David Letterman had a sketch in 1983 called "They Took My Show Away" — an after-school special where Dave helps coach a little kid to be a more responsible TV watcher. ("Jimmy, are you gonna do homework all night? Don't you think you ought to watch a little TV?") But when NBC cancels little Jimmy's favorite show, Voyagers, Dave takes him for a walk in the park to break the tragic news. Heartbroken, the kid sobs, "I don't think I'll ever watch TV again!"
Dave takes off his shades and frowns. "Jimmy, don't ever say that. Not even as a joke."
That's how it felt to see David Letterman make his big retirement announcement last night. He mocked his own retirement before, during and after giving the news. After starting with a completely run-of-the-mill monologue (complete with a O.J. groaner, which must have been a subliminal Jay Leno parody) and an incoherent bird-watching story, he spoke the word "retiring," then quickly softened the blow with jokes about marrying Paul and reminders that he'll be sticking around into 2015.
The timing is uncanny — it's like Dave delayed saying goodnight just long enough to see whether the post-Leno era turned out to be an actual era or not. (It didn't.) Waiting until he'd officially outlasted his longtime late-night rival — that's some "shooting Hyman Roth at the airport" levels of spite right there. (The fact that R.E.M.'s Mike Mills broke the news is brilliant in itself, since R.E.M.'s historic 1983 Letterman performance helped make both their reputations. I refuse to believe Dave and Mike didn't plan it this way. It's true: Mike Mills is Superman!)
Letterman came to late night in 1982 as the first of the young guys, and he leaves as the last of the old guys. There was nobody like him before; you can see all his acerbic sensibility in a sketch like "They Took My Show Away," in the way he mocked both TV and the idea of a world beyond TV. ("Don't be swayed by so-called ‘friends' who reject TV in favor of ‘going out,'" he advised back then.) He was New York via the Midwest, definitely not L.A., yet he had total disdain for the idea of aspiring to SNL-style outlaw cred. There was no "guerrilla television" in his game. He was a comedy pro, a surly workaholic man-boy living single in Manhattan — a few years later, Jerry Seinfeld would turn this same image into the premise of a sitcom.
Dave was the first late-night guy rock kids stayed up to watch, triggering that familiar impatience as you wait for the band — whether I was staying up late to see X and R.E.M. in 1983, or staying out late to see the So So Glos in 2013, part of the ritual was the agonizing 50-minute wait, worrying whether Dave might run out of time. (Have you watched that X clip lately? Watch it again. Look how at ease they all look, because he's not worried whether the band likes him and he's not trying to compete with them hipness-wise.)
Dave spawned a generation of late-night hosts who grew up worshipping him. "Little Jimmy" in "They Took My Show Away" could have been Fallon or Kimmel. ("I was obsessed with David Letterman when I was a kid," Kimmel told me in 2002. "I made Late Night book covers. The license plate of my car was L8 NITE.") Or he could have been Seth Meyers, Carson Daly, Conan O'Brien.
But Dave is the last of his breed, in part because he broke out of the nightclub stand-up circuit, along with Jay Leno. That's where his prickly negative energy came from. Making people laugh in sleazy bars is different from making people laugh in TV studios or writers' rooms. The new-school late-night hosts spent their twenties on TV. By the time Dave made it to Late Night, at 34, he'd earned his battle scars hustling in the cut-throat comedy clubs. He never lost his taste for blood.
A few years ago, Dave had Conan on the show and decided to discuss his nightclub days competing with Leno. "I've known a Jay a long, long time," Dave said. "We go back to the mid-Seventies in Los Angeles, back to the comedy show. Jay was always the guy. The funniest guy. He was the guy you would go to see. He was the guy you wished you could be more like. He was funny. He was also a bit of a brat."
It's hard to imagine Fallon or Meyers saying anything like that—it's hard to imagine them feeling anything like that. But nobody turns 30 making drunk strangers laugh in a pissy bar without the bitter grudge-chugging resentment that drove Leno and Letterman all those years. For Fallon and Meyers "the comedy show" means TV, not dodging hecklers and mobsters in Boogie Nights-era L.A. ratpits. (Read Patton Oswalt's brilliantly horrifying essay "The Victory Tour," set in a club called the Smile Hole, for a taste of how stand-up eats the soul.) That's why Letterman held on to his unpredictable mean streak so long. And that's why there's nobody else like him in late night. He's the last of the stand-up guys. Once he'd buried Leno, there was nobody left for him to battle, so no wonder he hung up his guns almost immediately.
"They Took My Show Away" has a happy ending — Dave helps Jimmy look through the NBC fall schedule, where they find a new show called Manimal. Jimmy gushes, "This is gonna be the best TV season ever!" Dave smiles. "Maybe it will be, Jimmy. Maybe it will." But let's not kid ourselves — no matter how many manimals are out there, nobody can ever replace David Letterman.