Writing about something or someone I don’t recall, Christopher Hitchens remarked that he was reminded of the Letterman audiences that laughed in all the wrong places because they didn’t want anyone to think they weren’t in on the joke.
Ignoring the snobbish idea that such behavior is confined to the Midwestern goons and Babbitts of Zenith and therefore alien to the upper crusts described by Wilde or Woodhouse, or Python, Hitchens was on to something.
The idea of Letterman as a subversive comic genius has always required laughing at the idea in a meta-commentary way that ignores an unpleasant fact. While Dave was running the coolest frat house in the country in the 1980s, the Reaganite reactionary corporate takeover was in full swing. Sure Dave was the guy who made fun of authority and might just disrupt someone else’s television show; the John Belushi of Animal House reimagined within the relative safety of your television. But the country was being raped and Letterman wasn’t Springsteen or even John Mellencamp. He was somewhere between a prop comic (if Gallagher busts up a watermelon it’s sad but if Dave does it, it’s genius) and a less brilliant Mark Twain.
And later he turned that into the guy who while less likely to throw stuff off a roof had become more likely to, as they say across the pond, take the piss out of self-important celebrities, pols and assorted hucksters. And he did it with a combination of affable Midwestern salt of the earth directness and as Tina Fey said, the strangeness of a Midwestern goon.
It was an interesting trajectory. The next phase, the moment where he surpassed and replaced his idol, Johnny Carson as America’s soothing voice in the dark (leaving his one-time rival, Jay Leno in the garage) was after 9/11 when he became the voice of average grieving but resolute America. From then on, with stumbles that could have eliminated lesser talents, he grew into a kind of institution. His ability to withstand potential career wrecking episodes was due in no small measure to the goodwill he had accrued which left him with capital to spend. And this was not down only to cynical manipulation but to a kind of honesty about which his audience felt, that it made them not only his friend but, to paraphrase Fey, the sort of person with whom Dave would want to be friends. This of course is what Hitchens missed and certainly misunderstood. Dave, as in we’re on a first name basis, was America’s pal; weird, devilish, but fundementally good people.
Now, having stepped away from retirement, Letterman has embarked on something riskier than anything he’s done previously. And of course it’s been completely misunderstood by the media. Finding Letterman at fault for failing to achieve something he wasn’t trying to accomplish most of the criticism of his new venture (My Next Guest Needs No Introduction) centers on the absence of his trademark curmudgeonly demeanor and subversion. Attention is accurately paid to the absence of any hard questions for his first guest, Barack Obama, as well as Letterman’s attempts to contextualize Obama’s presidency by showing clips from his (Letterman’s) conversation with Representative John Lewis while they walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But beyond that the critics focus on what’s missing and find Letterman at fault for not being what he was.
Near the end of the segment Letterman, close to tears, talks about how at the time of Bloody Sunday he and his friends, like frat boys, were on a booze cruise because it was available and he asks of himself (and an entire generation) and Obama, why wasn’t I there.
This then is the edgy Letterman. This is Letterman making use of his capital and increasing it even as he spends it by again being honest and vulnerable. While it is true that he did not ask Obama anything difficult and certainly nothing that Obama was incapable of turning, deflecting or pivoting from, including for example, his use of what he claims was secret evidence that justified the execution of a US citizen, mass surveillance, drone warfare, and torture, finding Letterman at fault here misses the point. And that point of course is Trump who is never mentioned directly but is the third person on stage with Letterman and Obama. Letterman’s sense of guilt and responsibility are really the topics discussed and in truth he’s the subject of the interview. Though it follows the more or less traditional format and ostensibly Obama is answering the questions, the real issue is Letterman attempting to exercise his demons and the nation’s regarding systemic racism and the neo-fascist white supremacist response to Obama that has Trump as its leader.
That Letterman included a clip of his next guest, blow-up doll and imitation human, George Clooney, is a sign that he still knows he’s in show business. But as an attempt to grow, as an attempt to escape his own carefully constructed image and become something else, he could have done far worse. With his, as Obama describes it, biblical beard fully on display, Letterman offers what he has always offered but now stripped of the usual paraphernalia of network television (the new show is in a theater and on a bare stage) he’s after a bigger target. Namely, his legacy. The frat boy is gone. The nation turns its anxious eyes elsewhere. Here’s to Letterman, to Dave, helping the righteous cause. God knows it needs all the help it can get.