As David Letterman enters his final weeks as Late Show host, following a late-night career that has spanned more than three decades, many of his favorite guests have stopped by the Ed Sullivan Theater to bid farewell to him. Since Conan O’Brien, who took the reins of NBC’s Late Night program after Letterman left to host CBS’ Late Show in 1993, is likely too busy filming his own show to visit Letterman, he penned a touching tribute for Entertainment Weekly to the man who inspired him to venture into late night.
In his appreciation, O’Brien offered a brief history of comedy in the early Eighties before Letterman erupted onto the scene with his “subversive” brand of comedy and unlikely television looks. (“His front teeth had a massive gap that looked almost painted-on as a joke,” he wrote.) O’Brien says he first learned of Letterman from the short-lived morning talk show The David Letterman Show before Letterman matured into a major comedic influence on Late Night.
“Throughout college, everyone my age watched Dave and discussed his show the next day,” O’Brien wrote. “The late-night talk show had existed at that point for 30 years in more or less one form, but Dave and his writers completely re-invented the format. By 1985, when I graduated from college and was ready to try my hand as a comedy writer, Late Night With David Letterman had been the Holy Grail for several miraculous years.”
O’Brien, whose own edgy, abstract humor at one point also seemed unpalatable for The Tonight Show – a program both he and Letterman lost to Jay Leno – further praised Letterman’s abilities. “Dave’s show was that rare phenomenon: a big, fat show-business hit that seemingly despised show business,” O’Brien wrote. “Dave didn’t belong, and he had no interest in belonging. He amused himself, skewered clueless celebrity guests and did strange, ironic comedic bits that no one had seen on television before. Everything about that show was surreal and off-kilter. Where late-night television had once provided comfort, this man reveled in awkwardness.”
O’Brien adds that no figure has had “Dave’s seismic impact on comedy” in the past 35 years. “Every day, I read that a new comic has ‘changed the game,’ and, admittedly, there is an absurd abundance of talent and creativity out there right now,” O’Brien wrote. “But in today’s world of 30 late-night programs, it’s tempting now to take Dave for granted. Do not. Dave was a true revolution – and I believe his innovations are up there with the light bulb and the Twix bar.”
Letterman will take his final bow on The Late Show on May 20th. Stephen Colbert will become the show’s host on September 8th.