The End of Letterman?
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.
By the by, did you see Ferguson’s opening on Tuesday night? So great. I think it was Tuesday…
The more that I think about it, I think Colbert would be the best choice of this field we’re discussing. Indeed, there will come a time when the character will and should die. It would be better for him to have that character end on top anyway, rather than get tired. He could always bring it back annually for a Christmas special. I think his take on the Late Night TV stage would be special, whatever it might be. The only thing I’m concerned about is the interviewing. Maybe that will improve given more time. Or maybe he’s the victim of his current character and 22-minute show. With breathing space and a genuine persona, maybe he’d be great.
Thinking further afield, and related to Colbert, I would be so curious to see what someone like Amy Sedaris could do with a Late Night show. Or an Amy Pohler. But I think, yeah, Ellen is the top seed, women’s division.
How about the triumphant return of Tom Green?
First one to come to mind is Ellen. Not a terrible idea.
Kimmel’s not bad. He’s really not. But he is very much going for a weird, not quite mainstream and not quite fringe post-Nightline audience. He’s very much an Everyman in the way that Carson, Letterman, Conan aren’t — they’re Late Night TV hosts, he’s just a guy who cracks wise around stars. He’s like Leno, but snarky. Which is like saying Leno, but occasionally funny.
I love Ferguson too. I think he’s great. But I think that 11:30 would sap his talents, as you allude to. The show is very much about him in a non-egomaniacal sense. His take is so refreshing that it’s hard to take your eyes off him.
Colbert would have to drop his character but that seems inevitable, no? He’s just so good at what he does that doesn’t it make sense for him to be the number one somewhere? And couldn’t he come up with a new, similar character to fill the late night host role? I think he could do it in a meta way that would blow us away. What’s to say he couldn’t?
I really can’t see Leno going back to 11:30. I suppose stranger things have happened (like the terrible Jay Leno getting the Tonight Show in the first place), but I would guess contractual obligations are keeping him at NBC for a while.
Conan is locked. Tonight Show is top of the heap – no reason to leave.
I haven’t watched a lot of Kimmel, but my hunch is that he is awful.
As I mentioned, I think Ferguson is genius. I only recently started following him (I got a DVR, thank the lord almighty) and am evangelizing constantly. I would love to see him at 11:30, but I think his style fits nicely with his cozy low-budget situation. But then again, Conan made that transition pretty well to the bigger show/bigger stage.
Colbert would have to drop his character, which would be a national tragedy, if he were to go to late-night network TV. Yes, his performance chops are the best of any of these candidates. However, his interviewing remains sub-par, even after several years of practice. Let’s not forget that interviews are half of the broadcast. Further, what a contrast there would be between him an Letterman, who is the finest interviewer in operation.
Fallon has been better than expected, but I suspect that there is a ceiling lurking not too far above his head. If they wanted Carson Daly, I would put a bullet in my gourd.
What about a surprise? Who’s not on the radar? How about this – a lady?
And as always, very much appreciate the comment.
Thoughts, w/no regard to plausibility or order:
b) Conan (either one would put/keep the other at NBC 11:30)
c) Kimmel (my instinct, actually)
I don’t think Stewart would even want to do it; he’s more of an anchor type. I think Colbert, with his performer chops, could pull it off swimmingly, but I guess you don’t want to have someone learning the ropes at 11:30.
All right, so who takes over? Does Jon Stewart finally go national? I think that British guy
on the daily show might make a good next host. Who else is a candidate? Craig Ferguson is outstanding in my opinion, but I think the Late
Show might be a little too big for his style.