The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

David Letterman Kept It Fresh On Late Night For 33 Years

By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

All things change, and everything ends, and after Wednesday we will no longer be living in a world in which David Letterman is on television five nights a week.

The alarm is about to ring on the clock Letterman set ticking just over a year ago, when, nine days shy of his 67th birthday, with a long preamble about trying to identify an eagle, he announced his retirement from CBS’ Late Show With David Letterman.

“You can’t help but think about the passage of time,” he said then. “It happens to all of us; it’s the way of life.”

After 33 years, he will go out as the longest-serving host in late-night TV — outdistancing his mentor Johnny Carson by two years — a record that will not be challenged any time soon, if ever. Try to imagine Jimmy Fallon doing The Tonight Show at 68, and you will fail. (Jimmy Kimmel I can see hanging on, maybe.)

Although the shadow of his leaving has stretched across the year, over the last few weeks things have become positively valedictory as guests arrive for what most can’t help but mentioning will be their last visit to Letterman.

Tears have been demurely shed. In a monthlong receiving line, respect is being paid — by the president and the first lady, by Howard Stern and Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Julia Roberts, Steve Martin and Martin Short. Some come with songs, some with pictures. Everyone has a story about what Dave has meant to them, to comedy, to the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Tina Fey, in honor of “my last time wearing a fancy dress on a talk show and conforming to gender norms out of respect” for Letterman, gave him the dress off her back.

Paul Shaffer, Letterman’s band-leading sidekick since night one, plays them on and plays them off. (He too is on the way out.) The host more or less accepts these tributes — he lets them proceed, anyway — before falling back to a familiar stance of self-deprecation: “This is like buying produce off a prison truck” is how he described his show to Amy Schumer. (“I don’t know if you excel at metaphors anymore, Dave,” said Schumer.)

Letterman was in his early 30s when he set off along this road, which led from a short-lived daytime show on NBC in 1980, to Late Night With David Letterman on the same network in 1982, to his present and soon-to-be former post, taken up in 1993. That he wound up on CBS instead of hosting The Tonight Show is the stuff of television legend, a whole book, a TV movie based on the book, and jokes made by Letterman at Jay Leno’s expense, every so often, ever since.

Continue reading

And yet in the end — long before the end –it was clear that, however magically glamorous the Tonight Show brand, where he landed was the place he belonged. In Late Night, he had created something new, rooted in Carson but forged in the more intimate and experimental reaches of deep post-prime-time. Surreal, sardonic, mock formal, markedly goofball, it thrived on contradiction and self-critical self-awareness. He carried that over to Late Show, where he made its audience into a community and its crew into characters; it took its cameras out through the doors of the Ed Sullivan Theater and into the streets and small businesses of Midtown Manhattan. (Hello, Hello Deli.)

Its big-kids crazy clubhouse mood was adopted by Conan O’Brien, who replaced Letterman on NBC, and Jimmy Fallon, who replaced O’Brien at Late Night and then Leno on The Tonight Show — if only by proxy, and after a long delay, Letterman left his mark on the House that Johnny Built and Jay Lived In.

New generations have moved in behind the desks and into the crowd, changing the shape of late-night itself. Irony is losing its allure. (It is used only ironically now.) Fun is just fun. But a certain seriousness — especially given the retirement of Craig Ferguson, whose Late Late Show Letterman’s company produced — has gone out of the field.

Letterman himself has meant different things at different times; he has been himself, always, but he has not been static. Some of this has to do with economies of age — you get slower, you get smarter. Time turns tenancy into ownership, makes an institution out of a cult figure. Raised above his guests like the emperor he is — Jerry Seinfeld got him to switch seats on his last visit to see how that felt — Letterman has been unflappable, except when getting flapped might pay a comic dividend. He is funny with the very funny and with the very unfunny.

It’s true that after more than 6,000 nights on the air — processing, as Seinfeld put it on his own last Letterman show, “every moron with something to sell” — Letterman can run the show on autopilot, throwing in a “sure” or “fair enough” every so often to push the talk along. He has not always bothered or been able to hide his occasional disengagement. Yet by the same token, with the right person, with something more than something to sell, or something he wanted to go after or prize out, he is the most present, intelligent, interested and interesting of interviewers. He can be a terrier, a shark. “A lot of guests, world leaders in particular,” he told Tony Blair, “are here once and don’t come back.”

