Kids, you might not believe me, but there was once a point when Dave Letterman was considered funny.
You know what really destroyed Letterman for me? For years Letterman coasted on the same gag — “Look at how much precious network time I’m wasting with comedy bits intended to go nowhere and provide zero entertainment to the audience.”
Now, the thing of it was, we, the loyal Letterman audience, thought we were in on the joke. We laughed along with Dave as he wasted our time, because we were digging that he was also wasting the network’s time. All those “found comedy” moments that yielded nothing but awkward silence and stilted interaction with deli owners.
Now, Letterman has always done this, but earlier on he had a competent writing staff who would actually produce funny stuff that made slogging through the tedium worth it. But as he aged and became more bitter and less funny, he began to rely on the conceit of obviously phoning it in and blatantly wasting everyone’s time more and more, until that became his main mode of “comedy.”
And then came the Norm MacDonald impression of him on “Saturday Night Live.” In a deadly five minute sketch, MacDonald mimicked all of Letterman’s time-wasting unfunny jokes and endless repetitions of them, and his penchant for giggling at himself as he did nothing but waste the network’s time.
And the audience’s time.
Here’s the only clip of it I can find:
[youtube WyJ9iS8EQpE nolink]
And something in that sketch clicked in me. I finally realized: The joke’s been on me for ten years. I thought I was in on the joke as he wasted the network’s time. But the network was still selling ads, weren’t they?
The only people having their precious time wasted were those still watching Letterman. The network people weren’t watching these long, tedious supposedly funny-because-it’s-not-funny Larry “Bud” Melman appearances. I was.
And I was forcing myself to laugh because I wanted it to be funny. I caught myself doing that at one of Woody Allen’s sad later “comedies” — Shadows and Fog, I think — and realized there, too, that if I had to force laughs to show support, maybe I shouldn’t be supporting Woody Allen anymore.
And so I stopped. I hadn’t been watching Letterman much for years, but I still tuned in on occasion. (The show I tried to stay up to watch had become Conan O’Brien’s.) But now I stopped even bothering to check what guests Letterman might have on, or tune in to an early comedy bit hoping for a laugh.
And so now we see an old, unfunny, cranky old man, who attacks Limbaugh, etc., for stating their political opinions and for being “too smart to believe the crap they say,” even as he turns his non-comedy show into a nightly hour-long advertisement for the Obama Administration.
And speaking of being too smart to believe this crap– Edward R., who tipped me, says that Letterman also casually brought up the “death squads” Paul Bremer had brought with him to Iraq. That’s not in the clip, so I’m not 100% sure he said that, but it sounds par for the course.
And while Letterman always had a hard-on for Johnny Carson — a kinda embarrassing case of hero-worship — the irony is that Letterman is rejecting the Carson model of joke first, joke second, joke last, politics never, and moving into Lenny-Bruce-reading-his-court-transcripts-on-stage mode. While Leno, who didn’t seem to give a rat’s ass about Carson, is emulating Carson’s style of giving it to all sides equally.
Incidentally… I don’t think MacDonald intended the impression to be devastating. I think he likes Letterman, as most comics do (or did).
I think he just set out to impersonate him in a friendly manner. The trouble is, by doing so, he revealed just how thin and tired Letterman’s act was.