Grandiose as it sounds, watching Letterman pace the stage, charisma still radiating, I couldn’t help thinking that this guy represents the last vestiges of the monoculture. The fortress of macro-entertainment has crumbled. The new late-night shows have no prayer of reaching all of America, all at once. They can’t rely on a docile audience that will patiently sit through the second celebrity guest and into the loopy, end-of-hour conversation with Fran Lebowitz, or the time-filling, willfully bizarre skit with Chris Elliot.
You can see it in the way the other hosts plod wearily through their audience interactions, passing time until the cameras roll again: They barely knew we were there. These shows are designed to chase likes and shares, to be easily chopped up into discrete grabs for elusive virality. There’s no need to put on a really big show in a really big theater when your end goal is a 30-second clip that will play in a tiny frame on someone’s Facebook feed. The studio audience is a vestige, too. But at Letterman, at least for one more week, a live taping still feels magical.
Seth Stevenson writes about his experience attending live tapings of all the late night talk shows.
I don't know that we've seen the last of monoculture monoliths, but the bar is set much higher now, as it is for all our cultural products. Watching these late night talk shows at all, let alone watching live, just doesn't exceed the bar of cultural touchstone (and by the way, no one except the studio audience watched these episodes live, they're always taped earlier that day, many hours before they air on television). The ratings reflect that.
I grew up with Letterman, though I rarely got to watch his show when it aired. It always came on after my parents made me go to bed. I've seen enough of his show across the years to feel his sensibility as a familiar one, though. His was the first show that had such a wry sensibility about the whole show business affair, that didn't seem overly impressed with itself for being on television. That such an approach to comedy is so widespread now is just one of the challenges for late night talk shows like Letterman's, but he was the pioneer.
He was also as comfortable in his own skin as any TV personality I've seen. It translated into an on screen confidence and honesty that separated him profoundly from someone like, say, Jay Leno, who has always had the air of a rehearsed performer seeking audience approval and laughter. Letterman was so honest it was evident when he had no interest in one of his guests or conversely when he had a real flirtatious chemistry with a female guest. You knew when he was upset, just as it was clear as soon as he ambled on stage whether he was feeling particularly chipper that night.
Someone that honest and that you encounter regularly across so many decades...well, they feel like a friend. Or a family member. So in two hours, I'm going to tune in to say my goodbye.