A highly private person, he has at times been required to violate his own privacy; a shy guy, he comes alive in a public hour. He’s an upright sort, a moralist even, who has done some bad things. His habit of greeting female guests with remarks about their clothes, hair, legs, or smell, with hugs or hand-kissing, make a cool uncle momentarily a creepy one. (It’s the thing that makes him seem most out of time and out of touch.) But then he changes back again.

In 2013, he told Charlie Rose that guilt and a fear of failure were “the two great motivators in my life — and I hate it when people started talking about ‘the two great motivators in my life.'” This year he told Rolling Stone that for 30 or 40 years he was “anxious, and hypochondriacal, and an alcoholic, and many, many other things that made me different from other people.” And yet, his obviously complicated inner life, evident even without details, has made him seem all the more human — and paradoxically the most reliable of hosts.

We trust the man who doubts himself more than the one who pretends that everything is fine.

Letterman has been a late-night talk show host through five presidential administrations and many widths of lapels and fashions in ties. The Berlin Wall came down on his watch; at least a couple of Middle East wars were launched. He has had a heart attack; he has had a child.

He has been through some rough patches — the health, the sex-with-staffers scandal, the plot to kidnap his son — and come out burnished. He says “God bless you” a lot, however he means it. He likes to talk to guests about their children, possibly because it gives him a chance to talk about his son. He worries about the world, one would guess, on his behalf.

Some of us have grown up on him; some have grown gray with him. He leaves a hole shaped like a lifetime.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

David Letterman is calling it quits on May 20th, so fans are trying to get in to see the show before it all ends. At the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway in New York, Jordan Bautsch, right, age 18, of Redding, Pa., shows her excitement about going to the show for the first time on May 6, 2015 in New York, N.Y. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ Is ’30 Rock’ Funny For A Reason: It Was Created By Tina Fey And Robert Carlock

By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock for NBC, the old home of their 30 Rock, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt instead arrives by way of Netflix, whose participation in prestige television no longer feels remarkable. As is the custom of the house, it is being laid before you all at once, a gift.

Apart from your having to pay to see it, this is good news all around: Where Kimmy, wonderful odd duck that it is, might well have foundered and floundered in the roiling waters of broadcast TV — it is just the sort of left-of-center comedy that NBC once specialized in and has now purged from its schedule. It has already been guaranteed two seasons in its new, commercial-free home.

It is also, it is worth noting, a series in which three of the four lead characters are female, of different ages, and the fourth is a gay black man. Because that never happens.

The series stars Ellie Kemper (from The Office) as a woman freed after 15 years from an underground bunker, where she was held as an unwilling member of a post-apocalyptic cult. After a Today Show appearance with her fellow Indiana Mole Women, Kimmy decides to remain in New York City, to live life. She’s like “That Girl,” out of a bunker.

In short order, she acquires a dotty landlady (Carol Kane) with a radical past, a roommate with show business dreams (Tituss Burgess, star of Broadway), and a rich uptown boss (Jane Krakowski), who hires her and fires and hires her again to watch her entitled, unhappy son (Tanner Flood) and stepdaughter (Dylan Gelula): “I don’t like giving second chances,” Krakowski’s Jacqueline (who shares much with her Jenna Maroney) tells Kimmy, who has asked for her job back, “but I appreciate your lack of pride.”

Kimmy has plenty of pride, in fact; a kind of mix of Leslie Knope, Kenneth the Page and Erin the Office secretary, she has a heroic sense of self and almost desperate optimism. Indomitability, as the title indicates, is a theme of the show.

She is also, in many respects, a child, a person whose ordinary life stopped in middle school. Like Will Ferrell in Elf, she is an enchanted innocent in the big city, eating candy for dinner, swinging “all the way around” on a playground swing.

There are bumps: The creepiness of the premise _ women really have been kidnapped and held underground for years, after all, — is played with but never quite looked at straight on. Kimmy might as easily have been rescued from a desert island or come out of a coma.

It’s a time travel comedy. Much of the humor precedes from what she doesn’t know about how the world has changed: Whitney Houston is dead, “Word up” and “As if” are not things people say anymore. She calls the present “the future.”

This alien aspect is further magnified by making her native Indiana a bizarre and backward place where oysters are called “sea pistachios” and pistachios are called “tree clams” and where courtship is effected with gifts of “flowers and meat.”

Not unusually, it takes a couple of episodes for the show to hit cruising speed, for its characters to warm up, to move from an attitude of suspicion to support. And for some viewers there will be a probationary period, unfair but inevitable, in which Kimmy, still wet behind the ears, is measured against the miracle that was 30 Rock. But it gets there.

