manager.
It was a bitter victory for Leno because the Tonight Show struggled in the ratings for quite some time after he took it over. It was so bad in that early period that NBC offered the job to Letterman who had been finishing off his contract with NBC. Johnny Carson advised Letterman to jump to CBS and free himself from the constant internecine warfare that dominated NBC's internal politics.
For the first while on CBS it was great. David Letterman seemed to be winning the war for late night supremacy, then came Hugh Grant.
The Tonight Show scored Hugh Grant for his post-hooker-scandal mea culpa and it caused a seismic shift in the late night audience. Suddenly Leno started getting better ratings than Letterman, and that must have burned Letterman.
Letterman's style changed, becoming harsher and more caustic, and not against his old establishment targets. Instead his eye was now aimed at the audience that he saw as failing him by preferring Leno.
He also seemed to lose interest in his guests. The main purpose of the interviews changed. On Leno's Tonight Show it was all about getting the plugs done in time to make it to the next commercial break, and on Letterman's old show it was all about having fun. But in the mid-90s Letterman's interview style went from having fun to proving himself superior to his guests.
An air of smug arrogance took over Letterman's whole milieu. It was no longer him and the audience versus the establishment, he was now a fully paid up member of that establishment versus the audience. The establishment welcomed him with open arms, because he gave them a safe veneer of rebellion without challenging any of their own pet shibboleths.
Then audiences for late night talk shows in general began to shrink. A lot of people dropped out, souring on the declining returns from the talk shows, and the wider temptations of cable television.
The days when a late night powerhouse like Johnny Carson could earn over 25% of NBC's total revenue was gone and Letterman and Leno were part in parcel of that decline.