The current world of late night talk shows is getting more interesting, as Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers are supplying the vitriolic bite that was vanquished from the nightly TV schedule whenever David Letterman retired from The Late Show in 2015. For decades, Letterman was the apex of late night interviewing, with pointed opinions and snark that often prompted far more interesting interviews than those of his network rivals. In that time, fans no doubt often questioned whether or not the host realized just how hard he could be on some guests, and it turns out he definitely did. In his words:
Oh, yeah. I always felt like we got 500 people in the audience and it's my responsibility to get a laugh. Many times, the laugh would come at the expense of the guest. I regret that now, but at the time you think, 'I've got to do anything to keep my head above water.'
Nothing hard to grasp about that, as David Letterman would have to be completely disassociated from reality to not realize that he was occasionally as ruthless as a crowd-pleasing jester can be, particularly when the entertainers on his couch were facing career difficulties. Dedicated fans will definitely remember an interview from about five years ago when Justin Bieber visited The Late Show and blatantly told Letterman that he was uncomfortable, to which the host replied, "That's what I do; I make people uncomfortable." It's not something that was limited to just a teenage pop star, but many celebs whose behavior and decision-making rubbed Letterman the wrong way.
Memorably bizarro spots with Paris Hilton and Joaquin Phoenix were understandably barbed, for the most part, but David Letterman didn't only provide interview-length slam sessions. He was a master of clever retorts and genius closing lines that often came without appreciation for others' feelings, which is one of the many reasons why his fans loved his tenure. We are a culture often won over by witty jerks, it's true.
In his revealing interview with Vulture, David Letterman offered up a basic explanation for the hows and whys behind this "style" of his.
I was so single-minded in getting through the hour, and sarcasm is so easy. The quote is 'Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit.' If you can't think of something funny, say something sarcastic. That worked and also got me in a lot of trouble. People would accuse me of being mean. Well, yes, sarcasm probably is mean; but on the other hand, I'm just trying to get a laugh, so leave me alone. 'Hey, nice shirt' --- ha-ha-ha. Big, big laugh: 'Nice shirt.' Good night, everybody!
Say what you will about David Letterman's interview techniques, but you can't say he isn't capable of self-sacrificial honesty. And even when he wasn't saying those words out loud while sitting behind the Late Show desk, his eyes so often gave away exactly what he thought about the person he was speaking with. And unless that person was Norm Macdonald, you never quite knew where things would go. I miss Dave.
The Late Show still airs every weeknight on CBS, but with Stephen Colbert now leading the charge, as well as consistently leading the viewership game. (Speaking of ratings, look up Letterman's "#3 in Late Night" billboard for an example of how his spiky humor wasn't just aimed at others.) Head to our midseason premiere schedule to see what will pop up in primetime in the coming months.