It’s going to take a while to asses the full extent of David Letterman’s legacy. But with the “Late Night” host announcing on last night’s show that he’ll be retiring in 2015, the first wave of assessments have already begun. Here’s how critics are attempting to sum up what by the time he retires will be his 35 years as a talk show host.
Jeff Jensen, Entertainment Weekly
Letterman’s influence is extraordinary, arguably more so than any other late-night talk show host before him. His persona — the one forged in NBC years before CBS, 11:30 and more life matured him; the self-deprecating smart-ass; the loose-canon insider-outsider, speaking snark to power, usually his own network — and his comedic sensibility — honed in the freer, wilder spaces of late night’s later hours; ironic and irreverent; the master of the calculated joke fail; impish tweaker of talk show genre conventions; all originally forged in the late, late hours of l — can be seen in almost all of his younger rivals.
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
Letterman already has a legacy — and that’s pretty much everybody else currently working in late-night television. They were (and maybe are) doing Dave. They were never doing Jay Leno. And Letterman will always be brilliant. He never needed to be measured by ratings because, unlike Leno, he never wanted everybody to love him. He knew early on that, besides comedy being subjective, what people are looking for in a talk-show host just might be different from what he wanted to do as a talk-show host. There’s plenty of room for reasonable people to disagree on who they like to fall asleep watching.
Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture
During the first decade of its existence on NBC, and sporadically afterward on CBS, he and his writers specialized in comedy that was also “comedy.” Letterman’s deconstructionist, at times borderline Cubist style made you laugh by mocking the very idea of a stranger needing to make you laugh; my friend Ken Cancelosi calls it “The Marcel Duchamp approach to late-night.”
Todd Leopold, CNN
“The Simpsons,” Ben Stiller, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, any comedian or comedy that used irony, silliness, absurdity and a little bit of antagonism as their stock in trade — Dave made network television, previously an irony-free zone, safe for all of them. (There was more than a little Letterman in Garry Shandling’s curdled, insecure faux talk-show host, Larry Sanders.)
Alex Pappademas, Grantland
You didn’t choose Letterman over sleep (or Jay Leno, the real cousin of death) for the scripted jokes — which he’d often throw away, often literally, by tossing an index card through a fake window. You chose him because you knew you’d see Letterman react to something like an actual person would, whether it was a stupid pet trick or Drew Barrymore’s boobs or a tepidly received punch line or this triumphantly odd performance by Future Islands from a few weeks back.
Linda Holmes, NPR
What made the news a little funny was that it shared a quality that always made Letterman unique: Its delivery had a sort of raggedy naturalism. It didn’t first reach the public through a press release or an interview with just the right well-positioned reporter. Letterman announced it while he was taping Thursday’s show, and Mike Mills, former R.E.M. bass player who happened to be performing on the show, mentioned it on Twitter. And when Letterman told the audience, there was utter silence. They seemed not to be sure whether he was serious.