'David Letterman: A Life on Television' Didn't Give Us the Full Dave


Well-meaning and well-edited, David Letterman: A Life on Television was CBS’s effort to pay homage to the great departing talk-show host on Monday night. A 90-minute special, it claimed to survey 33 years of Letterman’s late-night legacy, and was hosted by Ray Romano. The show came with its own hashtag — #ThanksDave — which I feel safe in saying Letterman would hate if he saw it, and I’ll bet he didn’t.

A Life on Television hit all the familiar bits: Top 10 Lists, Stupid Pet and Human Tricks, music acts, cooking segments, and outside-the-studio stunts were shown. Letterman’s mom. One segment was titled “Madonna Unleashed.” Another was called — urp — “’Cause It Ain’t Oprah ‘’Til It’s Oprah.” There was a montage of celebs kissing Letterman — they included Julia Roberts and James Franco. Whenever there was a clip from Letterman’s NBC years on Late Night, CBS declined to give us the year it occurred.

I say this as a huge fan of David Letterman: This special was boring as hell. It is the nature of late-night talk shows — or was, I guess we have to say now — to unfold at the pace of the conversation being conducted. The surprising moments may be rehearsed or expected by the participants (most of them are, to be sure), but they still work on the audience, in the studio and at home, as spontaneous. The big moments comes as interruptions, eruptions of surprise.

But when you have a show that’s edited into all big moments, they quickly become tediously big, or much smaller. Which is one way of saying I hope I never see that damn clip of Drew Barrymore flashing Letterman as she gyrates atop his desk again, for as long as I live.

The problem with the greatest-hits approach to Letterman is that the demands of this format reduces him primarily to one mode: Wacky. Smiling that big gap-tooth smile. Mock-leering at the camera in the presence of Martha Stewart. Exaggerating fear when Jack Hanna brings out a dangerous-looking animal. And one of the best things about Letterman is that he’s never been just funny. He’s shown seriousness, flashes of anger, lots of irritation, impatience, and exasperation. Without the context for these emotions, a salute to Letterman sells him short. There was a clip from his moving post-9/11 return to the air, but for the most part, wacky prevailed.

I would never go so far as to say I almost switched over to Castle, but I did think about taking a peek at Bates Motel.

Later, on his own show, Letterman hosted President Obama.

Don’t let this excessively generous special dull your appetite for Letterman’s final shows leading up to the end on May 20.

The Late Show With David Letterman airs weeknights at 11:35 p.m. on CBS.