David Letterman leaves behind legacy of comic gold
On Wednesday, America will say goodbye to one of the most iconic images in television history – the gap toothed grin of David Letterman. After over 30 years in late night comedy, the irascible talk show host is stepping aside, handing over the reins of his CBS time slot to another popular rabble rouser – Stephen Colbert.
Letterman leaves behind an incredible legacy, and it’s no accident that most of the late night hosts to come in his wake – Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmell and Jimmy Fallon, to name a few – cite him as one the biggest influences on their comedic perspectives and personas. His more sardonic brand of off-kilter comedy permanently shook up the traditional talk show format – bringing top ten lists and “stupid pet tricks” into people’s living rooms every night.
Early on Letterman’s style set him apart. On his NBC show, which debuted in 1982, he infamously sparred with his guests like comic book writer Harvey Pekar and character actor Crispin Glover. He provided a lab for legendary comic Andy Kaufman to test some of his most unconventional humor and he established a rapport with bandleader Paul Shaffer that audiences loved.
When Letterman took his act to CBS in 1993 the scale of his show got bigger than ever. Locked in a decades-long ratings war with his rival Jay Leno, Letterman struck gold with sometimes heated encounters with the likes of Madonna and Drew Barrymore. The more bizarre the guest – like a monosyllabic Joaquin Phoenix – the funnier Letterman would be, lacing his barbs with his trademark acerbic wit.
He also showed tremendous gravitas. As the one late night talk show based in New York City in 2001, Letterman gave voice to the city’s anguish and resilience during a critically acclaimed monologue in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He also didn’t shy away from taking stronger political swipes than some of his peers – getting into high-profile scraps with both Sarah Palin and John McCain at the height of their power.
As Letterman matured from college kids’ favorite cut-up to the elder statesman of late night, America grew up with him. A whole generation of Americans hasn’t lived through a period where he wasn’t on TV. We’ve seen him come back from major health battles and an embarrassing extortion attempt. And through it all he has remained the clown prince of alternative comedy.
Now, all we’ll have left is the memories. Here are just a few of our favorites …