David Letterman: Top 10 reasons he’s a comedy god

Updated 5:31 PM EDT, Wed May 20, 2015
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David Letterman's last show is Wednesday night

The talk-show host had a "seismic impact on comedy," says Conan O'Brien

Editor’s Note: Watch CNN’s special report, “David Letterman Says Good Night,” at 9 p.m. ET/PT Tuesday.

(CNN) —  

When David Letterman airs his last show Wednesday night, late-night rival Jimmy Kimmel plans to give him the ultimate tribute.

He’s going silent.

OK, not completely – he’s airing a rerun of his ABC show – but it’s a deliberate tip of the hat to the man Kimmel thinks of as the most influential comedy performer of his generation.

“I have too much respect for Dave to do anything that would distract viewers from watching his final show,” Kimmel told The New York Times. “Plus, I’ll probably be crying all day, which makes it hard to work.”

He’s not the only one to hold Letterman in such high esteem.

“It’s hard to say what his influence is NOT,” current “Late Night” host Seth Meyers said.

It’s a remarkable degree of respect for a guy who’s far from the first to sit behind a desk, interview celebrities and tell jokes.

David Letterman’s greatest characters

Moreover, Letterman has seldom been a huge draw. His audience on NBC’s “Late Night” was fervent but relatively small, and after moving to CBS, he trailed Jay Leno in the ratings for all but the first two years. Even today, he’s criticized as curmudgeonly and distant, barely interested in his own show.

Nevertheless, his influence can be seen in every other late-night show – and not a few prime-time comedies – that have followed.

“It’s so much in the fabric of late-night TV today you don’t even notice it,” said Brian Abrams, author of “And Now … An Oral History of ‘Late Night with David Letterman, 1982-1993.”

Why does Dave rule? Here are the top 10 reasons why the man remains – to borrow a phrase about an old “Late Night” prop, the Giant Door Knob – just plain big:

10. He invented the anti-talk show.

Talk shows were no stranger to loopiness before Letterman. Steve Allen, fascinated with the power of television, would do crazy stunts or focus his cameras on unsuspecting New Yorkers. Dick Cavett was all about talk, but it was talk that could lead in strange directions. (One guy actually died in the guest chair.)

But with Letterman, the talk was beside the point. In fact, sometimes the show was beside the point.

“(Johnny) Carson was the show. Dave created the anti-show,” Conan O’Brien said.

Letterman is still willing to play with people’s expectations. Told by New York magazine that he had rejected an early-’80s bit involving a book of carpet samples, he said he’d still be willing to do it.

“To me the fun of it would’ve just been boring people silly: ‘Here we have a medium-shag burnt orange. … Here we have the avocado.’ I would have done that – I would do that,” he said. “If you can get me that carpet-sample book, I’ll do that Monday.”

9. Everything is comedy.

Dave dropped things off tall buildings. He put on suits made of Velcro and Alka-Seltzer. He made stars of deli owners, book publicists and minor staff members. If the bits weren’t polished, all the better: it made for more laughter, sometimes the uncomfortable kind.

“Dave … liked the seams to show,” writer Joe Toplyn told Abrams. “They enjoyed showing the viewing audience the seams and demystifying the process.”

8. He recognized talent.

If you look at a list of Letterman writers, you can see the past 30 years of comedy in miniature. George Meyer (“The Simpsons”) wrote for Dave. Jeff Martin (“The Simpsons”) wrote for Dave. Eric Kaplan ("The Big Bang Theory”) wrote for Dave. Big name writers such as Tom Gammill and Max Pross, Andy Breckman, Nell Scovell, Carter Bays – they all worked for David Letterman.

And we shouldn’t overlook two people who helped greatly: the indispensable Merrill Markoe, Dave’s partner in comedy and other things; and director Hal Gurnee, who worked for Jack Paar decades earlier.

7. He gave the fringe a chance.

Every talk show has its quirky guests, but Harvey Pekar? Brother Theodore? The pre-“Private Parts” Howard Stern? The zoned-out version of Joaquin Phoenix? These were not shilling celebrities on autopilot.