Although it is its own creature, the show has the same comic grammar as 30 Rock. It has the same blink-of-an-eye flashbacks and cutaways; the same way of hanging jokes onto jokes, of changing direction twice in a single sentence; the same sideways relation to reality; the same pop-cultural topicality and streets-of-the-city setting; the same random acts of surrealism; the same interest in matters of class, race and gender; the same mix of braininess and feeling.

It’s at once moving and without sentiment.

The leads are all marvelous, with a complementary elemental division of attitudes: Kemper, air; Burrell, fire; Kane, earth; and Krakowski, water, as I reckon it. They rise to the occasion, and make it an event.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Photo: Eric Liebowitz for Netflix

Funny Thing Is, Barack Obama’s ‘Between Two Ferns’ Segment Works

By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times

Something historic happened in the early hours of Tuesday, March 11, 2014. The president of the United States was a guest on “Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis,” a highly occasional semi-fake talk show that lives on the website Funny or Die.

To say that Barack Obama has been no stranger to entertainment television is to put it mildly. He has done the late-night talk shows, guested on “MythBusters.” Sunday night he introduced the rebooted “Cosmos.”

But this was a step beyond, straight into the maw of the Internet — what some would still consider a disreputable backwater of the culture — to go one on one with a star of “The Hangover.”

It was as if the leader of the free world had shown up one night to do a little improvisational comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade.

Just as Willie Sutton famously robbed banks because “that’s where the money is,” Obama went to the Web to promote the Affordable Care Act to the people — the young people — who hang out there.

The choice of “Between Two Ferns,” with its cable-access vibe, eight-bit graphics, halting pace and awkward, unprepared, inappropriate and antagonistic host seems an odd one, certainly, an unwelcoming or unseemly platform either for the president or his pitch.

But that is part of what makes it funny. And being funny is what makes it good.

Apart from the fact that it contains an actual public service announcement, it is also very much an episode of “Between Two Ferns,” conducted in the same air of anomie and ironic contempt as always.

Galifianakis, after lamely apologizing for having twice canceled on him (“My mouse pad broke”), introduces Obama, as he has most guests, as if he is not quite sure who he is.

The identifying title reads “Barack Obama (sp?), Community Organizer.”

For the first half of the six-plus-minute piece — pre-plug — the host asks questions that are sometimes whimsical (“So how does this work, do you send Ambassador Rodman to North Korea on your behalf?”) but often satirically sharp: “I have to know — what is it like to be the last black president?”

Obama, who trades hit for hit throughout, replies, “What’s it like for this to be the last time you ever talk to a president?”

“It must kind of stink though that you can’t run three times?”

“If I ran a third time it would be sort of like doing a third ‘Hangover’ movie. It didn’t really work out very well, did it?”

The exchanges, though hitting some clearly prearranged points, feel ad lib; the show is usually improvised.

Interestingly, Sonny Bunch, posting in the conservative Washington Free Beacon, criticized Obama for not understanding “the point of the show — the guest is not supposed to get in good zingers; he’s supposed to be taken down a peg.” In fact, Galifianakis, playing an idiot, is usually the one who looks bad.

The healthcare segment, though it was organized to impart information, maintained the passive-aggressive tone.

“OK,” says Galifianakis halfway through the piece. “Let’s get this out of the way. What did you come here to plug?” As Obama goes on to explain the program and its benefits to the young, Galifianakis checks his watch, “Is this what they mean by ‘drones’?”

It is technically true that anyone can become president by the sweat of his brow or the luck of the draw. Nevertheless, even as, in good fun or ill will, we deride the office-holder — to be president is to be a sort of elevated punching bag — we invest the office with a mystical, even a holy power.

Before and to a great extent after his tenure, the chief executive is just another dude. But while he calls the White House home, he is subject to our expectations of what that means.

Just what the proper behavior is remains unclear. There is protocol surrounding the office, certainly, but nothing as definitive as, say, what delimits the behavior of British royals.

There is only what we imagine, and whether Obama’s “Two Ferns” appearance will be seen as a bold stroke, a rash act or something tantamount to treason will depend largely on how one already feels about him.

Inevitably, it has been deemed “inappropriate,” “tragic” and “desperate” by opposition commentators.

Whether or not the spot will be successful in its real-world aims, it was funny to me. And it seems to be the fact that, however much we mythologize the office, and claim insult on its behalf, we prefer our presidents life-sized and funny.

The last couple of election cycles have demonstrated that, for all hopefuls, the road to the White House leads through “Saturday Night Live,” and I think that’s fine. Whatever works, works.

Our leaders have all been guilty of worse things than participating in a skit.