Phoning it in

David Letterman

I’ve loved late-night television since I was twelve. That year, David Letterman’s *Late Show” premiered on CBS, and Conan O’Brien took over Dave’s old Late Night slot on NBC.

We lived out in the sticks, so our TV just barely tuned in the broadcast stations. I had to squint to make out Dave’s toothy grin or Conan’s epic pompadour. But even through the static, it was clear that both hosts were at the top of their games in the 90s. Dave had perfected his goofy every-man schtick; Conan peddled his unique blend of absurdist humor (flute-playing cacti, staring contests with his bandleader, etc.).

Twenty years later, both hosts are still on the air (can you count TBS as “on the air”?). And both are still funny. But both Dave and Conan have fallen from the comedic heights.

And it’s not just my millennial nostalgia that makes the modern shows seem inferior. There’s an objective barometer for this claim: the number of remote segments.

For both Dave and Conan, the funniest bits were always these “remotes”—pre-taped segments that took place outside the studio. Here’s the basic premise: send the host to some quirky locale and let him joke with (or at) people out in the real world. For example, watch David Letterman, harassing McDonalds’ drive-thru customers. Or Conan, joining an old-timey baseball league, then freaking out when a plane flies overhead (“What ho! What is that demonry?!”). Even the blandest late-night comic, Jay Leno, is almost watchable when his Tonight Show includes a man-on-the-street segment.

But as shows (and their hosts) mature, they schedule fewer and fewer remotes. Easier-to-produce bits take their place. More comedy gets out-sourced to the writing and production staff. Monologues grow bloated. Top ten lists (for Dave) or bits like “If They Mated” (for Conan) become regular features. Interview segments get stretched over multiple commercial breaks (particularly when an A-list celebrity shows up on the call sheet).

These shows ossify over time, settling into a rhythm and codifying the comedy. And it’s hard to blame the hosts for slowing down over the decades. After all, Conan and (especially) Dave aren’t young men anymore. What worked for a twenty-five-year-old Letterman doesn’t work for an AARP card-holder. In his early days, Letterman wrapped himself in Velcro and hurled himself against walls. He donned an Alka-Seltzer suit and plunged himself into a giant aquarium. He bounded eagerly to the Rockefeller roof and tossed TVs to the pavement below.

But it’s not just the demands of physical humor that force hosts to ease up. It’s the demands of human life. As with many of us, young adulthood’s workaholic obsessions give way to other concerns: family, travel, public image. A host gradually transitions from the show’s manic, driven nucleus to “the talent”. Once the driving force behind the program, now the host must be wrangled and handled and accommodated. He’s earned his place at the top of the heap; let the interns and the writers and the associate producers scramble and fret.

Regardless of why late-night shows stop producing these taped bits, the shows suffer. No matter how masterfully a host can read the cue cards or step through sketches prepared by his underlings, there’s a staleness to his performance. I miss the improvisational wackiness these hosts left behind.

One last thought. During the early years of Dave’s Late Show, he consistently outperformed Leno in the ratings race. I wonder; if Dave had remained committed to his best stuff—the wacky, outside-the-studio bits—would Jay have overtaken him in 1995? Or might Dave have regained the ratings crown when the Conan/NBC kerfuffle erupted?