David Letterman signs off tonight as television’s longest-running late-night host. He redefined late night — and comedy itself — with his mix of silliness and bone-dry irony.
With Letterman about to leap onto the Velcro wall of retirement, here are seven essential articles and tributes to the late-night legend.
“The Early Days of Late Night With David Letterman’’
“The show has made a star of a 38-year-old former TV weatherman and stand-up comic, who only several years ago was convinced, after three successive flops, that he would never work again. It’s also sparked an orgy of “time-switching’’ by VCR owners who regularly tape the show and watch it over the next morning’s breakfast. And it has even done something fairly subversive, at least as far as television goes: It has altered forever the accepted notions of what a talk show is and does.’’
“David Foster Wallace’s David Letterman Tribute’’
“‘That’s part of what makes him so dangerous,’ my husband said, lifting his glasses to massage the bridge of his nose. ‘The whole thing feeds off everybody’s ridiculousness. It’s the way the audience can tell he chooses to ridicule himself that exempts the clever bastard from real ridicule.’’’
“My Letterman Years’’
“There was a standing offer of $500 from Dave to anyone who booked a Beatle on the show. In 1989, Morty booked Ringo Starr and went to Dave to collect his money. Dave told him, ‘Ringo doesn’t count.’ I really wanted to book Paul McCartney — and actually had a connection.’’
“Merrill Markoe: Unsung Heroine of Late Night With David Letterman’’
“One form of constant entertainment was to put socks on this one dog. Everyone I knew did some version of a silly thing like that with their pets, so we ran an ad to see if we could pull a segment together like that.
When it succeeded, we mutated that idea into ‘Stupid Human Tricks.’ We also considered ‘Stupid Baby Tricks,’ but pulled the plug because—based on what we were seeing in the other two categories—we were afraid it would encourage child endangerment.’’
“He can reel off dozens of Obama jokes and McCain jokes and Paris Hilton jokes, but it is when Letterman begins to invert and mutter, when his personal neuroses and raw wounds are inflamed by the assaults of everyday life—and whose aren’t?—that is when he becomes something more than a good comedian and something like the scarred protagonist of his own comic novel—a bewildered, gutty mid-lifer at the crash intersection of American culture.’’
“The Lost Laughs of Letterman’’
“When I was a writer, anything to do with monkeys, canned ham, and Dave’s hair were all the rage. During this ‘romantic period,’ as I call it for no particular reason, I had the idea that we should contact the Chia Pet company and talk them into making a ‘Dave Chia,’ which was a mold of Dave’s head that when watered would grow plant hair that resembled Dave’s. I figured this was a ‘can’t miss proposition.’ Apparently it was ‘can miss,’ because after it went unused, I even tried to work it in again as a viewer mail joke and it still didn’t take.’’
“Behind the Headlines in the Leno — Letterman War’’
“The story of David Letterman and Jay Leno is a story of the two leading comedians of a generation who found their careers and their lives tossed into the high-speed mixer of show business competition. Their paths began along parallel lines, then crossed, with each man supplying the boost the other needed to vault himself toward stardom.’’
Fellow hosts bid farewell to Letterman