David Letterman ends his late night talk show career tonight. Although he has certainly settled into a curmudgeonly pattern in the last decade or so – and is probably indistinguishable from Jay Leno for many younger viewers – Letterman’s earlier years behind the desk remain some of the stranger and riskier network television ever produced. He pioneered the use of absurdism and sarcasm in the traditional talk show model, like in an episode where the screen rotated throughout the evening. He’s certainly an institution now, but for many years, Letterman broadcast on the edge of what producers would allow.
Letterman is the last remaining network talk show host who started before the year 2000, and his retirement arguably symbolizes the end of the old guard of late night television. This got us thinking about the history of late night and the older figureheads who defined the genre for earlier generations.
If you want to learn a little about the history of late night talk shows, we found a great documentary, Pioneers of Television, that covers the first twenty years of the format. We’re sure everyone is sick of hearing about Johnny Carson’s borderline canonization, but there’s great bits in there, like the story of host Jack Paar’s sudden disappearance mid-program. This is a streaming video, so you can access it off-campus and watch it at any time.
The talk show has certainly evolved beyond those older shows, with Jimmy Fallon’s energy or Eric Andre’s aggressive surrealism marking the new goal posts for future hosts. But it’s worth a trip back to remember why Letterman’s weirdness mattered in the television landscape.