The Late Show With David Letterman

Friday, March 22, 2002 by

While the scribbling of eulogies for ITV Digital gathers pace, over on ITV2 schedulers continue to squeeze apart repeats of Emmerdale and The Farmer Wants a Wife to make room for America’s most high-profile and expensive quintuple-bypass patient. Previously shoved out close to midnight – a whole 24 hours after first airing in the US – the past few weeks have provided a chance to see “yesterday’s Late Show” at a more appreciable if unlikely time. And conveniently just at the precise moment several heavyweight American networks decided to pitch the programme into the eye of another equally high-profile and exhaustively expensive bidding war.

It’s been intriguing viewing. Here’s a man who has no equivalent in this country. Parkinson’s nearest to him in age, but the antithesis in demeanour. Wogan used to be able to pull off the same mix of grouchy/funny, but nowadays seems to be enjoying a retirement into rather unpleasant bitterness. Jonathan Ross arguably owes his career to Letterman, yet appears spread evermore thinly across a bewildering variety of patchy formats. Chris Evans is just washed up. All four were, at different points in their careers, associated – both in rumour and reality – with attempts to run chat shows on British television twice, three times, even five times a week. None lasted.

David Letterman on the other hand, despite one notorious network hop from NBC to CBS, has grown old with his show over more than two decades. Here’s where the intrigue deepens. It’s not a little unsettling to watch a man nightly disinterring the bones of the same format he’s peddled for almost half a century. Being more used to seeing presenters under the age of 30 reading pithy stories from the press, entertaining unusual guests (and their pets) and swapping in-jokes with the production team makes encountering a man quite a bit older, yet behaving exactly the same way, a striking and almost ghoulish experience.

Letterman – or “Dave”as everyone around him still calls him – has the on-screen appearance befitting that of a notional “elder statesman”of broadcasting: weathered, haggard looks, combined with the cut and swagger of a TV veteran brooding and mooching around his favourite stamping ground. But his behaviour is like that of a small child: snapping at his crew, orchestrating everything to ensure attention is centred on him, whooping and chucking props about, and forever bashing his china mug with a multitude of pencils like a baby pounding the sides of its pram with a giant rattle.

For all of this, just watching the man on telly for a matter of seconds confirms how he continues to be held in undeniable, incredible esteem. Audiences in the Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York hang on his every word, applauding each passing sentence with a vigour you’d partly expect from Stateside crowds, only somehow even more passionate and devoted. WatchingThe Late Show recently, especially since 11 September, it’s felt like both his audience in the theatre and the man himself have joined in hyping up this image of “David Letterman” as America’s great patriot: the nation’s commentator, seer and teacher.

Rather than being particularly disturbing or objectionable, however, this is actually quite fun to watch, thanks to the way it is reaching British screens as if distilled, filtered, and at one remove. You’ve got the time delay for starters. Since ITV2 always screen the programme from the night before, by the time we get to see The Late Show it is literally yesterday’s news. This lends the programme the softened, tempered feel of a bizarre time capsule arriving fossilised from a far distant place. But also, and given the show’s huge profile, anything controversial or momentous that might have happened we are able to read about in advance, and then enjoy all the more when finally shown on air. Letterman’s first programme post-11 September for instance, or more recently the show where he announced on air his decision to stay with CBS, made headlines that turned The Late Show‘s transmission in this country into more of an extraordinary media event.

The programme’s various constituent parts and trademarks command a different kind of appeal. There are the grinding in-jokes that you sense could have been culled from any number of US broadsheet gossip columns. Plus there are the guests, who are mostly big enough to have immediate resonance here, but not always – the exceptions usually being US senators and congressmen, or fellow network “faces”, but who are inevitably greeted with the same degree of wild adulation as a Hollywood film star. The sum impact is that of a genial dose of half-familiar American pop culture being pointedly measured out across the Atlantic, and then served at arm’s reach in order to help us erstwhile colonialists lighten up.

Then of course Dave seems to know every single one of his guests, never mind whether they’ve been on before. This cosiness, sometimes rather cloying and sickly, is currently more than ever the show’s cornerstone. The regular Osama Bin Laden gags, for example, are for the titillation and comfort of a wholly domestic audience, but obviously appeal to foreign audiences for potentially conflicting, unintentional reasons. Perhaps such homeliness is also a product ofThe Late Show‘s longevity. Being on screen so long and so often seems to have fostered a palpable (certainly from a viewer’s point of view) sense of assurance and confidence that oozes out from all participants. It does mean that The Late Show can presume to be congenial and informal, but also amazingly slick. The house band for one, Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra, are right there with the host on every punchline and cue. And no more so than during the famed opening monologue.

For 10 or 15 minutes, first standing at the front of the stage, then from behind his desk, Letterman persists in churning out these twee, crass, often embarrassingly crap jokes and observations, to the sound of an acutely corny musical “response”from the band (a comedy drum roll here, a po-faced bass solo and chirpy keyboard riff there). Recurring topics of late have included St. Patrick’s Day – “My cab driver this morning had a green card pinned to his turban”- and Liza Minelli’s nuptials – “This wasn’t a wedding, it was an episode of Love Boat.” Naturally the studio audience lap it up, while Letterman’s mock contrition – “You have to understand, I’m not proud of this stuff” – just makes them cheer all the louder.

At its most basic, this is all about Dave as dictator, albeit an awkwardly benevolent one, rather than arch commentator. Critic Jim Shelley once memorable wrote damningly of Chris Evans’ predilection for beginning each TFI Friday, “Commenting on what people have been saying about him that week, like an East European leader.” The same charge can be levelled at Letterman, though the man’s age and peculiar reticence (unlike Evans he seems to have tried to keep away from playing the press off against each other) almost – almost – pardons his arrogance. His chiding of the Swedish nation for sending him an award this week for “Best Non-Swedish Speaking TV Personality” was shamelessly self-indulgent, but more innocently silly than menacing and ugly. Besides, they had sent it to him already broke.

However the most compulsive aspect of The Late Show at the moment has nothing to do with guests or comedy items or one-liners. It’s the host’s rather desperate ongoing attempts at lambasting his network. All through the recent period of speculation concerning his possible defection to ABC, Dave continued to blithely insult CBS in the most personal of terms. Now he has re-signed, but he’s still mouthing off about his bosses. He appears to detest his network, but “wants to retire with CBS.” Even the nightly Top 10 List is concerned more with slating fellow CBS shows and personnel than any other, funnier, topics. So ultimately The Late Showis worth watching regularly to see how far Dave feels he can go before real blood is shed, and to catch the precise moment when one of America’s broadcasting legends finally implodes live on air.

Plus it makes for an education. Until the bidding war broke out, the chief knowledge this reviewer had of the host of ABC’s Nightline – the programme Letterman would have replaced had he defected – came from an episode of The Simpsons when Homer enthusiastically declared, “And Ted Koppel is a robot!” after spotting said revelation amongst a list of corrections scrolled over the end of an edition of Springfield’s notorious Rock Bottom investigative series.

Thanks to Dave, then, for helping us all to learn a little more about this respected US newscaster, and that he’s not just a comical over-the-hill automaton. Nor Ted Koppel, for that matter. “Aw, ABC are watching this and they’re having a ball, man!”


One Response to “The Late Show With David Letterman”

  1. Ruth on September 3rd, 2009 9:48 pm

    When is David Letterman Show coming back to British T>V