The End of Letterman?

by Bryan

Last night, I wondered aloud whether this could be the end of David Letterman. I was quickly and forcefully admonished, but I still wonder. I certainly don’t think he’s going to get forced out, or face any external pressure to quit, but is there a chance he just up and walks away?

At first, the idea seems ridiculous. In light of his sleeping-with-interns scandal, he’s continuing the show, putting a lemon-faced smile every night. He beat the tabloids to the punch by admitting to everything he has been accused of, and has turned the show inward into one big joke about himself.

There he was, last night, pretending to be a yokel low-level news reporter. There he was, letting Vince Vaughn run roughshod over the show. The audience loved it of course: the scandal, in a perverse way, plays to Letterman’s self-deprecating ways; and everyone loves a free-verse Vaughn. He was the perfect guest for an awkward time, so on-the-nose that you can bet Letterman’s superiors are far more impressed with the host’s ratings than they are worried about his behavior.

I’m not judging the behavior. To my mind, now that he’s admitted it, he has exactly one person to answer to: his wife, Regina. And that’s why I can’t help but think this could be the beginning of the end.

Look at it this way: what would Letterman have to do at this point to get fired? It’s not that this incident was so bad—or really, in a grand scheme, bad at all—that I’m trying to paint Letterman as a criminal in varying shades of gray, but it would take a serious, serious incident to force CBS to take Dave off the air. This doesn’t even register to the network, the scandal equivalent of a monologue joke that falls flat, except you can see them thinking, “Move along, and yes, there’s plenty to see here, every night at 11:30!

I just wonder when Dave will tire of this. Late-night television is such a peculiar genre that only two people have ever really been master class performers. Letterman has, by and large, lived by his own rules, and his own internal compass has guided him to this point—that’s why, as New York Magazine’s cover story from about a month ago read, he never had to grow up. When the world indulges you, that’s the world’s problem.

But Dave did grow up, and got married, and kept showing up. His show evolved from the hip, outsider space to the seat of the winking insider. No longer uncomfortable with being late-night royalty, he embraced it in his endearing, sourpuss way. He had a child. He got married. As the article cites, he finally grew up.

Right now, Dave is doing the grown-up thing by working through the problem, continuing to perform while struggling at home. That’s commendable, but the truth is David Letterman isn’t like any of us. He doesn’t need to work for the money, and I suspect he doesn’t need it for some deep personal fulfillment anymore. That time has passed. He works because he enjoys it, having reached a point where it’s no more complicated than that. It took a while to get here, but he got here.

So my question is: what if he decides that having grown up, he would rather spend time tending to his wife and son than yukking it up on national television? To fix the one thing in his life, other than his work, he’s been attached to? It would be the final iconoclastic masterstroke for him, one borne out of a commitment to family and self he’s only recently demonstrated. It wouldn’t be a sign of weakness—it would, with the message that he could leave his show, a sign of supreme strength.

I don’t expect this to happen. I just wouldn’t be surprised if it did.