This is an ever-evolving story of a girl writer and her two greatest loves, the movies and travel. As she hikes the trenches of Hollywood, you're brought along for the ride.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Letterman Spells It Out: "I'm Retiring"

Don't act like you're the least bit surprised.  We all knew this day was coming.  With Jay Leno gone from The Tonight Show and David Letterman announcing his impending retirement in 2015, it's official: 

The Titans of late night are passing the Olympic torch to the younger gods of comedy.

At the current moment, it's hard to imagine late night without Leno and Letterman.  For so long, they've had the comedic rivalry of Coke vs Pepsi.  But, so much has changed in the last few years.  For one, there are a helluva lot more beverage options on supermarket shelves than there used to be.  Coke and Pepsi are competing less with each other and more for survival.  Similarly, the world of late night has gotten considerably more crowded and competitive in the last decade or so.  

There are late night hosts on networks I've never heard of.  I can't tell one Jimmy from the next.  And while I rarely watch late night talk shows myself, I read their official Twitter feeds.  

I regularly tune into Netflix, Youtube, and sometimes Hulu.  I haven't subscribed to cable in nearly a decade.  I feel I'm not missing much.  These days, everywhere I look, there's something else to look at. 

The genius of technology is deceiving people like me into believing they've "discovered" something new when it was planted there for us to find.  It's not that late night has changed that much.  The truth is, the entire landscape of television has undergone significant change in the digital age.  

The shake-up at late night signifies changes in viewership habits as well as a generational shift in who these viewers are (and what gets their eyeballs on the screen, whatever screen that might be.) 

Like Jimmy Fallon, as a kid I'd regularly sneak downstairs and watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  I never remember getting into trouble over this.  After all, it was Johnny Carson.  And who would blame me for wanting to watch his show?  I was a smart kid.  There was a more personal connection too:  Not only did Johnny Carson grow up in Nebraska (where I'm originally from) but in the early 1950s, both my grandfather and Carson had shows on WOW radio and television based in Omaha, Nebraska.  And so, it was almost expected that we'd watch Johnny Carson in our household on a daily basis.  

Some of my earliest and best memories of childhood were of watching Johnny Carson on the "boob tube," my grandfather's affectionate term for television. When Jay Leno replaced Carson in 1992, it just wasn't the same.  Of course, being creatures of habit, my family still watched The Tonight Show regularly.  Leno was a big personality and he was talented no doubt, but he didn't capture my imagination and attention-- not in the way Carson had.  

By the time I went away to college, I wanted to break away from Leno's Tonight Show.  I wanted something different, something edgier.  Leno was safe.  He was exactly what NBC needed: a conservative that could bring in laughs within boundaries and hold onto the established audiences that Johnny Carson and Jack Paar had built into an empire.

In a twist of events, David Letterman's failure to get The Tonight Show post paved the way for his own empire in what was to become The Late Show With David Letterman.  By establishing his own late night show at CBS, Letterman wasn't subject to the same rules as Leno.  Untethered to an established late night show, Letterman had the freedom to be himself, no holds barred.  

The Late Show With David Letterman premiered on CBS in 1993, shortly after Leno's takeover of The Tonight Show over at NBC.  Nearly immediately after I started college, I jumped ship, abandoned Leno, and became a regular viewer of Letterman's irreverent take on late night.  Letterman was edgy, a little unpredictable, and famously razor-edged when it came to interviewing celebrities.  My mother hated him.  Several even called him an "asshole" in those early days. In a word: he was fun.  I enjoyed his quirky skits and character incarnations.  Dave's Top Ten List, as simple as it was, proved to become a fixed element akin to Leno's Headlines on The Tonight Show.  It was also because of David Letterman that I was introduced to Conan O'Brien, then the quirkier oddball of even later, late night.  Letterman and Conan kept me laughing through many late night study sessions during my college years and really informed my sardonic sense of humor as it is today.

The best entertainers know when it's time to exit.  And when Letterman leaves the stage in 2015, he'll leave being known as the longest-running host in the the history of late night television.  Remember how people reacted when Jerry Seinfeld decided to end Seinfeld in 1998 after nine fabulous seasons?  People didn't want to see the end of the era.  They wanted more Seinfeld, but rule number one is to leave the stage while they're still laughing.  

Copyright ©2014 by KLiedle

No comments:

Post a Comment