How David Letterman Became Johnny Carson, and Everyone Else Became David Letterman

Last week, as part of their (understandably) protracted and hyped-up farewell to David Letterman, CBS aired a 90-minute prime-time special called David Letterman: A Life on Television. Hosted by Ray Romano, it was a clean, efficient retrospective that packaged Dave’s memorable moments into tight little packages: celebrity interviews of note, political high-rollers, “friends of the show,” recurring segments, and so on. But the special was strangely incongruent to the true spirit of the show, which was never about immortal moments or rehashed clips; it was about an overall spirit, a loose, gonzo, hanging-out vibe. When Letterman’s idol Johnny Carson did an anniversary special or his own farewell tour back in 1992, you knew you were gonna see the tomahawk clip or Tiny Tim’s wedding. But that wasn’t what Letterman’s show — whether Late Night at NBC or The Late Show at CBS — was, or why those of us who loved Letterman watched him.

It’s important to understand two things about the formation of Letterman’s style and persona: that it was a product of its time, and that it was a product of creative restrictions. Late Night with David Letterman debuted on February 1, 1982, and the show’s first guest was telling: Bill Murray, whose standoff-ish, kidding-on-the-square sensibility would find a nightly voice in the show’s host. The mixture of unflappable, ironic distancing and tacit acknowledgment of showbiz phoniness that Murray had developed on SNL and perfected in early vehicles like Meatballs and Stripes would come to define a certain kind of ‘80s comedy, and Letterman was very much in the foreground of that movement.

But the show was also defined by its eccentricity, something it came by both out of inclination and necessity. Letterman’s Late Night followed Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show on the NBC schedule, and in his 1981 contract negotiation, King Carson had secured the right to program his lead-out. He hand-selected Letterman — a popular guest and guest host on Tonight — to front the show, which was produced by his own Carson Productions. And Carson Productions gave Letterman some ground rules, to keep the later show from replicating its predecessor too closely: no Ed McMahon-style sidekick, no Doc Severinsen-style big band, no Tonight Show regulars (old school movie stars and Vegas comics, typically) in the guest rotation, and as little topical comedy in the monologue as possible. Those things typified Johnny’s show; Letterman would have to find one of his own.

That he did. Some of the rules were easy to comply with; the tighter, rock-influenced ensemble that bandleader Paul Schaffer put together (originally under the moniker “The World’s Most Dangerous Band”) was more appropriate to the later slot and looser spirit, and ditto a younger, hipper guest list. In lieu of a sidekick, Schaffer — who’d performed regularly on SNL — was a fine foil and comedy partner. And if Letterman needed to steer clear of “Did you see this in the papers?” humor in the monologue, well, he’d never been much of a current events man in his stand-up days anyway.

Instead, his monologues — and the comedy pieces that followed — were wilder, weirder, and more self-aware than anything Carson was doing. Much of this spirit carried over from his critically lauded but dismally-rated short-lived morning show, where the daytime audience didn’t know what the hell to make of his Kovacs-influenced, post-modern style, but what didn’t fit in the morning played like gangbusters in the middle of the night.

In fact, particularly in those heady, early days, there was a sense that Letterman and his crew (chief among them head writer and longtime partner Merrill Markoe) could get away with just about anything, because it was a late enough that maybe, just maybe, nobody was watching. They did wild stunts and what-the-hell segments, roaming their cameras through the halls of 30 Rock and the streets of midtown Manhattan so Dave could yell at people, strapping tiny cameras on small animals, putting Dave in suits of Velcro or Alka-Seltzers so he could leap onto a wall (with the other half of the Velcro) or a tank of water, respectively. But they didn’t confine their inventiveness to the B-block; they did entire gimmick shows, including an audience-free telecast from their offices when the A/C broke in the studio (Dave talked to Terri Garr at his desk; Paul sat next to him with a Casio), or a “360 degree show” where they cranked the camera around, first on its side, then upside down, then on the other side, then back around, throughout the show’s segments.

Such experiments pretty much came to an end when Letterman moved an hour earlier — amidst much hand-wringing over whether his style was “too weird” for the slot — upon his move to CBS in 1993, after NBC’s suits passed him over for Jay Leno as Carson’s Tonight Show successor. Once Johnny was off the air, Letterman appropriated bits from Carson’s show (another notion verboten under their original agreement), like “Stump the Band,” for The Late Show, and even performed monologue jokes that Carson sent him after retirement. Letterman could still throw in curveballs, particularly in the loose, rambling, and often hilarious desk conversations he had with Paul following the monologue, but as he got older (and had a brush with death, and had a child), his broadcasting instincts naturally became more conservative. Add in such Carson-style standbys as cooking segments and visits from wild animal handler Jack Hanna, as well as an opening monologue that was more entertaining when the host was bombing than landing, and Letterman’s Late Show ended up looking a lot like Carson’s Tonight Show — as did Leno’s.

But the generation of hosts who came up after them didn’t learn what late night was from Carson — they learned it from Letterman. And if his Late Show was, in many respects, the last flag-carrier for the traditional talk show in the Carson style, his Late Night was the mold from which Fallon, Kimmel, O’Brien, and Corden all sprung (and from which Ferguson took a similar spirit of convention-shattering); the viral-ready comedy nuggets by which those hosts measure their cultural impact are direct descendants of Letterman’s Late Night bits. So if, at the end of his run, Dave is doing something like Johnny’s show, it’s okay; just about everyone else in late night is doing Dave’s.

The final episode of The Late Show with David Letterman airs tonight.