Making Fun

If you haven’t noticed the media fuss over the return of David Letterman, perhaps you’ve only recently been paroled from a Turkish prison. The rest of us have been massaged something fierce. Even the high-brow New Yorker got into the act with an article pondering the wisdom of CBS’s gamble. This week alone, Dave’s gap-toothed grin graces the covers of GQ, TV Guide and TIME magazine.

If you believe this avalanche of media introspection, Letterman’s return is a sociological event of seismic significance. This isn’t just a shake-up in the late-night talk show racket. It’s a referendum on the cultural trajectory of America, and hence the Free World. If Letterman bombs in his new, earlier time slot, The Age of Irony will be declared officially over.

The reasoning runs like this: For 11 years Dave presided over the netherworld of late-night TV – sort of a younger Johnny Carson with metaphorical horns and a pitchfork. Carson, the old pro, schmoozed his high-powered guests on the most famous couch in Christendom and lulled middle America into slumberland with his impish good humour. Then, at half-past the witching hour, Mom and Dad went to bed, the gremlins took over, and Letterman led his audience of hobgoblins and undergraduates straight into Middle Earth.

Somewhere out on the margins, and yet somehow at the centre of popular culture, Late Night With David Letterman was a perfect foil for the years of Reagan and Bush. The America of Star Wars and junk bond empires was greedy, excessive and utterly phony. In response, Letterman was gaudy, excessive and took remorseless delight in the utter phoniness of almost everything – including his own show.

He conferred celebrity on people who had no right to be famous – such as the strangely life-like Larry “Bud” Melman. Far from compliantly pushing Alpo products, Letterman called the network brass “weasels” and waged a scathing dis-advertising campaign against General Electric, the network owner. On one memorable evening, a clearly exasperated Cher called him a bad word that rhymes with “gas bowl.” It was one of the show’s defining moments – a hallelujah to the Letterman credo that everyone’s pretty much a gas bowl.

What the pundits are pondering is how well this sort of studied irreverence is going to play in an earlier time slot and a new decade. The plutocrats of the Reagan-Bush years have been replaced by a president who wants to give the world a hug, and the big Mood Ring of American popular culture may have changed colour overnight.

Yesterday’s maverick iconoclasm could turn out to be today’s sophomoric annoyance. The old Letterman sardonically insisted that there was nothing and no one who didn’t deserve to be made fun of. But will this fly in a politically correct climate in which there are some things you just don’t joke about? Is there space for Letterman in a world where making fun of people is seen as an act of puerile aggression? Or will tonight’s debut unveil a kinder, gentler Dave who’s beaten his pitchfork into a ploughshare?

In short, what the pundits are wondering is whether the Age of Irony has given way to the Age of Sanctimony. If Letterman burns at the stake of the Nielsen ratings, this will be the sign by which ye shall know that the old heresies are no longer to be tolerated.

It’s impossible to predict how Letterman will fare, although I, for one, am rooting for him. If we are indeed entering sanctimonious waters, we need him now more than ever. But win or lose, this much is true: if it’s possible to gauge the mood of an entire culture on nothing more than the fortunes of a late-night talk show, the Age of Irony is far from

CBC Radio August 27, 1993