Eddie Vedder sings ‘Better Man’ to David Letterman

20 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

David Letterman: Comedian, late night legend… and shrewd businessman?.

Along the way, he popularized the Top 10 list. (My personal favorite was “Top 10 Least-known Norman Rockwell Paintings,” which included “The Old Hobo’s Infected Foot” and “Bad Clams.”) So it seems appropriate to pick 10 moments from Letterman’s shows that stand out. On May 20, talk show host David Letterman will retire from CBS’s “The Late Show.” His impact on late night is well documented, but you might be surprised to learn about his success and influence as a businessman.Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder is the latest to do so, and this week he performed a wonderful version of “Better Man” with Paul Shaffer and the rest of the Late Show band backing him up. Whenever a television show with a few seasons under its belt goes off the air, there are always those who proclaim it “the end of an era,” even if it really isn’t. He’ll be gone, and yet he’ll still be everywhere in our culture, not least of all in the hearts of the good people of Generation X, whose comic sensibilities he so perfectly defined.

We seem to say that a lot about our older icons these days, especially in light of their farewells; but Letterman, currently enjoying star-studded thanks and adulation in the final episodes of his “Late Show,” is truly up there with Oprah and Springsteen and Spielberg. He passes the torch and the time slot to comedian Stephen Colbert, formerly of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” but while no disrespect is intended to the very funny and intelligent successor, it just won’t be the same. Arguably, he has been even more socially dynamic than his mentor Johnny Carson, having set a particular tone — of sarcasm, self-reference, and heavy winking — for decades of entertainment. And he has certainly left a bigger, more distinctive mark than any of his fellow hosts, including Jay Leno and the current ratings topper, Jimmy Fallon. Most of today’s late night talk show hosts acknowledge him as a primary influence, to the extent that “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” which competes directly with Letterman’s time slot, is airing a repeat Wednesday night.

Now 68, Letterman’s a Midwestern boomer who, in the 1980s, followed his own absurdist path and forged a new post-“Saturday Night Live” way to make great variety TV. Among his tools: weirdly compelling remote sequences, random real people, a grumpy aspect, and mundane inanities including sticking himself onto a wall wearing a Velcro suit and placing himself into a vat of dip wearing a suit of potato chips. In 2006, Richards, who played Kramer on “Seinfeld,” got into a verbal altercation with the audience at a comedy club, using the N-word during a bizarre rant. At his 2007 peak, Forbes reported that he was being paid $40 million a year, and both he and his film and television production company, Worldwide Pants, have been behind some major successes.

From his late-night perch at NBC beginning in 1982, on a stage that he sometimes abandoned for the streets of New York, Letterman became a driving force in the then-new age of ironic detachment, the era of air quotes and casual mockery. He was the Hawkeye Pierce of the world of entertainment, the sardonic guy sitting back and laughing at the predictability and ridiculousness of human behavior. He constructed a talk show that matched his temperament; it was more like a deconstruction of talk shows, as he subverted the conventions of the genre by mocking them — pet tricks, top 10 lists, his own monologues and punchlines, celebrity interviews, and fame itself. Recently, Letterman asked guest Julia Roberts why he was compelled to frighten young actresses during his heyday. “Because I think stupid people annoy you,” she said. Her answer was right, and it simultaneously explained the essence of his long-term effect on entertainment, which, before him, was wont to automatically celebrate the superficiality and stupidity of the fabulous world of showbiz.

How could we have been so surprised when, in 1995, Letterman proved to be one of the worst-ever hosts of that back-patting festival known as the Oscars? Meta-awareness became the bread and butter of hip TV, from the news spoofery of “The Daily Show” to the self-referential jokes of “Arrested Development,” “30 Rock,” “Just Shoot Me,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Scrubs” — the list is endless. And it’s clear that Letterman helped shape reality TV with his Stupid Human Tricks segments and his fondness for chitchat with real people, particularly local store owners. Little-known actor Calvert DeForest often showed up (including on Letterman’s first show) as a largely clueless fellow with big glasses who would shout a few lines unconvincingly.

These past few weeks, we’ve seen the scope of his popularity as A-lister after A-lister, from George Clooney to Bill Clinton, has sat next to him and paid homage. When he returned to his desk, Letterman offered a moving tribute to Carson, saying of late-night hosts, “We’re all kind of secretly doing Johnny’s ‘Tonight Show.’ ” He then explained that all of the jokes in the monologue were written by Carson, who had sent them to Letterman over the previous few months. Letterman has been at half-mast for years now, a slow decline in energy and motivation that started not too long after he moved to CBS and the large Ed Sullivan Theater. Zevon played and was open about his diagnosis. “Let me say that I might have made a tactical error in not going to a physician for 20 years,” he said. “It was one of those phobias that really didn’t pay off.” Later, when Letterman asked him about living with a terminal illness, Zevon said, “You’re reminded to enjoy every sandwich.” He died 11 months later. His latter-day battles with Leno, and his investment in the years of competition between them, showed him in an unflattering light — and they dated him, too, since the younger hosts such as Jimmy Kimmel and Fallon avoid such ego-driven clashing.

In 2004, a Zevon tribute album with artists including Bruce Springsteen was released — and titled “Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon.” He called Letterman the best friend his music ever had. He seemed more focused on the contest than on creative renewal, and he became increasingly willing to sit while his guests blathered out prefabricated material. But it’s also nice to have an adult in the room, a person who has been through plenty publicly and is still standing, a host with enough earned gravitas — after 9/11, after his own quintuple bypass surgery, in the face of the coming death of his friend Warren Zevon, upon getting caught in a sex scandal — to sit at his desk and talk to America vulnerably, and even movingly. Later, when Stewart’s “Daily Show” won an Emmy, he said of Letterman’s appearance, “The way that he feels about Johnny Carson is kind of the way all of us, the comedians of our era, feel about him.” Letterman’s show is taped in New York, so his return to the air six days after the terrorist attacks was especially anticipated.

He said he needed a couple of minutes to hear himself talk, and for nearly eight minutes he encapsulated the confusion, anger and heartbreak of a nation.

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