(Every week on late-night round-up, one of our writers watches a week of one late-night talk show. This week, Steve Heisler watches The Late Show With David Letterman. In two weeks, Todd VanDerWerff looks at The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson.)
Watching David Letterman this week, I couldn’t stop thinking about The Larry Sanders Show. Not the single-camera sitcom starring Garry Shandling, but the actual show-within-a-show that the fictional Larry Sanders put on every single night. The HBO series begins after Sanders has been on the air for a few seasons. He’s not as established of a brand as Jay Leno or David Letterman (or, to really demonstrate the show’s age, Arsenio Hall), but he’s definitely comfortable at this point. He knows why people watch the show, he knows what he’s like on camera, and he’s been through the ringer enough times to know when an interview feels special—or how to try his darnedest to make a dull one even better. It’s all routine, and any sort of change is a terrifying prospect. In a later season of the show, a hotshot up-and-coming network exec tries to tweak the Larry Sanders formula, removing the desk and ordering new opening credits. Things don’t go so well; at a certain point Sanders, and the rest of the crew, simply wait it out until they get their show back, until their little domain can feel as comfortable as it always has.
I caught four episodes of The Late Show With David Letterman this week, and with the exception of the warm and chaotic Regis Philbin segment last night, they all felt a little too comfortable. Letterman stuck to time-tested material in his monologue, using his famous “Top 10” segments to expand not the range of topics discussed, but the depth to which they are mocked. He was perfectly content sitting across the desk from some insanely boring human beings and letting them rehash canned anecdotes—his calm reading as disinterest in the interviews. The short sketch segments peppered throughout the week hit one joke very hard, then quickly exited, hoping to get by on premise alone. The show was not bad, not by a long shot. It just felt very par-for-the-course. Letterman started to resemble Sanders more and more as the week went on, even taking on the occasional droll vocal inflection.
I might be saying all this because I recently re-watched the entire Larry Sanders Show, but within the first few minutes of Monday’s episode, the comparison jumped to mind. This is also the first time I’ve regularly caught Letterman in a while. I’d grown up watching the show every once in a while, mostly because my mom was obsessed with Letterman (right up until she saw a live taping and noticed what a dick he was when the cameras weren’t rolling). But I was more of a Conan O’Brien guy, and nowadays I religiously watch The Daily Show, catching Colbert Report and Conan whenever I can. I feel like because my Letterman viewings are so spread out, his mindset at the time is all the more pronounced. It’s like not seeing an old friend for years, only to run into him at the mall and noticing his hair’s super long. It’s been growing every day, but he and his family probably don’t wake up every day and marvel at the new millimeter.
This old friend sure seems to love finding topics of conversation and mining them dry. Every one of the four monologues I saw had a joke about Chris Christie’s weight, like comparing the midnight raids in Zuccotti Park to Christie’s midnight raids on his refrigerator. There was plenty of time spent mocking Herman Cain for his epic inability to recall Obama’s policy on Libya, and jabs at Newt Gingrich’s very slim chances at getting to the White House. Monday’s “Top 10” was entirely devoted to the name Newt itself, imagining what the world would be like if every single person was named Newt. Number one: Newt Perry is not going to be the President. And yes, Rick Perry was another topic of conversation. In fact, it felt like Republican-bashing week on Late Show, with Letterman digging up bits about Dick Cheney (regarding the shooting in the White House) and the party in general (regarding having any shot at the White House). Yes, you read that right, the jokes remained pretty much the same, with only minor tweaking happening to the setup and punchline. The repetition continued into moments before and after interviews, too. Letterman spoke at length about the fact that this was Regis Philbin’s last week, calling that show’s producer Michael Gelman a “beady-eyed little weasel” two days in a row. When one of the “Top 10”s, devoted entirely to Letterman’s forthcoming appearance on Regis & Kelly, joked that he’d be introduced on the show as Conan O’Brien, he was quick to follow up the next day with a joke about being confused with O’Brien on Regis & Kelly.
