During his time on air, David Letterman was aware that he was comedy establishment, but this knowledge fueled him, becoming fodder to satirize the fanfare and spectacle that now consumes the late night landscape. Jason Zinoman’s recently released biography, Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night, manages to capture this, and Letterman, in his cutting-edge, subversively comedic entirety. It’s an intimate yet objective portrait of someone who built a career by being at once “aggressively disinterested” and also the man who cared too much.
The “On Comedy” columnist for The New York Times, Zinoman strings the book together by what he refers to as Letterman’s three distinct artistic periods, comprising his brief stint as a morning talk show host followed by his more than three decades in late night television. A majority of the book is spent on Letterman’s time at NBC’s Late Night, where he changed the game for the genre, followed by his years with CBS’ Late Show, a period which is predominantly known for the popular feud between him and Jay Leno. Letterman switching networks after Leno was chosen as the new Tonight Show host following Johnny Carson’s 1992 retirement, just so that he would be competing in the same time slot, is peak Letterman.
The book is as much a commentary on Letterman’s career as it is on late night comedy as a whole, since the two have always been intertwined. Where Carson is often credited as pioneering the science of late night with his Tonight Show run, Letterman shaped it into an art form and created a blueprint for success that is still used today. That’s not to say that we need another Letterman (it’s unclear whether that even exists), but late night hosts can learn from him, and bring the Letterman impact to after-hours television. “Letterman’s cynicism about celebrity and his hostility toward show business are almost entirely absent,” Zinoman writes of the current late night scene. “Hosts not only are sunnier, but they have none of his skepticism of technology or delight in language.”
Since Jon Stewart’s departure from hosting The Daily Show in 2015, the same year that David Letterman left The Late Show, there’s been a palpable absence of a king or queen of late night. Another Daily Show alum, Sam Bee has stepped up with her TBS show Full Frontal, and Seth Meyers, the current host of Late Night, has also proven to be a worthy comedic adversary to our current, particularly unfunny administration. This sardonic approach to the comedy scene has manifested itself best in Letterman’s Late Show successor, Stephen Colbert, while other hosts, namely Jimmy Fallon, have come under fire for their perceived lack of awareness while navigating our current political atmosphere, the material that late night hosts often build their programs on.
When asked by Zinoman about the most underrated quality for a talk show host to have, Letterman offered a lengthy speech “about the importance of handling guests who aren’t performing well.” After hearing that Leno answered with “kindness,” he added that too.
This advice could best be applied to Fallon, who was recently profiled by The New York Times. His comments from the piece reaffirmed many critics’ thoughts about his infamous Donald Trump hair-tousling from last September. Since the Trump bit, The Tonight Show’s ratings have been in close competition with The Late Show, with the latter often coming in first for the 11:35pm time slot. In the interview, Fallon seems not sorry for how he handled the Trump interview, but more for what came from it. He labels himself as “apolitical,” which puts him in the same relative category as Jimmy Kimmel, whose ratings have remained the same throughout the election cycle and subsequent Trump presidency.
It wasn’t until Kimmel’s recent monologue, in which he described his newborn son’s life-threatening heart condition that required surgery right after being born, that he packed the kind of political punch previously unfamiliar to Jimmy Kimmel Live. He explained that he felt no parent should have to decide whether their child gets life-saving medical care, in light of the AHCA, which the House was voting on at the time. Kimmel’s statement became political, but it wasn’t from him trying to be a “political comedian;” the current context of the United States did that on its own. Kimmel’s strength came from the fact that he is aware of this – the very quality that viewers miss when watching Fallon. The genius and power of Letterman was that he always went too far, in the best way possible. Since Trump’s inauguration, Stephen Colbert has adopted this style of biting political satire. Colbert recently came under fire for a crude comment, but this comes with the territory of passionate comedy in a year when indifference has become dangerous and all-out avoidance is no longer escapism, regardless of party affiliation.
While it was by no means a perfect run, taking a stance helped drive Saturday Night Live’s highest rated season in 23 years and aided in the recovery of the show after the fallout of having Donald Trump host in 2015. Letterman constantly reinforces this kind of bold humor, providing a culturally relevant edge to what makes great late night comedy. The brand of comedy that Letterman brought to TV “always seemed to be commenting on itself,” balancing his success with a critical sense of self-awareness.
This passion, awareness, and ability to offer a fresh take on the topic that is on every viewer’s mind, regardless of party, has become an imperative attribute in all late night hosts. Letterman knows this, to the degree that his reason for retirement was because “he realized that he didn’t care enough.” This was, as Zinoman put it, “an unusually direct admission of what anyone who watched the show already knew: his detachment during all those years had, at least in part, been an act.”
Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night offers something more than just a comprehensive biography of one of the greats. It’s a guidebook on how to successfully go about running a late night comedy show in an acrimonious world, something which, while especially relevant as of now, has always been the reality for David Letterman and his “neurotic, angry, and decidedly odd” perception of the world.