Letterman's ironic legacy: The bemused cool that shaped a generation, from Buzzfeed's lists to smug Ted Cruz

"Late Night" paved the way for The Onion, sure, but it also helped ready us for Sarah Palin

Published May 12, 2015 10:30PM (EDT)

David Letterman       (Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi)
David Letterman (Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi)

“Pac Man Fever” and mullets, Milli Vanilli and Rambo, menacing laugh tracks and Rocky sequels – the ‘80s were a hellish period even if we overlook political nightmares like Reagan selling weapons to Iran, Lee Atwater’s race-baiting and the rise of suspender-clad Wall Street studs who would repeatedly tank the U.S. economy. There may have been another reasonable response to all of this – in other eras, for instance, some of these things may have provoked outrage or morally focused scorn.

But instead, the default response in the 1980s – by a lot of educated urban and suburban folk, at least – was to throw the head back and laugh. And while he didn’t invent it – irony dates back at least as far as classical Greek drama – the man most responsible for the era’s embrace of the ironic smirk, deadpan laugh and self-mocking indifference is about to end his reign on late-night TV. It is surely David Letterman’s greatest legacy.

Letterman, of course, added a lot to the American lexicon. The Indianapolis-reared weatherman and comedian, who launched “Late Night” in 1982, brought a tougher, more confrontational, sometimes condescending interviewing style to television in the U.S. His show served as an important early forum for comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Paula Poundstone, Sandra Bernhard, Bill Hicks, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis and many others. He gave people outside the underground comics demimonde their first views of Harvey Pekar; it was also a launching pad of sorts for the comic anarchy of Andy Kaufman. When Paul Shaffer and the World's Most Dangerous Band were not turning out a bland but spirited kind of go-cat-go mainstream rock music, his show hosted smart or pioneering bands like R.E.M. (“Radio Free Europe”!), Phoenix, the White Stripes, Pixies, Outkast, Interpol, TV on the Radio and on and on (along with some schlock like Matchbox 20).

For those of us who live our lives on the Web, Letterman deserves a nod every time a listicle or Top-10 list comes up. Those half-funny T-shirts you saw around college campuses in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s (“Top 10 reasons to rush my fraternity,” “Top 10 reasons to go to Spring Fling,” etc.) were the pre-Internet attempt to capture the goofy charm of those lists. The online world seems better able to make these funny, but either way, the seeds were planted on “Late Night.” We would not have Buzzfeed without Dave.

His influence on late night television, especially on his former guest Jay Leno, is clear and enduring.

It’s the irony, though, that will last the longest. The smirk we get from contemporary comedians and comic actors – everyone from Jon Stewart to Kristen Wiig to Chris Rock – comes in part from Letterman. “Small Town News” led us right to the Onion. Quentin Tarantino’s films are Letterman with sadism and violence.

But it’s the blank, what-me-worry irony – the lack of outrage or frustration of the kind of we’d gotten from Richard Pryor, the lack of political point of view that we’d gotten from Mort Sahl or ‘70s “Saturday Night Live” – that will live the longest.

And this is where things get tricky. Thomas Frank has written how “Animal House” (which was set at Dartmouth, breeding ground of felon Dinesh D’Souza and the Dartmouth Review) was not just about a bunch of wild-ass cats like Belushi’s Bluto, but the birth of the coked-up, deregulating bad behavior of the New Right. Letterman, similarly, is not just a funny guy whose show changed the American sense of humor: You can see his sensibility in pernicious figures like the smugly creepy Ted Cruz (who often seems like a bad, misfired Andy Kaufman impersonator) and Sarah Palin (listen to her dismissals of the “lame-stream media”). All of Generation X, wherever across the political spectrum, grew up in the ‘80s and breathed the same air, in which Reagan and Letterman were both cultural fathers.

More important, for those on the progressive or liberal side of the aisle, the irreverent irony “Late Night” brought to the table probably helped neuter the American left – the smirk could easily turn to cynicism and heartlessness. The helpless bemusement behind it certainly became – for anyone aiming at social or political or economic change -- a dead end.

Irony’s endgame was best diagnosed by a writer who was, for a while, one of Letterman’s greatest comic inheritors: David Foster Wallace. Starting out as an heir to the comedic strain of both “Late Night” and Thomas Pynchon’s black humor, Wallace wrote one of the greatest essays in literary history in 1990. “The best TV of the last five years has been about ironic self-reference like no previous species of postmodern art could have dreamed of,” he wrote in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction."

It’s also very much about what Letterman did to us. Letterman, he said, was “the ironic eighties’ true Angel of Death.”

The colors of MTV videos, blue-black and lambently flickered, are the colors of television. “Moonlighting”'s Bruce and “Bueller”'s Ferris throw asides to the viewer every bit as bald as the old melodrama villain's monologued gloat. Segments of the new late-night glitz-news “After Hours” end with a tease that features harried headphoned guys in the production booth ordering the tease. MTV's television-trivia game show, the dry-titled “Remote Control,” got so popular it busted its own MTV-membrane and is in 1990 now syndicated band-wide. The hippest commercials, with stark computerized settings and blank beauties in mirrored shades and plastic slacks genuflecting before various forms of velocity, force, and adrenaline, seem like little more than TV's vision of how TV offers rescue to those lonely Joe Briefcases passively trapped into watching too much TV.

By the late ‘80s, Wallace says, TV pointed not to the outside world, but just to itself. When you get to Max Headroom and "Entertainment Tonight," Wallace wrote, “television's power to jettison connection and castrate protest [is] fueled by the same ironic postmodern self-consciousness it first helped fashion.” In the end, he wrote, Letterman’s brand of dismissive humor led not to real rebellion or thoughtful skepticism but to passivity and corporate consumerism. If nothing matters, we've got something to sell you:

Its promulgation of cynicism about all authority works to the general advantage of television on a number of levels. First, to the extent that TV can ridicule old-fashioned conventions right off the map, it can create an authority vacuum. And then guess what fills it.

Across his career, Wallace was on a journey from postmodern irony to a morally engaged worldview rooted in Dostoevsky and other literary traditions. He never quite got there. But his journey is part of what makes him such an essential American writer and thinker, even years after his death. David Letterman is stepping down, and he’s made us laugh -- a lot -- along the way. What else were we supposed to do with all the stupid stuff thrown to us by cheap consumerism and the Reagan-Thatcher takeover? But he did something deeper and more corrosive to us and the body politic, and that will take far longer to unwind.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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