(WTNH) When I watched Johnny Carson’s magical, perfect last “Tonight Show” with guests (Robin Williams and Bette Midler, in two of the best high-pressure performances you’ll ever see) back in 1992, it was the end of an era I’d only caught the last half of. Carson started his masterful run in the mid-1960’s, back before my parents would die before letting me stay up that late. But when David Letterman finishes up his even longer run on late night television tonight, I can say I was there from the start.
And I don’t mean the CBS program, “The Late Show With David Letterman,” which launched in 1993, I don’t even mean the show that made Dave Dave, “Late Night” on NBC, which began in 1982. I go all the way back to his ill-fated and ill-conceived daytime show in 1980, in which NBC tried to turn one of comedy’s quirkiest performers into Merv Griffin. It lasted four-months, But out of the ashes of cancellation arose a new style of anarchic and ironic hosting that Letterman has ridden all the way to tonight’s bitter end…for better or worse, one could say.
Because unlike Carson, his hero and mentor, Dave does not step down as the king of late night. In fact, he’s been a permanent ratings runner-up for two decades, losing out first to the broader comedy of Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show,” and then to the younger, hipper “Jimmy’s” on the competing networks. And when I say bitter end, it’s not just an expression. The Letterman self-loathing meme seemed fully intact when he did an “exit interview” with the New York Times a few weeks ago. Of his perpetual losing to Leno, he said: “We prevailed for a while, and then I lost my way a little bit. Quite a little bit. And at that point, there was not much I could do about it. People just liked watching his show more than they liked watching my show.”
Well. That’s certainly honest. But a little depressing, too. One would hope that the man who steered America’s sense of humor in a whole new direction over the years would feel maybe a teensy sense of triumph.
Then again, warm and fuzzy Dave wouldn’t be right. So the “bitter” end is probably the appropriate end. I will predict one more way that Letterman follows in the footsteps of Johnny Carson. With one exception (Letterman’s show) Carson never made an appearance on television again after his 1992 farewell. Take a good look tonight, because I think the intensely private, strangely insecure Letterman will now depart the limelight completely — like his hero did — all the way to the real bitter end.