Excerpt from New York Magazine Article (Peter W. Kaplan, Sept. 2009)
Somehow, without anyone looking, David Letterman has superseded the usual TV categories of comic, or talk-show host, or broadcaster. He paces the stage at night worrying about the Afghan-election recount and generally free-associating about the flies and vultures flapping around in his head. His nightly broadcast from Broadway has become a weird and great American entity unto itself, a blurred throwback, an amalgam of the tradition he came from: Johnny Carson, Edward Murrow, Jack Paar. And the most middle-American of talk-show hosts has become the most New York–centric.
He is also an increasingly interesting human being who has absorbed, not evaded, events and recorded, not denied, human experience.
Craggy, bewildered, irascible Dave, with his gray crew cut, designer suits, and white socks—a nightly mind-blowing image in HDTV—has become a persona, a distinctive agglomeration of character traits, even more than his idol Johnny Carson, much more like Carson’s own idol, Jack Benny. His monologues are indifferent as one-liners and jokes, but the character who delivers them is one memorable American. He can reel off dozens of Obama jokes and McCain jokes and Paris Hilton jokes, but it is when Letterman begins to invert and mutter, when his personal neuroses and raw wounds are inflamed by the assaults of everyday life—and whose aren’t?—that is when he becomes something more than a good comedian and something like the scarred protagonist of his own comic novel—a bewildered, gutty mid-lifer at the crash intersection of American culture.
In 1895, Mark Twain, another dapper crabapple discoursing on politics and society, prepared a worldwide lecture tour that he began in New York City—actually using inmates at Randalls Island House of Refuge as his warm-up audience. A little like Letterman complaining about Oprah and Obama, in a modern nod to the coming new century, he planned to put up photos of all the celebrities who had decided not to show at his first lecture: General Sherman, General Lee, Gladstone, and Disraeli. “Every one of these illustrious men was sorry, and sent regrets; even lamentations.”
Then the speech went: “As soon as a man recognizes that he has drifted into age, he gets reminiscent. He wants to talk and talk; and not about the present or the future, but about his old times. For there is where the pathos of his life lies—and the charm of it.”
David Letterman has hit the part of life where he wants to talk and talk. But he seems to be still speaking of the present and the future. He is 62 and has chosen not to drift but to floor it, a boy of autumn, Huck Finn in September, the last American codger, the crabby voice of American reason, heedless, uncompromising, and driven. Long may he chortle.