What will become of the celebrated host, his comedy and his fans now that Late Show is over?

By Tom Gliatto
Updated May 21, 2015 01:30 AM
Credit: Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS

The final night of David Letterman‘s CBS Late Show, marking his formal retirement from television, was not actually all that special. Which is what made it so special.

Even with an opening that featured a bunch of presidents and a closing that revealed the presence of Letterman’s son, Harry, in the audience, it was a modest and self-deprecating evening.

Letterman, who began his career bristling with porcupine quills and has lost all but a few of them over three decades, was too kind to tell his fans that they face a troubling new era fraught with doubt and questions.

What Will Happen to Dave?

One can imagine him as a sort of late-night version of the Roman consul Cincinnatus: Renouncing show business, he leaves Manhattan and goes home. He trims the hedges, or stakes some tomatoes, or cleans out the tool shed that he neglected to clean out for three decades, then disappears from public life.

He also decides against catching up on old episodes of Super Soul Sunday.

It’s harder to see him pushing into new frontiers of entertainment. What would it take? Kris Jenner would need to take him in hand and tutor him on the current state of self-marketing and promotion, by which an entire life is broken down into Lego bricks and reassembled in different shapes that are essentially the same. He would have to be induced, somehow, to stop looking like someone descended from the people who sat for American Gothic.

This will not likely happen. Dave has already pared himself down to what seems to be an unadorned strand of DNA. As an entertainer, he has perfected himself: Whether you like him or not (and many do not), the perfection is there, in the form and in the content. Muck around with it and you could wind up like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly.

Maybe he’d be most content as a crusty old salt selling sock monkeys.

What Will Happen to Late-Night Comedy?

It will continue along the 12-lane superconductor highway that has lately left Dave looking somewhat marginalized, like a funky but now fading roadside motel decorated with stuffed jackalopes.

Letterman, 68, has not shown interest in the very slick, very clever viral videos that have become the modern substitute for having to actually watch talk shows. Letterman’s comedy, in which he would often laugh with a sarcastic bark at failed jokes (there were many) and not worry himself overmuch about a guest’s comfort, never had the feel – as do so many shows now – of a celebrity networking club a stone’s throw away from a bar and maybe also an infinity pool.

These new shows make Johnny Carson, who was urbanity itself, look like a peasant washing his feet in a trough.

Even in his last weeks, Letterman stuck to unvarnished absurdity – a kind of pure humor, blunt, unpredictable and rather rough, without meta references and little context. I refer to Pea Boy.

What Will Happen to Me?

I’ll be fine, thanks – Stephen Colbert, who’s replacing Letterman in the fall, is clever and funny and, like Dave, appears to be rooted in American soil rather than miles of red carpet. But Letterman’s brand of humor is probably a thing of the past, and it goes with him. It required an element of trust (even faith) on the part of the viewer: A joke might be funny, or hilarious, or bad, or bad-funny, and you might never even understand why. All that mattered was that it was delivered by Dave.

With Letterman’s retirement, we lose not just a talk-show host but a human being. And when will another one of those come along?

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