Will It Float? Late night’s conscience after Letterman
I’ve come to really dread the phrase “common sense.” When a politician says he advocates common-sense solutions to our problems, he’s usually exhorting his constituents to succumb to knee-jerk prejudices that are often directly at odds with empirical fact.
So yeah, I’m inherently suspicious of Things We All Know. Yet at the same time, I recognize that comedy, which could well be my life’s defining passion, is rooted in such emotional consensus. Every punch line exists to inspire the reaction, “Now, wait just a darn minute …” And that reaction depends on our instinctual sense that some universal truth or order has been violated.
It’s fear of the unknown, pure and simple, and thus conservative in some key respects. But it doesn’t have to be utterly paranoid and xenophohic on a cognitive level. Bad comedy says, “Everyone but me is weird and wrong, and they all need to stop it.” Good comedy says, “The entire world is batshit crazy, but hey – take your base, world, because I know damn well that I’m no better.”
For decades, late-night TV thrived on the latter philosophy. Johnny Carson built his entire landmark career on the stance “Seems bizarre to me, but what do I know?” But then something unexpected happened: The world got seriously weird, and in a really sick and toxic way. Norms and order were no longer the product of humorously uptight yet ultimately benign forces; they were the signposts of a culture that had given itself over to brutal indifference and vicious self-interest. Suddenly, the task of a good an responsible comic was not to poke gentle fun at aberration when it reared its goofy head, but to point out that the stench of late capitalism had grown so foul that even an Everyday Joe like himself had started to notice it.
Carson got out of the business (or, more accurately, was pushed out) before he had to deal with that metamorphosis. He’s thus remembered fondly as a paragon of the American “center,” but if he had somehow still been on the air into the 21st century, he would have had to cope with the hysterically rightward movement of that center. It would have been difficult indeed to maintain audience goodwill while attempting to bridge traditional liberal democracy and the radical frothing of the Tea Party – which is one of the main reasons that his successor, Jay Leno, will be recalled largely as a soulless panderer. Leno’s schtick was defined by his cowardly zeal to give “equal time” to a rapidly aging, hate-fueled fraction of the population (ironically, given that his troubles with NBC, like Carson’s before him, concerned his inability to attract younger eyeballs to his sponsors’ products).
David Letterman would have none of it. He saw the “moral center” as fixed in a world that had taken leave of its principles. So it was inevitable – if still disorienting – to see him vilified in his later years by the far right as some sort of partisan liberal hack. When you’re Sarah Palin, anyone whose code of human behavior bests Attila the Hun’s comes across as a radical leftist – and a convenient boogeyman to have your followers attack, just for doing his job of manning the gates against encroaching barbarism.
And anyway, the barbarians made it so easy for him. During the 2000 election campaign, Letterman famously predicted that George W. Bush would turn out to be a “boob.” Partisan maybe, but who can argue its prescience, particularly as the evidence had been presented in Dave’s own studio? He had caught on tape the jaw-dropping spectacle of a top contender for the Oval Office wiping his glasses on the clothing of a Late Night executive producer. Watch the clip if you think I’m exaggerating. Shrub doesn’t bother to ask; he just reaches out, grabs a hunk of the poor woman’s jacket and cleans off the ol’ specs with it. It was the action of a genuine and lifelong sociopath, and I’m not kidding when I say it should have disqualified him for office.
Letterman tried to warn us about dangerous clowns like Dubya, and now that he’s stepping down, I don’t know who else is up to the task. None of the names that have been bandied about as potential replacements have what it takes to equal Dave’s status as Garden-Variety Doofus Turned Public Defender By Extreme Circumstances. Craig Ferguson is funny, but as a naturalized citizen, has to be too careful about critiquing his adopted country. (Plus, per the L.A. Times, Ferguson is “widely deemed too eccentric” for the gig – which means CBS execs are already using the press to put him on notice that he isn’t getting the job). Chelsea Handler? Phooey. Stephen Colbert? A long-shot move. And anyway, he and Jon Stewart both have clearly established political ideologies, which means that nothing they could do or say in a more traditional talk-show format would have the same persuasive force as Letterman’s latter-year epiphanies.
What we need is another heartland-bred All American Boy with the smarts to know that we’ve gone too far, and the self-deprecating mien to get us to listen. And if CBS doesn’t find one, I don’t expect the other nets to fill the void. I didn’t watch Jimmy Fallon at 12:30 and I don’t watch him at 11:30; I wrote him off as a social satirist back in the Weekend Update days, when he admitted he never watched the news and often didn’t know the names of the people he was reciting jokes about. Homework sucks, man.
Maybe Esquire’s Ben Collins is right, and Dave’s shoes are simply unfillable. That might come as some solace to Letterman himself, since his self-image has so often seemed to be that of the guy who didn’t get to take over for Johnny (when he actually did, in all of the ways that matter). The idea of Letterman as irreplaceable, though, has troubling implications for the rest of us. When Dorothy’s boy is gone, who’s going to warn us about the boobs?
Days without a response from the publication that plagiarized from me and won’t come clean: 289.
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