As David Letterman bows out on May 20, his former protege Conan O’Brien shared a few words about the talk show legend.
With David Letterman’s departure from the talk show world, we are seeing a few things. One, it marks the end of an era of a certain kind of talk show host. The kind that came at the heels of Johnny Carson; the funnyman who can deliver a monologue with the kind of confidence and moxie that we probably won’t see again for a while.
Despite all this though, Letterman’s departure also marks the departure of a man who pioneered an entirely new brand of talk show comedy. Think Conan O’Brien’s deprecation, or Jimmy Fallon’s “aw shucks” timidity. No one before him had tried to do what he did, and because of that he ended up serving as the role model for an entire generation of up-and-coming comedians.
Of course, the aforementioned Conan O’Brien is no exception. After Letterman’s departure from Late Night in the early ’90s for his Late Show, O’Brien took over the helm and was led along through the process by Letterman. A relative unknown at the time, Letterman handed O’Brien the chance of a lifetime and it goes without saying that the red headed comedian has a lot to say about his mentor.
As such, O’Brien recently penned a touching tribute for Letterman (or “David Cornelius Letterman” as he calls him) in Entertainment Weekly. In it, he talked about Letterman’s legacy as well as the climate of comedy in the eighties in which he came from.
From Entertainment Weekly:
“There is so much comedy in America at this moment that it is impossible to describe the early ’80s without sounding like a bilious old coot who survived the Depression, angrily shouting about that time he ate a leather boot in a rail yard. …
… And then it happened. It was a sunny morning during my senior year in high school. I was late for a 10 a.m. class, and I ran out the door of my parents’ home in Brookline, Massachusetts to jog the quarter mile to Brookline High. Just before the screen door slammed behind me, my sister Kate shouted from inside the house for me to come back. I dashed back inside and into the den, where Kate was sitting on the couch. “You have to see this guy,” Kate said, gesturing to the garish, wood paneled Zenith television from that era that looked more like a casket than a TV. I looked at the screen and immediately everything was wrong.”
He goes on to touch on how Letterman went on to become a heavy hitter in the late night comedy scene, practically revolutionizing the medium as we know it.
“Throughout college, everyone my age watched Dave and discussed his show the next day. The late-night talk show had existed at that point for 30 years in more or less one form, but Dave and his writers completely re-invented the format. By 1985, when I graduated from college and was ready to try my hand as a comedy writer, Late Night With David Letterman had been the Holy Grail for several miraculous years.”
It’s touching really. A former protege’s loving tribute to his former mentor bowing out after many years at the helm. After all, Letterman’s subversive, quirky, and often flat out strange bits (who would jump into a vat of water in a suit of alka seltzer on late night TV even now?) would lead to O’Brien being able to get away with things like the Walker Texas Ranger lever or Jimmy Fallon with lip syncing his way into internet virality.
“Dave’s show was that rare phenomenon: a big, fat show-business hit that seemingly despised show business. Dave didn’t belong, and he had no interest in belonging. He amused himself, skewered clueless celebrity guests and did strange, ironic comedic bits that no one had seen on television before. Everything about that show was surreal and off-kilter. Where late-night television had once provided comfort, this man reveled in awkwardness.”
The full letter can be read here. David Letterman’s last appearance on The Late Show is scheduled to air on Wednesday, May 20.