Like almost everyone of his era, my dad was a huge Johnny Carson fan. Being curious and (later) a fellow insomniac, I usually made it through the 10:30 CST monologue and at least the first skit before being shooed off to bed.
The television of my childhood was different, with the (then) three networks and a host of UHF stations playing bad movies, reruns and Saturday morning wrestling. For three decades, Carson ruled late night, becoming both an icon and an institution, the person who left adults with a smile before sleep.
When I was 17, David Letterman's show premiered after Carson. His career to that point was solid but undistinguished, with a failed morning talk show and a stint on Mary Tyler Moore's short-lived variety show to his credit. But he quickly made a niche for himself, starting a run that would outlast Carson's by three years.
I started working nights the year after Letterman's 1982 debut, rarely getting off in time to catch the show despite its 11:30 p.m. slot. It was impossible to see Carson during that period except on the syndicated best of reruns (remember those?), so my affinity for late night talk shows waned.
I moved to North Carolina in 1993, the year that Letterman moved to CBS. No longer working nights, I remember being disappointed that — due to the time difference —his show remained for me in the 11:30 slot. I did watch the memorable night that Carson walked on to the Letterman show, sat at the desk without saying a word, then off the stage after a huge ovation. It was Carson’s last TV appearance, and an informal passing of the torch in the Leno vs. Letterman debate that consumed late night television after his retirement.
Now, more than two decades later, Letterman has retired, having left his mark on numerous comedians in his wake. He was remarkably durable, hosting more than 6,000 shows over a 33-year period. It’s a career to be proud of, and given how tastes change so quickly, one that likely will not be repeated.
Letterman always said no one could be another Carson. And there likely will not be another Letterman, either.
For almost three years, we had an apartment on 54th Street between 7th and Broadway in Manhattan, located less than a block from the Ed Sullivan Theater where Elvis, the Beatles and Letterman held court. Each day, you could walk outside and see the line forming, hoping to score a ticket to see Letterman.
I stood in line a couple of times, and in October 2009, received a ticket for the taping of a show that featured Tom Hanks and the band Weezer. It was a somewhat surreal experience, as these things are when you are part of a studio audience. There were the usual gags, and Letterman talked to the crowd during the breaks, but did not go out into the audience.
The first 12 to 14 rows received a “special treat” — Sarah Palin Moose Jerky — and Weezer performed three songs instead of the one that was broadcast. Nothing revelatory, but pretty cool nonetheless.
As Letterman’s career comes to a close, that’s how I feel about him and, to a certain extent, television in the broader context. His success is in part due to the format that Carson basically invented, in much the same way Pete Rozelle "invented" the modern day NFL. (Ironically, the NFL is one of the few things that is must see appointment TV these days.)
Technology, as it has in too many arenas, has changed things. Today's late night hosts have trouble cutting through the noise unless something they do goes viral, a feat that current Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon seems to have mastered. Streaming makes it possible to watch anywhere at any time, and it was on my computer that I caught Letterman’s last show this morning, 12 hours after it first aired.
Watching the finale, I smiled a great deal. The show managed to be funny and not overly sentimental. (It was a far cry from Carson’s last episode, which felt like the funeral of a beloved relative.) And that’s just how Letterman wanted it.
For that, you have to say congratulations. Too many people don’t get to leave their careers on their own terms. (Somewhere, I’m sure Jay Leno is grumbling at the attention Letterman has received over the past month.)
And while leaving on your own terms is nothing revelatory, it’s pretty cool nonetheless.