How David Letterman Disrupted Television

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American talk show host David Letterman poses while leaning on a television set as his home, Westchester County, New York, March 1984. (Photo by Susan Wood/Getty Images) Photo: Susan Wood/Getty Images

With all due respect to Mad Men and the marketing mavens at AMC, tonight’s departure of David Letterman from late night actually is the end of an era in television. No other host — not even Johnny Carson — has hosted a late-night show as long as he will have when he ends his 33-year career tonight. His creative impact on the medium is undeniable (as has been documented by several recent stories here on Vulture). But Letterman was hugely influential on the business side of television as well. Sure, peer and often nemesis Jay Leno generally drew bigger ratings and probably made more money for his bosses. Leno, however, was a caretaker figure: After Carson reluctantly passed him the torch, his job was to keep NBC’s late-night flame burning, to preserve the status quo. Save for a few bumpy years, Leno did exactly that, and exceedingly well. By contrast, Letterman was a disruptive force.  Here’s why:

He turned late night into a multi-network game.
Before Letterman launched Late Show in 1993, NBC pretty much had late night to itself. Sure, others had tried to tackle the decades-long dominance of the Peacock’s The Tonight Show. Joey Bishop, Dick Cavett, and Merv Griffin all went up against Johnny Carson in the 1960s and ’70s, while Pat Sajak, Joan Rivers, Alan Thicke, Chevy Chase, and others gave it a go in the 1980s and ’90s. They all pretty much failed. Arsenio Hall famously did not fail: His syndicated show was red-hot for a few years in the early 1990s, stealing away some young viewers during the end of Carson’s reign (and the beginning of Jay Leno’s). But while Hall lasted over 1,000 episodes and shook things up, he didn’t create an enduring franchise. Letterman did.

Before Late Show, CBS’s weeknight late-night historically had been home to repeats of either movies (The CBS Late Movie), reruns, and original episodes of cop shows (Crimetime After Primetime) or news (Nightwatch). In other words, filler. Letterman changed all that, creating a show that, at its peak not long after it premiered in 1993, managed to draw more viewers than Tonight. No other late-night talk show had ever done that (at least not on a regular basis). It’s true that the Leno-hosted Tonight eventually pulled back into the lead, and that under Jimmy Fallon, NBC’s storied franchise has pulled even further ahead of its rivals. But Late Show has survived for nearly a quarter-century now, making far more in profits than CBS ever did in the era of 11:30 p.m. reruns. Just as important, it will continue after Letterman. Assuming Stephen Colbert doesn’t crash and burn, it seems likely that Letterman will have created a late-night staple on par with Tonight and Saturday Night Live.

What’s more, by proving Tonight was not invincible, Letterman inspired other networks to get into the game. ABC, having previously focused on news with Nightline and news-comedy hybrid Politically Incorrect, followed the path blazed by Letterman with its 2003 premiere of Jimmy Kimmel Live. Comedy Central, which birthed Politically Incorrect before it moved to ABC, saw Letterman’s success and upped its game with the introduction of The Daily Show in 1996 (followed by The Colbert Report in 2005). When Conan O’Brien got squeezed out of the broadcast game in 2010, late night was strong enough to support the move of his brand to cable — to TBS, where his show is scheduled to run through at least 2018. It’s possible, of course, that many of these shows would have existed had Letterman simply decided to stay put as host of Late Night after NBC chose Leno to replace Carson on Tonight. The explosion of original cable programming in the 2000s probably would’ve spread to late night no matter what. But Letterman proved that The Tonight Show need not be a monolith, and that there was big money to be made in late night by networks not named NBC. That’s the stuff of legacies.

He used his show to create viral moments long before the age of YouTube.
In an exit interview with Rolling Stone, Letterman noted that unlike his more recent rivals, his Late Show hasn’t been successful at generating those viral-video moments that now seem as much a part of the late-night formula as a desk and band. But here’s the thing: Even if Letterman isn’t a big player in that game right now, he was actually far ahead of the curve in using his show to create Big Moments that lived on beyond their initial broadcast. His run on NBC’s Late Night saw the creation of all sorts of signature segments that evolved late night away from the sketch-based comedy for which Carson was known. Before we all wasted hours staring at cat videos on YouTube, Letterman had his “Stupid Pet Tricks” (a segment that actually began on his short-lived NBC morning show) and “Stupid Human Tricks.” Dave dropping crap from the top of tall buildings? His suit of Velcro? Elevator races? All would have gone viral had the internet been widely available in the 1980s.

Instead, those of us who were fans of Dave back in the day talked about these segments between classes or work shifts and shared fuzzy VHS tapes of his best bits. And when Letterman moved to CBS (and 11:30 p.m.), one of his iconic segments — the Top Ten list — became so popular, radio stations paid for the right to rebroadcast them via a syndicated package sold by Westwood One. 

He used his power to create TV franchises beyond late night. 
Jimmy Fallon’s “Lip Sync Battle” sketch this spring spawned a successful spinoff show on Spike, a not insignificant achievement. But that’s nothing compared to the way Letterman has used his Late Show platform (and production banner Worldwide Pants) to create programming elsewhere on television. Most notable, he and his producers signed a promising young stand-up comic who’d appeared on the show to a development deal — and the result was Ray Romano’s Everybody Loves Raymond, one of the most successful sitcoms of the past two decades. Worldwide Pants also controlled the 12:35 a.m. CBS time slot behind Late Show for decades, giving Craig Kilborn and Craig Ferguson big career boosts and providing established late-night icon Tom Snyder one more moment in the network sun.

Longtime Letterman producers Jon Beckman and Rob Burnett used Pants to create NBC’s critically loved cult dramedy Ed, which ran four seasons. The duo also gave Sofia Vergara a break before Modern Family, casting her in their 2007 ABC sitcom The Knights of Prosperity. And Letterman’s cachet allowed his friend, comic Bonnie Hunt, the chance to star in two short-lived network sitcoms. To be sure, Letterman didn’t pioneer the notion of a late-night host expanding his empire to prime time. Mentor Johnny Carson used his production company to co-create NBC’s TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes series and the sitcom Amen. But no late-night host has wielded that power as successfully as Letterman did.