The Deeply Subversive Genius of David Letterman

If you weren't around or weren't old enough to watch David Letterman's Late Night on NBC in the 1980s, there's a good chance that you have no idea why people are genuinely mournful over Letterman's departure tonight from the airwaves after 33 years in late night broadcasting. You don't know what it means when people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, even, talk wistfully about the Guy Under the Seats, Larry "Bud" Melman, Bookmobile Lady, Pea Boy, the Velcro Suit, the Alka-Seltzer Suit, and so very much more. If you want to understand why Jay Leno was a thing, watch his early appearances on Late Night. Prior to YouTube, we traded these moments on VHS tapes and watched them over and over.

Many of the encomiums to Letterman emphasize how he nearly single-handedly radically transformed comedy, popular culture, and television itself. But what was more important to my younger self was that, in his ironic yet sincere, smug yet self-deprecating way, Letterman was subverting the Reagan era itself, and, goddamn, that was a rush.

See, what we were sold at the beginning of the presidency of Ronald Reagan was that the older generation, the "Greatest Generation" (if you ignore all that racism, sexism, and homophobia), had all the answers. The nation had indulged itself by electing allegedly squishy liberal Jimmy Carter and we were all supposed to believe Carter's presidency was a long, national nightmare, a dragon that was vanquished by the rise of Reagan and the return of hegemonic patriarchal power.

"Your culture is worthless," the Reaganites told the youth of the nation. "You need to go back to the wholesome times of old." This is not hyperbole. Many books and articles were written that specifically degraded the rising Generation X's power over pop culture and social ideology. "Listen to the old men who know better," we were told, even as MTV, hip-hop, hell, even Madonna, with her connections to queer culture, told us otherwise. What David Letterman did was to step into a void and say, "Yeah, screw those old guys."

For me, the moment I knew that Letterman was on my wavelength happened during Letterman's brief stint as a morning talk show host. If I'm recalling it right, Letterman was sitting at his desk, talking, when a mannequin fell from above and onto the desk, like a dead man had just dropped from above. It was startling, hilarious, and completely out of place. I remember thinking, "Oh, the old people sitting at home watching this are gonna be confused." And that was it.

The stunts on Late Night were Letterman's way of calling "bullshit" on the old paradigms of television, of pop culture itself. "This is dumb, right?" he was saying (sometimes actually saying). "So let's do dumb stuff." But that dumb stuff was a specific critique of the way in which the older generation revered their rigid formats and identities. You couldn't call Letterman's stunts "stupid" because he already did. But, damn, wasn't it funny? And wasn't that reason enough to drop things off of 5-story building? That bit, which morphed into crushing things under a steamroller or in a hydraulic press, showed us that things don't need a reason or logic. Against the divisive gender, racial, and class roles the Reagan administration presented, against the rising religious right, which was attacking music, film, and TV with a renewed vigor that hearkened to the 1950s, Letterman tossed two six-packs, light beer and regular beer, as a reenactment of Galileo's experiments with gravity, off that building.

But the thing that I thought was most fascinating was Letterman's celebration of not just the average American, but of the weirdness of America. "Stupid Pet Tricks" and "Stupid Human Tricks" were more than gimmicks. They were honestly, forthrightly celebratory of the things people do to occupy their time. Letterman's devotion to the quotidian was always on display. He began hosting the annual champion grocery bagger for a showdown with him, since he had bagged groceries as a teenager. Of course, the first thing you thought was "There's a grocery bagging championship?" And then you got into the competition. If you were weaned on Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, and Johnny Carson, that was an incredible thing for a TV host to do: to get in the trenches in a serious, not jokey, way with everyday people.

This extended even more to the guests he would bring on with regularity. The misanthropic comic book writer Harvey Pekar appeared numerous times just to be taunted by Letterman into poetic heights of rage. The bizarro stand-up comic Brother Theodore was also a regular, with Letterman pushing him to the edge with a nearly villainous antagonism. This isn't even to get into Andy Kaufman; he and Letterman used each other to create media firestorms long before Jimmy Kimmel ever made a viral video that turned out to be fake. Regular Larry "Bud" Melman was like a character out of Glengarry Glen Ross forced to do pitches on a street corner.

Even more to the point, Letterman was not above screwing with his corporate masters. While you might know him for needling CBS and Les Moonves, watch Letterman try to deliver a fruit basket to GE headquarters when that company bought NBC. Imagine a good-natured Michael Moore nearly getting beaten by a pissed-off security guard. It said everything you could want about the soulless center of capitalism. (Pekar would make Letterman cringe in an appearance attacking GE shortly after.)

And it can't go without saying that in those early years Letterman's head writer was Merrill Markoe and that having a female head writer was an extraordinary, embarrassing rarity then (and it hasn't changed a whole lot since then). Markoe helped invent Letterman's schtick: "What we were also consciously aware of was a dislike for the standard kind of closed-club superficial show business demeanor that had dominated the entertainment of the generation before us," she said recently about Late Night. "So what you might say we did was open the door and invite the rest of the world in."

Writing this, I keep remembering things that I loved from early Letterman: "Small Town News," Jay Leno's appearances where Dave would start each sit-down with "What's your beef?", musical performances from bands like X to annual appearances by Darlene Love to sing, "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)," cameras on monkeys and dogs, the 360 degree episode, the episode where Letterman broadcast from home because he was waiting for the cable company to show up, the times when Letterman honestly disliked a guest and didn't care if they knew it.

The best show to compare Late Night with is All in the Family. Norman Lear's sitcom came in and blew away the stale 1960s format, saying that mainstream comedy could be socially-relevant while murdering The Beverly Hillbillies and the like. It was a revolutionary show that had effects on everything that came after it in television and pop culture. And it forced viewers to confront those in power with greater suspicion.

In its absurdist way, Late Night showed us that we don't need to abide by the old ways of doing things, that the act of dropping a beautifully decorated wedding cake off a building just to see what happens is its own kind of subversion. Letterman would become more specifically political later in his CBS show, but to those of us who were feeling broken by the cultural and social oppressiveness of the Reagan era and didn't have access to the music scene in L.A. or the performance art scene in New York City, Letterman was sticking it to the man for us.