David Letterman, Prickly Late-Night Innovator, Counts Down to His Exit

20 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Bill Murray Pops Out of a Cake for David Letterman (Video).

Murray – who was the first-ever guest on Letterman’s Late Night show on NBC in 1982, and repeated the honors when the Late Show moved to CBS in 1993 – jumped out of a giant cake emblazoned with the words “Goodbye Dave” in his last appearance on the show. It’s basically impossible now for any popular TV series to come to an end without igniting a fractious Internet debate. “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner anticipated a backlash to his ending episode long before the ending or any of the episodes running up to it aired. Wearing overalls and goggles and covered in cream, he embraced Letterman (who ends his 33-year talk show run on Wednesday), rubbing his messy hands in the 68-year-old’s hair, fist-bumping with musical director Paul Shaffer and then venturing into the audience to lock lips with a woman.

Of course, simply not ending the show won’t head off the hate, since the only thing that makes us madder than our favorite show ending is our favorite show continuing long after it should have ended–the level of anger around shows that “should” have been canceled but weren’t was enough to spawn the phrase and attendant cultural phenomenon “jumping the shark.” As I’ve heard pointed out lots of times, this is ultimately a very selfish thing for audiences to want. If the show continues to be profitable for the network, that means enough people are watching and, presumably, enjoying it to make the ad revenue worth it–and that in turn means that you’re basically rooting for a business to go under because you personally don’t like the product.

From an insider’s perspective even a “well-deserved” cancellation of a show means actors, writers, crew members all suddenly out of work and having to find a new gig. It’s not a nice thing to wish on anyone. (Indeed, the overwhelming sense I’ve gotten interacting with the behind-the-scenes crew on ”Jeopardy!” is gratitude for having had a steady job for the past 30 years, when most people who work in TV can’t rely on steady work for even five years.) But hey, TV may be business as well as art, but we interact with art as fans, not as investors.

It’s perfectly reasonable for us to respect creators’ wishes while still expressing our own–and the Internet has made it easy for us to loudly discuss which shows should go, which shows should come back, and which characters on which shows should get married because we say so. (It’s not reasonable when our attachment to these opinions gets so fervent that it leads to attempted FCC complaints, lawsuits and death threats, but that’s the age we live in.) It’s interesting, though, how central the idea of the right ending is to fandom. I won’t lie, one of the reasons I’ve retroactively soured on “House, MD” is remembering Hugh Laurie explaining how his character was like a “man on a window ledge”, a character in urgent personal crisis that needed to be resolved sooner rather than later–and instead the producers milked said crisis for ratings and advertising dollars for eight damn years until the crisis basically petered out.

Now “The Simpsons” is going to continue without Harry Shearer, one of its most iconic voice actors and the man behind literally half of its main cast outside the Simpson family, because this show is at this point unkillable. Every “golden opportunity” to end “The Simpsons” at an appropriate time–with the release of the feature film in 2007, with the 20th anniversary in 2010, with the labor dispute in 2011, with Shearer’s departure now–has been ignored.

There’s no logical reason for me to be upset that episodes of “The Simpsons” are still coming out other than my concern for the purity of the “Simpsons” “canon,” a term, I hasten to note, that arises from treating a piece of commercial entertainment like religious dogma, an attitude “The Simpsons” itself frequently lampoons. I think this urge has always been there, but now that digital media makes it easier than ever to be a compulsive completionist it’s far more commonplace. Now it’s not just a matter of deciding not to “catch” a show when it’s on but consciously choosing to take it off your DVR schedule, to not order the DVD box set, to tell Netflix no, you don’t want to “Continue Watching” after you get to that point in your streaming binge.

It can’t possibly be the case that that many people were fans of Conan O’Brien’s stint on “The Tonight Show” or it wouldn’t have been in ratings trouble in the first place, but the way people reacted to Jay Leno’s “betrayal” and “sabotage” of Conan by trying to call backsies on his retirement, you’d think a dispute between two millionaire TV personalities was the labor issue of the century. Look at the immense attention David Letterman is getting for retiring, and the praise he’s getting, unlike Leno, for retiring at the “right time.” Yes, I’m excited about his passing the torch to Stephen Colbert and I’d be pissed if Letterman somehow “sabotaged” it the way Leno’s torch-passing to O’Brien was sabotaged–but mainly because I like Colbert as a host and I think his hosting “Late Show” makes good TV (whereas the main problem with the Coco-vs-Leno drama was that network-politics inside-baseball isn’t, at the end of the day, very good TV). And to the extent that “feud” was caused by Letterman’s admittedly assholish and, at times, creepy behavior toward women–well, does that somehow go away because of Julia Roberts officially forgiving him for intimidating her back in the day and officially smooching him to prove that his handsiness with pretty female guests is okay? Does Roberts’ appearance–clearly intended to provide a positive capstone to Letterman’s long history of quasi-antagonistic flirting with actresses–negate the experience of guests like Amy Schumer who were clearly less okay with it? We have a tough time dealing with the fact that every TV show is made up of good and bad episodes, which are themselves made up of good and bad moments, and that summing up any work of art with an overall grade is impossible to do without oversimplifying so much you might as well be lying. (This is especially true in the gaming world with its obsession with review “scores,” but it’s true everywhere.) So a ton of pressure gets put on beginnings–to draw the viewer in–and, most of all, endings, the bit that’s freshest in the viewer’s mind when they sit down to think about their “retrospective” on the work as a whole.

The fable says Solon told Croesus to count no man happy until his death–as though once he is dead we can finally breathe a sigh of relief and pass our judgment on his life. Very few of us will get satisfying endings to our story that somehow define our lives, unless we are (un)lucky enough to die violently while committing some heroic act. Don Draper may think if you write a good enough ending, all the bad middles “never happened,” but he’s wrong and “Mad Men” is about how he’s wrong. Just like if we’re unlucky enough to become historical villains eulogized as monsters, the evil we committed doesn’t cancel out the kindnesses we performed and the friendships we made. (And that fact, that villains can genuinely love and be loved, seems to be the fact we find hardest to accept in our quest for tidy answers.) As I get older I come to think that it’s better to take everything, both life and art, moment by moment.

Yes, it’s in vogue right now to go back to every abandoned franchise from our childhoods and give them the proper ending they never got, but it’s not the healthiest impulse nor the one most likely to make good art. When it comes to TV endings I have a soft spot for endings that dismiss the “reality” of everything that came before–controversial endings like the ending of “St. Tony Soprano’s ending might be a sudden bullet to the head, or it might be forty more years of being a ruthless mob boss, or it might, improbably, be a sudden redemption where he forsakes crime and devotes the rest of his life to charitable works.

It’s been one long series of middles consisting of sitting around in seedy joints with his seedy colleagues plotting murder while having murder plotted against them. For many people–the people whom Tony has already hurt–that middle is the ending and will always be the only ending that matters. “Six Feet Under” makes that same point differently–it makes the point that unless a story brings in the religious or the supernatural, it’s ultimately meaningless to ask whether a character “survives.” In the world we live in, nobody survives in the long run–the only question is whether the storyteller stops talking before the long run happens.

We can work as hard as we want to try to create the “perfect ending” in fiction; the outcry and backlash that comes out after every fictional ending shows we’ll never fully succeed.

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