Late Night Nostalgia

Like many Americans, I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about David Letterman’s final shows. But it wasn’t until the past few days that I actually watched them “live”. Aside from sporting events, I almost never watch television in a traditional way anymore. So when I finally managed to tune into our local CBS affiliate at 10:30pm, it felt almost like time travel.

Although the commercial breaks were both more frequent and more annoying than I’d remembered, they helped to reinforce my intense nostalgia for the time when I would watch Letterman’s show on NBC in the early 1980s because it seemed like there was no alternative. I was a teenager, prone to long bouts of insomniac brooding, and stayed up to watch Late Night because it distracted me from my troubles better than anything else.

Looking back on those years, I can’t honestly say that watching the show made me happy. Especially in those early years, seen on the far less satisfying CRT sets of that era, there was something about it that appeared to mirror my internal state. Not dark, exactly, but emptied out: what I would later learn to call “existential”. At the time, I lacked the conceptual sophistication to analyze this perception. I simply knew that it was preferable to have the impression that I was sharing that peculiar mixture of turmoil and vacancy with others than to bear it alone. Now, though, I am able at least to speculate on what kept me coming back for more.

Many people have commented on Letterman’s facility for “deconstructing” the conventions developed in the talk and variety shows that preceded his. Had I been closer to his age, I might have comprehended this directly. But since my knowledge of television’s Golden Age was spotty at best, I often found myself sensing that something was supposed to be funny without knowing why, precisely.

Take one of Late Night’s best-known regular segments, Stupid Pet Tricks. If I’d had the opportunity to watch The Ed Sullivan Show and its many imitators, as Baby Boomers like Letterman did growing up, I would have understood that he was, as the saying goes, not just laughing at them, but laughing with them, paying tribute to a time when televisual content wasn’t administered to the point of claustrophobia.

I’m certain that when Letterman moved from NBC to CBS in 1993 and took over Ed Sullivan’s old theater, he was acutely conscious of all of the history that had been made there because he had seen it happen live on his television back home in Indiana. Yet while I had learned more about Sullivan’s importance by then — I was in graduate school, after all — I still didn’t have a clear sense of the space’s meaning because I’d never had the opportunity to watch more than a few minutes from one of Sullivan’s shows.

I was pondering this gap in my knowledge yesterday while I was trying to explain to my teenager daughter why it’s such a big deal to me that Letterman is going off the air. Even though she has pretty much never watched television in a traditional sense, she is far better versed in its history than I was at her age. As a diehard fan of The Beatles, she practically has the architecture of the Ed Sullivan Theater memorized. And she has watched entire episodes of his variety show many times over, pet tricks included.

She knows a lot about David Letterman, too, despite never watching his show at it was originally intended to be seen. When this became apparent a few years ago, I was initially confused. Why would this man in his 60s, almost as old as her grandparents, be of any interest to her? Then I realized that the ability to watch him interact with guests in YouTube clips had given her an appreciation for his refusal to play it safe, to make it seem like he was deviating from the script, even if that sense of unscriptedness — as she made it a point to explain to me — was probably scripted.

In other words, growing up at a time when television hasn’t just been conceptually “deconstructed”, but has literally been reduced to disparate bits and pieces that are consumed asynchronously, while having near instantaneous access to decades of the medium’s history, has made her a much savvier viewer than I ever could have been when I was a teenager.

Forcing myself to watch Letterman’s final taped shows “live”, without recourse to the PAUSE button, I have been nostalgic not only for the experience of watching television in that way but also the ignorance that went with it. I suppose you could say that I miss the feeling of not really understanding what I was feeling, that aforementioned emptiness which correlated with my lack of knowledge.

It’s a strange thing to mourn, this state of being uninformed. We live at a time when filling in the gaps of one’s knowledge requires less effort than ever before. If you want to know what David Letterman’s show was like in 2001 or 1993 or 1982, all you have to do is browse through the countless YouTube clips devoted to it. And if you want to know what he and his staff were paying homage to, all you need to do search for Ed Sullivan, Sid Caesar or the person many have argued is Letterman’s most striking ancestor, Ernie Kovacs.

A person can leisurely pursue a lead for an hour or two, gradually fleshing out a sense of historical context that would once have taken decades to develop. That rapid accumulation of knowledge can be downright exhilarating. But it also comes at the price of the emptiness that I remember best when I reflect on what it was like to watch Late Night in the 1980s, when most of television history was dark matter to me, out there but impossible to engage with.

Because, while that emptiness may have provided comfort in the moment, suggesting that it wasn’t just me who was lacking, it was also transmuted into a hunger for learning that is hard to comprehend in these days of such easy satiety. In other words, when I watch the last episode of Letterman’s show today, I’m going to be remembering with perverse fondness what it was like to not get its references and have no way of remedying that failure.


Still used as lead image courtesy of Worldwide Pants and CBS Television

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