American popular culture is divided into Before Dave and After. There isn’t much else.
By the time David Letterman significantly appeared on the national scene in the late 1970s, culture had pretty much completed the mainstreaming of so-called radical comedy: the candor of Richard Pryor, the taboo topicality of Lenny Bruce, the living-room raunchiness of Laugh-In, the absurdity of Steve Martin. Saturday Night Live capped off those quick decades as a kitchen-sink collection of all that had come before. All this changed culture far beyond comedy, but an equally big change was still to come: Up until then, when we entertained or even spoke to one another, we meant what we said. Then came Dave.
Dave said the opposite of what he meant — he was sarcastic, and he rarely strayed from that attitude. It was hilarious, and that this little trick was so simple made it even funnier, from suggesting dried toothpaste in the sink as a dinner mint, to staring into the camera after a failed bit to say, “My, oh my, we’re havin’ some fun now.” To “get it” meant you “belonged” — to what wasn’t entirely clear, but it felt worth waiting to find out, especially to young people like me, coming of age in the early 1980s and sorting through the usual overblown angst and self-importance. Dave punctured ours, and everybody else’s. He asked a young Brooke Shields whether her strong grip came from hours of yardwork, and whether she kept her money in big stacks in her garage. He sent a clueless old man (bit-actor Calvert DeForest, playing himself under the name “Larry ‘Bud’ Melman”) to the pre-Giuliani Port Authority Bus Terminal, where he greeted arrivals with hot towels. He made a star out of Chris Elliott, who portrayed an array of unaware, talentless twits. And he showcased polymath musician Paul Shaffer, whose schmaltzy worship of the Vegas style actually ridiculed it — which was the point of every cruel and hilarious thing Letterman did.
When he wasn’t being sarcastic himself, he was reacting sarcastically. He pretended that literally stupid pet tricks were worth network TV time and the attention of the nation. He elevated dumb pursuits such as dropping things out of a window and reading viewer mail into overblown, ceremonial affairs. We laughed not at the thing, but at the big deal made out of it. Not to read too much into it — they were just jokes, after all — but sarcasm became a way to ridicule a culture that was quickly forgetting the difference between value and renown.
Damned if it didn’t catch on. The next thing you knew, it was all irony, everywhere, all the time. It feels so ordinary now that few under, say, 45 seem to be aware that culture used to be completely different. It’s not a new world just because of the Internet or social media or cell phones or sexual openness. The big change is in how we speak to one another, and Dave brought that about, all by himself. Before Dave, even “edgy” TV shows such as All in the Family and Maude were direct in their appeal, of a piece with mainstream fare such as Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Wild Kingdom and Gunsmoke and all the rest. After Dave, irony and sarcasm defined nearly all of entertainment: Family Guy. The Simpsons. Eastbound & Down. Parks and Recreation. The Office. Arrested Development. Seinfeld. Even without the sexual permissiveness of those programs, imagine them on TV before 1980. You can’t. The abrupt shift in technique hit TV drama, too, from the real-world weirdness of 1982’s St. Elsewhere to the casual pomposity of House two decades later. As usual, we took our “cool cues” from TV and movies and started behaving that way, too.
The earnestness of Emergency! and Dr. Kildare is far in the rear-view, but sincerity was once the only propriety, period, and it had always been that way. Before Dave, irony was like that little jar of allspice your mom got out once a year for Thanksgiving. Dave decided it would go well with everything, and it turns out we agreed. We live in Dave’s world now, communicating by sarcasm, and not liking him doesn’t make it any less true. Dave dragged a narrow, curmudgeonly worldview from obscurity to majority. Not even Carson pulled off anything that big.
Unless you have seen Letterman in his most amazing, early days — those desperate, late-night NBC shows where he built on Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen by narrating the sidewalk traffic as a passing parade, or broadcasting his program in Spanish, or pestering people just to ask “What’s in your bag?” — he’s just a grumpy old man to you now, in the same way that Leno’s early (lantern-)jaw-dropping talents are forgotten in favor of his later vanilla appeal. (Another lost fact: It was Letterman who made Leno a star, and together they defined the cutting edge of comedy in the 1980s.) But Dave was a giant, bigger than even Jolson and Hope, whose achievements were, relative to Dave’s, parochial and of their time. Letterman’s mark is on culture and language, and is so ubiquitous that few even know we used to speak and act some other way. But that’s how giants do it.
— Michael Long is a freelance speechwriter in Washington, D.C., and director of writing for the PR-and-corporate-communications program in the School of Continuing Studies at Georgetown University.