I vividly remember being enthralled by the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, as I sat on a wooden chair in my family’s small kitchen/breakfast room in Louisville back in the early 1960s.
Back then, the show started about 11:30 (eastern time) and went on until 1 a.m. My parents were usually in bed, and I would tilt back on that chair, putting dimples in the linoleum floor, being transfixed by comics and singers and Johnny’s distinctive interviews with famous people.
I watched the show off and on over the years and felt a deep sense of loss when Johnny retired in 1992. But it was a relatively seamless transition to David Letterman, whose “Late Night” show then followed Carson on NBC. (After Jay Leno succeeded Carson, CBS hired Letterman and started the “Late Show.”) Although Letterman had a different style than Johnny, he was almost equally entertaining.
I’ve watched that show off and on over the years — more off than on in recent years — and now, tonight, David is doing his last Late Show with David Letterman.
On Monday, his main guest was actor Tom Hanks. Relaxed and jovial, Hanks regaled David and the TV and studio audiences with stories and jokes for 23 minutes. (You can see Hanks’ appearance here.)
On tonight’s final show, the guests will be Bill Murray and Bob Dylan.
Last week, The New York Times had an excellent op-ed story on Letterman. It was written by Richard Zoglin, a contributing editor for Time magazine and the author of a biography about Bob Hope.
Zoglin had a perceptive take on what set Carson and Letterman apart from all other pretenders, including Leno and now the current crop of frenetic late-night hosts, like Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien.
Here’s what Zoglin said about Carson’s show…
“Here was a place where show-business celebrities could drop at least some of their public persona and give us a glimpse of what they were ‘really’ like. Sure, that glimpse was always a little stage-managed — the conversational topics screened, the anecdotes carefully baked. But those nightly sessions on the ‘Tonight Show’ guest couch were a relaxed, human-scale refuge in a hype-filled showbiz world.”
Letterman continued in the same vein, Zoglin said, adding:
“(H)e took the interviews seriously. He asked real questions and actually listened to the answers. He rarely fawned, or let his guests off the hook. He poked their sensitive spots and cut through the phoniness.”
When Letterman talked to everyday people, like dog owners with their stupid pet tricks, Zoglin said, “he was naturally curious, engaged and winning.”
In other words, like Carson, he understood that the key to being interesting was to be relaxed and let his inherent talent flow naturally.
Contrast Carson and Letterman with the latter-day late nighters, Zoglin said, and you’ve got shows that are almost all “performance.”
Jimmy Fallon has turned the “Tonight Show” into a festival of YouTube-ready comedy bits — lip-syncing contests, slow-jams of the news, musical impressions, games of Pictionary and egg Russian roulette. His interviews, meanwhile, have resurrected the kind of Merv Griffin-style celebrity gush that Mr. Letterman thought he had stamped out years ago.
It’s a lousy state of affairs, if you ask me, but it mirrors much of modern life, with its “entertain-me-right-now” madness and its fixation with electronic devices that rob many of us of the power of conversation with those across from us.
Toward the end of his appearance last night, Hanks turned to Letterman and said:
“Much like your audience, on Thursday I’m pulling the plug. I’m cuttin’ the cord. I’m going off the grid. There’s no reason for that idiot box in the seven rooms of my house any longer.”
I feel the same way…Of course, the idiot box will stay. Gotta have my Royals baseball, golf tournaments, women’s college basketball, and Mystery on PBS.
But I doubt if I will watch any more than snippets of any late-night talk show ever again. Maybe, but I seriously doubt it.
One king of late-night TV is dead, and the other is walking away tonight. It’s receding into history fast, but what a half century of entertainment it has been.