Letterman’s Retirement

David Letterman has announced that he will be retiring next year. He’s been the star of The Late Show With David Letterman for 21 years.

It’s interesting that Letterman’s retirement announcement came shortly after Jay Leno — Letterman’s chief rival for recognition as the successor to Johnny Carson as the King of Late-Night Television — retired. Letterman is another TV icon whose “top ten list” became part of the national zeitgeist. But I long ago stopped watching either Letterman or Leno, and I can’t remember the last time either of them had something significant or novel to say or do about America or the world. For years, they seemed to be living on past glory, attracting the habitual viewers who had watched them for years but not bringing in anyone new. Their shticks got old. People who were comfortable with them stuck around; people who were looking for something different looked elsewhere.

It will be interesting to see whether the late-night talk show format ends up passing into TV history, just as Jay Leno has done and as David Letterman will be doing next year. As I’ve noted before, it’s amazing that talk shows — a format that began at the dawn of TV, more than 60 years ago — are still around. If you’ve seen the commercial where a guy walks out of his kitchen eating a bowl of cereal or ice cream and finds himself on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, you’ve seen that talk shows are to the point of self-parody. Maybe Fallon’s spoofing of himself is supposed to be one of those new, ironic bits of humor that 50-somethings like me don’t get, but I see that commercial as an implicit recognition that late-night talk shows are trite and banal.

I wish David Letterman the best in his retirement, but maybe his decision to hit the road will allow the networks to finally come up with a new approach to late-night programming.

The Twilight Of Talk Shows

Last week Jay Leno stopped hosting The Tonight Show. I was amazed to see that he had been the host of that venerable show for 22 years. That means it’s been 22 years since I last watched The Tonight Show.

I’ve got nothing against Leno, who could capably tell a joke and mug for the camera. He’ll be replaced by the smug Jimmy Fallon, whose claimed talents have always been lost on me, and I won’t watch the show then, either. It’s just that the talk show concept seems so trite and formulaic, it takes a gigantic talent and iconic figure like Johnny Carson to make it watchable. None of the current crop of hosts even comes close — which means the appeal of late-night talk shows is strictly limited to insomniacs.

At the dawn of TV, the staples of programming were westerns, variety shows, news documentaries, and talk shows. The Tonight Show, for example, started in 1954 with Steve Allen as its host. Sixty years later, the westerns and variety shows and documentaries are gone from the airwaves, but the talk shows remain.

In 60 years, the creaky format of talk shows hasn’t changed much, either. We’ve seen Jack Parr, Carson, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, and countless others I’ve long since forgotten sitting behind their desks and coffee cups, with some phony backdrop behind them. There’s a monologue, a skit or parody, and some banter with the band leader or sidekick, and then the guests come out — a film star pitching her movie, a new comedian trying to hit the big time, and perhaps a political figure or quirky character who won a yodeling contest or collects rocks that look like U.S. Presidents. A few rote questions, some banal conversation, and its time to move down the couch and bring on the next guest.

Why are talk shows still on their air? Do people find some comfort in the familiar format? Why is a vintage concept that began decades before the internet, CDs, streaming video, and Netflix still around, when everything else about our popular culture has changed so dramatically?

Roman Polanski, David Letterman, and The Nobel Peace Prize

Here’s an interesting article on how the Roman Polanski and David Letterman episodes and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama have undercut the political credibility of Hollywood and the Nobel awards committee.

I agree that the Nobel Peace Prize has been discredited by this award and prior overtly political awards, but I’m not sure that Americans really paid much attention to it, anyway.  I think the Polanski and Letterman episodes probably will have more long-term impact because TV and movies are such important cultural forces in America.  The Polanski and Letterman episodes reveal the Hollywood types who mount a soapbox to espouse liberal dogma as hypocrites who will readily circle the wagons and excuse the obvious misdeeds of those within their circle — and argue that “artistic” contributions should trump the law and normal moral and ethical behavior.  I find it unimaginable that anyone could defend Roman Polanski’s rape of a 13-year-old or Letterman’s philandering with employees, and I think many other people share that view.  The next time Whoopi Goldberg or some other Hollywood type attempts to lecture Americans on how we should think, vote, or conduct our affairs, I think Americans will remember her tartuffery and ignore what they have to say.

Common Decency (Cont.)

I previously noted that I thought David Letterman should feel ashamed about his crude joke about one of Governor Palin’s teenage daughters, so I’m glad to see that he has apologized. I’m also glad to see that Governor Palin accepted his apology.  Finally, I’m glad that his apology didn’t take the now-standard form of the non-apology “apology,” which goes something like this:  “I didn’t intend my [remark/conduct/joke] to offend anyone and did not think anyone would ever construe my [remark/conduct/joke] in that fashion.  To the extent that anyone was offended by my [remark/conduct/joke] I am sorry.”  At least Letterman had the character to offer a true, unconditional apology for his poor judgment.

With any luck, the episode will cause other figures in the entertainment world to recognize that there still are some lines that, as a matter of common decency, should not be crossed.

Common Decency

I think the whole David Letterman-Sarah Palin controversy presents an interesting question of line-drawing in an era where there is increased interaction between political figures and the entertainment world.  When I was a kid it was a notable development when Richard Nixon went on Laugh-In and said “Sock it to me?”  These days, it is common for candidates to go on Saturday Night Live, late-night talk shows or other venues, and earlier this year President Obama appeared, as a sitting president, on The Tonight Show.  Governor Palin herself made a cameo appearance on Saturday Night Live during the recent presidential campaign.

Politicians have long been the target of jokes and humor; it comes with the territory.  As our culture has become coarser, the humor has been coarser as well.  I don’t think Letterman’s comment associating Governor Palin with a “slutty flight attendant” look is either funny or accurate, but I also don’t think it crosses the prevailing line in modern American culture.  (I have to confess that I enjoy “insult humor” and think that “Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog” and South Park are often very funny.)  I think Governor Palin understands that prevailing line, accepts it, and has shown some deftness in deflecting such attempts at humor in a self-deprecating and winning way.

It’s not unfair, however, to insist that entertainers show some common decency in deciding who should be the subject of their barbs.  I think Letterman crossed the line by targeting Governor’s Palin’s daughter for   tasteless humor of a crude sexual nature.  Most teenagers are highly sensitive about themselves; they feel awkward and inadequate by nature.  I can’t imagine the embarrassment Governor Palin’s 14-year-old felt when she heard Letterman’s comments.  I don’t believe Letterman’s excuse that he was talking about Governor Palin’s 18-year-old daughter, but in any case I don’t think that excuse would make any difference even if it were true.  Any children of public figures who do not themselves take steps to affirmatively enter the public eye should be viewed as off limits with respect to any humorous comments — much less comments about sexual activity, appearance, or other highly personal matters.

I therefore don’t have a problem with Governor Palin or others strongly criticizing David Letterman for crossing the line with his comment.  Such criticisms are not a sign of benighted attitudes or a lack of a sense of humor, but rather an effort to protect innocent kids from unfair comments and to keep our public discourse from sinking irreversibly into the mire.  I would not be surprised if Letterman feels shame and perhaps even humiliation at his lack of good judgment.  It would be a good thing for our culture if more entertainers experienced such feelings from time to time when they cross the line, and adjusted their future comments accordingly.