My admiration for Letterman lasted a lot longer than that relationship, and the fact that his “Late Night” debut came 40 years ago feels like another one of those “Where did the time go?” wakeup calls, only on steroids.
Letterman’s irreverence felt perfectly calibrated to the younger audience that watched him and didn’t need to worry about staying up past 1 a.m.
I was out of college, and already working for Variety, when Carson announced that he was leaving “The Tonight Show” in 1991. But even then, the fact that Letterman desperately wanted to replace him and move up to 11:30 seemed oddly conventional, as if he didn’t entirely grasp the roots of his appeal.
Would he be allowed to be as wacky, and take the same chances, at an earlier hour? And if he had to tone it down or broaden the show, would the then-college-age crowd that watched him feel as if he had, for lack of a better term, sold out?
As it turned out, I was both right and wrong about that. Letterman successfully moved to 11:30 by jumping to CBS, although after a strong start, the fact that Leno consistently beat him in the ratings felt like a partial validation of my skepticism. Letterman might be a comedic genius, but it always appeared to rankle him — and befuddle many of his fans — that more people preferred nodding off to sleep with the more vanilla-flavored host in that hour.
The pattern, moreover, seemed to replicate itself with O’Brien, who never really had a fair shot at “The Tonight Show,” but whose act, like Letterman’s, probably played better in the post-midnight window with all the goofy latitude that entailed.
The hosts clearly didn’t see it that way when it came to “The Tonight Show.”. But for those of us who discovered Letterman before we entered the 9-to-5 rat race, back when his show actually began the next day, it sure looked like a job that, in several key ways, couldn’t get any better, and maybe never did.