Seriously, there was a ton of repetition. But as much as it irked me, I also got the sense, especially with the Chris Christie jabs, that Letterman was returning to these topics because they simply tickled him pink. Same went for the odd non sequiturs that appeared throughout the week. For almost no reason at all, a guy came out during the show with a full dessert cart and offered Letterman something to eat. He refused, and the camera cut to Paul Schaffer eating a piece of cake, at which point the audience went wild at the sheer idea of Paul doing the crazy thing Letterman wouldn’t do. (That was the most Hank Kingsley moment of the week.) Letterman giggled to himself, same as he did when on Wednesday a guy came out as German Mork—a thickly accented guy wearing rainbow suspenders and singing German songs while drinking with his finger. There really wasn’t any reason for these things to happen, but Letterman’s face lit up with glee. Perhaps he couldn’t believe what sorts of silliness he was getting away with in the fringes of his broadly appealing show.
And nothing felt broader than his choice of guests this week—broad meaning “all over the place.” Monday was Jason Segel, Jamie Oliver, and The Kooks (for those interested in safe-bet up-and-comers), Tuesday was Bill Maher and Nikki Reed from Twilight (for the olds and the youngs), Wednesday was Jerry Seinfeld and Lykke Li (a staple and a “Huh?”—the kind of musical act Paula from Larry Sanders would sneak on), and last night saw Philbin and John Fogerty for the sake of Letterman himself. He didn’t interview any of the musicians, so that left six guests over four days with whom Letterman actually engaged in conversation. And it became very clear that Letterman does best when the guest steers the ship; if he’s not interested in the person, he will totally check out, which he did often. Segel was clearly eager and a little nervous to be on the show—even though this wasn’t his first appearance—and he was desperately looking to Letterman to hit him the ball so he could spike it with a prepared anecdote about the new Muppet movie or his experience with the KFC Triple Play. Letterman managed only a wimpy lob, filling lulls in conversation with little more than a nod and an “Oh, yeah?” It was worse with Reed, who clearly has no business going on television but was probably the only Twilight person the show could get, and for whatever reason they felt the need to promote that nonsense. But okay, so Reed’s there and she’s eager to talk; but when Letterman posited a question about her wrist tattoo, a totally in-the-moment thing to notice, she completely froze up, and Letterman didn’t know what to do with that kind of energy. To be fair, he was working with a cardboard human.
The rest fared much better, though Oliver and Seinfeld weren’t as electric as Maher or Philbin. Oliver suffered from too short a segment on an already-running-long show, and Seinfeld, having exhausted a lot of his talking points in the preceding stand-up set, came up short in the anecdote department. Letterman and Seinfeld are surely friendly with one another, but didn’t come off as “friends” with much to say to each other. Maher basically steamrolled the entire discussion in the best possible way; he had a place to talk about his political beliefs, and that’s exactly what he did, Letterman chiming in occasionally with a snippy, funny comment. This was how Letterman does best: He’s clearly gotten comfortable and used to the grind, so the more you give him to work with, the more he’ll give back.
Then there was Philbin on day four, whose appearance singlehandedly elevated my viewing experience a couple of notches. All week long Letterman had been talking about how this was Philbin’s last week on his show, and how much people would miss him. There wasn’t really much of a joke to these mentions besides the occasional little jab about Philbin’s age, just genuine sadness at showbusiness losing a national treasure. Philbin’s appearance warranted his own “Top 10” (the second Philbin-themed one of the week) and a moving tribute showing all the times he’s been on Late Show, including the time they brought armchairs out to the street and drank scotch on top of the big CBS sign. Then Philbin came out for two segments, and the two friends were completely at ease with one another. When Philbin showed pictures of Letterman’s appearance on Regis & Kelly, which involved a full-on lip kiss, Letterman notices that Philbin’s hands were completely open during the whole thing, like a really wide hug. He then demonstrated the gesture to the audience, which was the most physically animated Letterman was the entire week. Philbin came back for the second segment and quickly procured a list of jokes Letterman had told about Philbin over the years. Some were incredibly inventive—how Philbin celebrated a birthday, and the firefighters had his cake under control—and most went far beyond any of the material Letterman had told during his four previous monologues. Later, Philbin took to the streets to ride the scooter Letterman gave him as a parting gift, and fell over after two seconds.
Letterman is so comfortable in the role of late-night talk-show host that he’s afforded the opportunity to take the long view. The three episodes before last night’s Philbin-fest were simply set-up for that pay-off of a physical gag, in the same way that his jokes about Philbin over the years made for an even more touching farewell. Letterman may occasionally steer into market-ready celebrity-interview territory or easy jokes for the sake of making sure a topic is talked about in his monologue—but he’s not thinking night-to-night, he’s drawing from a long career. And as long as he continues to please himself, he’ll please us all.