David Letterman announced his retirement last week. That sucks. And although this is not a memorial for a man who is not even dead, it does feel like the end. It is definitely an end of an era. David Letterman is the king of the comedy world. Everyone else is just swimming (some unfortunately drowning) in his funny wake.
There is no Conan without Letterman. There is also no Stewart, Colbert, Handler, Kimmel, Fallon, or Ferguson (and each one of these folks would more than likely own up to this fact). Every single comedy podcast that has a comedian as a host who interviews comedians owes a huge debt to the man. So though you might think the title of this piece is a nice bit of hyperbole, it is not. David Letterman did change the world.
David Letterman certainly didn’t invent sarcasm. But he did perfect it, turn it into a science, and in doing so made himself the Pied Piper for any young, aspiring comedian who looked at the world and said to his or herself, “Life is ridiculous, bordering on the stupid. I need to make fun of it right now.” He took irony and turned it into a lifestyle.
Here are some of the things that David Letterman came up with on his shows that are now considered standard for almost anything on TV, anywhere in the world.
Top Ten Lists – Everyone does funny lists these days. Even morning news shows do them. In fact, Buzzfeed should put a smiling picture of David Letterman on their masthead with a giant “thank you” written in cursive across the photo. Without Letterman’s brilliant invention of the Top Ten List, their entire website would not exist.
Stupid Pet Tricks – Before every show on the Animal Channel was created there was his segment of watching pets performing absurd stunts. Notice that the segment was called “Stupid Pet Tricks”, not “Cool Pet Tricks” or “Awesome Pet Tricks.” It always killed (and still does), whether you are a fan of animals or not. You are welcome, Puppy Bowl.
Stupid Human Tricks – The basis for every idiot ever to post something on YouTube.
Using The Crew On Camera – Before David Letterman, no talk show host would ever talk to the crew on air. On-stage was on-stage and off-stage was off and the two shall never meet. Not for David Letterman. He knew that using the crew in comedy bits would be funny. And now everyone else knows that because everyone on TV now does it.
The Awkward Celebrity Interview – Celebrities are cra-cra-crazy and David Letterman knows how deal with them when things get weird. (Go online and search for his interview with Crispin Glover for proof.) No one handles awkwardness better than David Letterman. He just sits with it. But he doesn’t sit with it in a detached sense. He shares in the awkwardness. He feels it just as much as his guest or audience. It’s almost as if he is saying to himself, “This embarrassment is God-awful and I just wish it would go away, but I will play this out in the hopes that comedy gold flows out of it.” And, of course, comedy gold would flow out.
It makes sense that David Letterman would name his production company “World Wide Pants.” He is acknowledging the silliness of every production company that takes itself too seriously. David Letterman understands the ridiculousness of the entertainment business, so why not make fun of that with an even more ridiculous name? That is the kind of sarcasm that David Letterman will leave behind for all others to learn from and feast on.
It’s tough to say that the world will miss David Letterman because so much of what he has done is still being used on a daily basis. His influence is everywhere on TV, film, and the Internet so it’s not like his comedy style will suddenly disappear. We won’t let it. So I guess instead of bidding him a farewell I guess we should just say, “Thanks. We owe you – big.”