Occasionally we watch The View, and this morning their guest was David Letterman. From the second he walked out, he owned the stage. And for the next forty-five minutes he put on a display of impeccable comic timing, improvisation, and craft. The guy has the best delivery in the business, and some of the quickest reactions. This was a master at work.
It reminded me of how much Letterman has meant to me through the years. From the '80s through the '90s I was aware of him, and watched him when I could - I'm 40, and it's fair to say I was part of the generation that grew up on Letterman's brand of humor. Between periods out of the country and periods when I just didn't own a TV, I never got to watch him regularly until 1999, when I came back from an extended stint in Japan. For the next six or seven years I watched almost every night...until finally it became apparent that he was just going through the motions.
I know a lot of people gave up on him long before that, but I thought he was incredibly strong in the early '00s. His running Campaign 2000 bit in that year was the best commentary (completely dada) on that crazy season in our national life, and of course he was the guy who got us through 9/11. But eventually I had to admit that his show was stale. I stopped watching him regularly a couple of years ago, and I haven't watched him at all in about a year.
Maybe I'll tune in tonight. Because this morning he reminded me of why during many of my years outside the US, Letterman was the piece of American pop culture I missed most: that dry, wiseass wit. I'm on the record as not liking snark, and he basically invented it, but Letterman's different; you can always sense an angry, passionate intelligence just beneath the surface. And even when he's not particularly engaged, he's still probably the best remaining practitioner of a particular, ancient and honorable, brand of professional comedy.
That's a lot of qualifiers, I guess. But anyway, maybe we still need Letterman.