David Letterman has always been known to push buttons. Part of his appeal has been that fact that he happens to do it very well. While Johnny Carson had his distinct niche during his hallowed “Tonight Show” reign and became the classic late night host, Letterman went the other way.
Letterman was a casual jackass, often making such a mockery of his craft that his audience had no choice but to laugh from shock. His influence runs so deep that even his major competitor in late night, the beloved Conan O’Brien, has repeatedly thanked Letterman for helping invent the kind of anti-show that O’Brien now thrives in.
With Letterman, you can expect the unexpected. While his act has definitely cooled down a bit between “Late Night” and “The Late Show,” he’s still loved for being the same pompous, irreverent guy. So it’s understandable that when Letterman had to reveal something serious about his personal life on the air, the audience would think it was a joke. Oh, but it surely wasn’t — not that the easy-going Letterman didn’t fool his audience a little.
Letterman kicked off October by coming clean with an extortion case that involved a CBS producer trying to blackmail the late night host. Letterman let his audience know about the entire thing without namedropping. Unlike any talk show host who would very likely stop the flow of the show to take a very serious tone, Letterman opened his confession with “I have a little story I would like to tell you, do you feel like a story?”
Although Letterman told the story candidly, it still felt like a joke. The audience laughed and Letterman didn’t stop them. As the story gained a little more weight, the audience cooled down, but even then there were still some light (and awkward) moments where the audience laughed. Letterman, even during such a fragile confessional, still went with the flow.
He confessed that he had affairs with female employees. Yes, the audience idiotically applauded infidelity, but hey, that’s American late night for you. This is the type of audience that Letterman helped sculpt. Letterman ended up telling the entire thing within 10 minutes, and even though it was very important that he let everything out in the public, he didn’t let it drag the show down.
There has been a lot of chatter about Letterman’s image and what he’s going to do about it. But really, what’s there to talk about? This is the same David Letterman that has spent his career ripping apart the generic image of a late night host. Of course he’s had commitment issues — the guy was with his current wife for over 20 years before he decided it was time to get married again. Even in that case, do any of us really care about Letterman’s personal life? Of all the late night hosts, Letterman is probably the last person concerned about image, so why should we care? Apparently, we don’t, at least for now. Letterman’s ratings continued to rise after his confessional, and his late night ratings war with his buddy O’Brien is still very competitive. I’m pretty happy about that. Amidst all this controversy about Letterman, it’s nice if people realize it shouldn’t affect how they feel about him as a late night host. You don’t need me or anyone else to tell you that cheating is wrong, and it’s even shadier when it’s with your employees. But did you ever like Letterman for being squeaky clean? Nope, it’s likely that you liked him for the opposite reason.
At the end of the day, people will say whatever they want about Letterman and it’ll just attract new people to a show that is already underappreciated as it is. From the way I see it, Letterman and O’Brien are both getting their viewers, Craig Ferguson is thriving an hour later, and Jay Leno’s ratings are awful. All is right in late night.