Letterman the Great: The Late Night Host’s Disarming, Disorienting Reign Comes to an End

Roush tribute to the David Letterman Show
All images courtesy of CBS
Roush tribute to the David Letterman Show

It’s the brilliant human tricks we’ll remember most: David Letterman single-handedly turning late-night TV upside down–“literally”–back in 1986, when he did an episode of NBC’s groundbreaking Late Night with the camera making a complete dizzying rotation during the course of the show. Upending and defying convention with his reckless, restless wit, Letterman changed late night forever, and after he signs off from CBS’s Late Show tonight, it will never be quite the same without him.

This is the guy who gave us the Monkey Cam, who threw watermelons and other projectiles off rooftops just so we could laugh at the chaotic debris. He sent his mom, the adorable and adoring Dorothy, to the Olympics and made instant pop celebrities out of neighboring Bangladeshi shopkeepers named Mujibur and Sirajul.

If there’s such a thing as sincere irony, Letterman was its skeptical and self-deprecating master, influencing a wave of absurdist comedy that can be seen in The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and successors like Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel. Never a typical late-night host, this gangly and aloof Hoosier may have revered the institution and its once-reigning monarch, his mentor/idol Johnny Carson, but he borrowed from pioneering mavericks like Ernie Kovacs to test the medium’s limits while investing his show with a mischievous crankiness all his own.

And, unexpectedly as the years went on, with a disarming honesty: rallying New York City back to life after 9/11, honoring the doctors who performed his multiple-bypass heart surgery, apologizing for his human failings in the wake of a sex scandal.

He sparred and feuded with the best of them (Cher, Madonna, Oprah) and flirted with the rest of them (Google Dave with Julia Roberts, just saying) and could hold his own with world leaders. In his final wide-ranging interview with President Obama earlier this month, Dave lightened the mood by asking, “Is this the first country you’ve presidented?” and later quipped, “You think I’m dumb, don’t ya?”

Hardly, Dave. We’ll let an admiring Obama have the last word: “You’re part of all of us.”