As many have observed, late-night talk shows have turned into variety shows, but sometimes the talk still matters, and not just with the Hollywood A-list. Letterman was willing to mix it up with almost everybody. (Unless they attempted a kick to his face.)

“What we did is just invited in the rest of the world,” Markoe said.

6. Animals, too.

Animal acts have been a part of television since the medium was invented, but it took Letterman to give an honest name to what they did: “Stupid Pet Tricks.”

Not for Dave were heroic tales of a collie saving Timmy from the well. Dave’s animals caught Frisbees blindfolded, double-dutch jump-roped and lip-synced to “Indian Love Call.”

It could have been worse, Markoe told The Hollywood Reporter.

“We briefly considered Stupid Baby Tricks,” she said.

5. He brought rock ’n’ roll to talk shows.

Thanks to Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band – succeeded by the CBS Orchestra – rock found a place on late-night talk shows. No more Skitch and Doc; now the band could match the musical acts.

Moreover, Letterman’s musical bookings were often more cutting-edge than the competition. Sure, there were the chart-toppers – Phil Collins, Celine Dion – but leave it to Dave to host Cesaria Evora. Or Cat Power. Or the Roots, long before they became Fallon’s house band.

And only Letterman would have given songwriter’s songwriter Warren Zevon so much airtime. (Letterman contributed vocals, of a sort, to a Zevon song.) He even let Zevon have an entire episode after the musician announced he was dying of lung cancer.

“You’ve been the best friend my music has ever had,” Zevon told Letterman.

4. He was the ‘alternative’ talk show.

When “Late Night” hit the air in 1982, it was the heart of the Reagan era, a time of three networks and middle-of-the-road broadcasting. Letterman was something out of left field, which made sense at 12:30 a.m. ET, a time when only college students and night people were awake.

But even after moving to CBS at 11:30 p.m., Dave held on to his college-radio credibility. Let Leno feature the Dancing Itos and the broadly comedic Duller Image catalog; Letterman still went for the silly and absurd. (And when Leno did the same, as with “Does This Impress William Shatner?”, it seemed very Letterman-esque.) It remains refreshing in this Age of Earnestness.

3. He let celebrities be themselves.

Talk shows have gotten increasingly slick since the days when Jack Paar would ramble through an interview with Oscar Levant. It’s all about sticking to the blue cards and telling polished stories.

Letterman’s done this as well, but he’s also been willing to fling the blue cards out the window. That’s given room for Cher to call him an “a**hole,” Drew Barrymore to flash him and Madonna to be Madonna.

And when he’s engaged, Letterman’s also a shrewd interviewer – particularly when the talk veers towards the political. Just ask Bill O’Reilly.

2. For a guy known for irony, he’s been remarkably sincere.

Letterman has given heartfelt talks about his heart surgery and his newborn son, not to mention a public apology to his wife after confessing affairs with the “Late Show” staff.

But perhaps his most striking personal moment came when he returned to air after the 9/11 attacks. In a voice vibrating with emotion, he struggled to put his grief into words.

“We’re told that (the terrorists) were zealots fueled by religious fervor,” he said. “And if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you. Will that make any goddamn sense.”

1. He created the modern comedy voice.

Letterman has never been for everybody. Leno’s humor was broader and attracted a larger audience, and Jimmy Fallon has surpassed the “Late Show’s” ratings by being the anti-Dave: childlike, welcoming, fawning.

But, observes O’Brien, don’t sell Letterman short.

“Not one single writer/performer in the last 35 years has had Dave’s seismic impact on comedy,” he wrote in Entertainment Weekly. “It’s tempting now to take Dave for granted. Do not. Dave was a true revolution.”

Letterman’s comic instincts have become the standard. His audience – whatever its size – have been its missionaries.

We’re living in Dave’s World now.

“His story is larger than what happened within one comedy writers’ room or one NBC soundstage,” Abrams said. “You’re looking at a moment in time when comedy changed.”