Late Night Without Letterman

After David Letterman announced his impending retirement last night, Rob Sheffield assesses his legacy:

Letterman came to late night in 1982 as the first of the young guys, and he leaves as the last of the old guys. There was nobody like him before; you can see all his acerbic sensibility in a sketch like “They Took My Show Away,” in the way he mocked both TV and the idea of a world beyond TV. (“Don’t be swayed by so-called ‘friends’ who reject TV in favor of ‘going out,'” he advised back then.) He was New York via the Midwest, definitely not L.A., yet he had total disdain for the idea of aspiring to SNL-style outlaw cred. There was no “guerrilla television” in his game. He was a comedy pro, a surly workaholic man-boy living single in Manhattan — a few years later, Jerry Seinfeld would turn this same image into the premise of a sitcom.

Linda Holmes reflects on the gonzo approach that made Letterman unique:

Letterman — and, just as significantly, his collaborator Merrill Markoe — treated the 12:30 a.m. slot, when they had it, almost like nobody was watching, so why not … do whatever? Drop stuff off a building. Stupid Pet Tricks. Leaping onto a wall in a suit of Velcro, or into a giant glass of water in a suit covered with 3400 Alka-Seltzer tablets.

Unlike Candid Camera or the bloopers shows that became popular in the mid-1980s, around the same time David Letterman did, the unplanned or unpredictable — or the ending in disaster — wasn’t treated as a mistake or an embarrassment. It was part of what they did. For many years, I kept a VHS tape of the episode of Late Night that featured the Monkey-Cam Mobile Unit, which consisted of Zippy the Chimp on roller skates with a camera strapped to him. I considered it one of the funniest things I’d ever seen, though I couldn’t have told you why.

Brian Abrams speculates over who will succeed him:

I’d love it if CBS picked a woman. Chelsea Handler just ended her contract, bitterly, with E! Amy Schumer isn’t making the money, or getting the budget, that she wants for her Comedy Central series. Hell, Sarah Silverman would kill at that time slot–imagine the pot shots and friendly competition between her and her ex-boyfriend at ABC.

The candidate would also have to compete with Fallon’s social media cutie pie craft. No matter how Mickey Mouse the “Tonight Show” host may be, the CBS replacement will have to keep the content coming on Twitter and YouTube. It’s a tough call. Zach Galifianakis maybe abandons Funny or Die for the slot? Could you see a Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller in a suit and tie every night? It’s not difficult to imagine a movie star take another juicy TV gig.

Apparently Colbert is in contention. Poniewozik advises the big names being tossed around not to take the job:

Dave was an original. Your names are being thrown out there because you’re originals. Which is exactly why you are probably the wrong people for the job. If one of you takes over Late Show, you might do fine. (Dave’s ratings have been low enough lately that you’ll have a nice low bar to clear.) But you won’t be able to make a truly original creation, because Late Show is now an institution. Institutions have expectations, constituencies, and targets to meet. Steve Jobs didn’t change his industry by becoming CEO of IBM.

In today’s media, bigger isn’t automatically better. Jon Stewart–without the benefit of the big networks, you made The Daily Show‘s fake newscast into a laser-sighted commentary on politics and the media, unafraid to take sides and call b.s. You think you’d get to do that on CBS? Your bosses will be watching the ratings for Fallon’s Tonight, where he just invited Sarah Palin on to play the flute.

Esther Breger also pushes for a woman, maybe even a woman of color like Retta or Aisha Tyler:

As Alexandra Petri pointed out in The Washington Post last night, in the history of late-night broadcast television, there have been more hosts named Jimmy than women and people of color. (Cable also just lost its only late-night show with a female, as Chelsea Handler announced she’s ending her E! talk show.) Looking at the hilarious women across the rest of the TV dial—in sitcoms, Comedy Central shows, and Saturday Night Live—the idea that there are no women funny and likable enough to helm a TV show past 11:30 p.m. is increasingly absurd. There’s a deep clench to choose from, if CBS is willing to make the kind of risky move it did by hiring Letterman in the first place.

Phillip Maciak nominates Ellen DeGeneres:

There are a lot of reasons Ellen would make a phenomenal replacement for Letterman, and that list could easily begin and end with the fact that she would be the only openly gay person and the only woman in a landscape of straight men. But that’s obvious. What isn’t immediately obvious is that Ellen belongs to this interstitial timeslot. She belongs to—maybe even pioneered—this new generation of hosts who don’t care what time it is.