Friday, April 4, 2014

David Letterman retires

Many years ago I happened on "The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, & the Network Battle for the Night," a book about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering for Johnny Carson's coveted Tonight Show seat. 

The major takeaway was that Jay Leno's chirpy, non-threatening personality and bland, by-the-book interviewing style won him the favor of advertisers, who appear to have made the decision for NBC's executive eunuchs.

Fortunately for us, Letterman dusted himself off, moved his quirky, no-bullshit approach from NBC to CBS, and ultimately outlasted Leno. Last night Letterman announced his retirement.  

Letterman won't be off the air until 2015, but now is as good a time as any to take a quick look at some highlights of America's ballsiest, most offbeat late night host.


"Late Night with David Letterman" began in 1982. That same year, professional provocateur Andy Kaufmanone of Letterman's regular guestsfaced off against Jerry Lawler, who (Kaufman claimed) had injured him in a televised wrestling match a few months earlier.  

Crispin Glover may've been the most bizarre Letterman guest ever in this 1987 appearance.

Letterman has distinguished himself from other talk show hosts by testing many of his guests rather than merely going through the predictable rituals of mutual admiration. Some of his interviewees have pushed back, including Madonna, who gave as good as she got in this free-flowing 1994 interview.

In 2009, unbeknownst to viewersand Letterman himselfJoaquin Phoenix affected the role of a borderline catatonic as part of an ongoing series of media stunts which he chronicled in the documentary "I'm Still Here." Rather than hold Phoenix's hand through the interview to minimize the discomfort of the moment, Dave responded with the acerbic gusto that has always set him apart from his peers. (Phoenix later explained in a return interview that he had come on the show hoping for "a beat down," and was happy that Dave had obliged.)       

In 2014, Letterman's show lacks the edge it once had, but he has had a helluva runthe longest career in late night history. Few television entertainers can lay claim to three decades of keeping it real.

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