Saturday, 29 August 2009

Late Show with David Letterman: Too Smug For its Own Good?

Last night (August 28th), I watched the Late Show with David Letterman in anticipation of Imogen Heap's performance on the program. I recently reviewed her latest album on this blog, and Heap rarely makes appearances on TV, so I thought I'd give it a go.

As is the case for most late-night talk shows these days, the featured musician was the last guest of the evening; despite Are You Being Served? running simultaneously on PBS, I decided to stick around for the entire show.
"Hey, it's David Letterman," I figured. "It can't be that bad."

Not so.

When it came time to turn the TV off, I was left with an overwhelming sense of frustration, disgust, and, most strongly, bewilderment. How could it have seemed so promising and turned out to be anything but?

Letterman started off the night with a decidedly half-baked monologue that ran the gamut from fizzled one-liners, a pathetic excuse for comedy involving a fallen flashlight (was it planned? We'll never know and, quite frankly, I don't want to) and repeated jabs at an audience member, who took the whole thing in miraculously good stride while Letterman mocked the fact that the man hadn't chosen to wear a jacket and tie to the taping, settling for an M&M T-shirt instead.

"The guy was in an M&M t-shirt and acted like I was the jerk!" Letterman said, while the audience member waved his hand repeatedly at the camera, presumably hoping to be featured in a viral video or something.

The show's attempt at comedy continued with a segment inspired by the Obamas' summer vacation to Martha's Vineyard and titled "Memorable Moments in Presidential Vacations". It seemed rather pointless until the final photograph-- President Lincoln at Six Flags theme park in 1864. Oh.

If that wasn't enough, "Memorable Moments in Presidential Vacations" was soon followed by a cheerless segment called "Men & Their Vegetables", where Letterman showed pictures of various large vegetables held by men up to the audience and, on occasion, impersonated them (the men, not the vegetables, which would have been far more interesting).

The first guest of the night, Artie Lange-- who has a segment on "The Howard Stern Show" (scraping at the barrel's bottom, are we now, Letterman?)-- talked about dating a 25-year-old girl (he's in his 40s) and complained that she wants him to go on hikes, when he would much rather be an "indoors" guy.

Next up was the "comedian" Todd Barry, whose routine revolved around criticisms of his grandmother's Italian cooking and, to quote the recap, "Californians [sic] sense of superiority when it comes to Mexican food." Maybe it's a New York thing, but I certainly wasn't laughing.

Finally, Imogen Heap-- the reason I was watching-- came on. Here's what happened, courtesy of YouTube:

"Our next guest is, uh, a gifted singer-songwriter from England-- well, aren't they all," Letterman opined, before making a feeble attempt at retracting his comment. Heap performed, and although her nerves clearly showed at the beginning of "First Train Home", she was considerably more confident by the song's end.

And what does Letterman say?

David: Yeah. Yeah. Pretty nice. Cool. How're you doing?
Imogen: [unintelligble]
David: (points at keyboard) Oh, that is great. What is that deal?
Imogen: Oh, it's uh-- I was kind of joking that it's my, my Twitter--
David: Can I do a thing on that? (presses keys) Am I contacting someone from space?
(audience laughs)
David: Well, there? Did you hear that? That's me! Yeah, how about that.
Bandleader: You just Twittered Ashton Kutcher!
(audience laughs)
David: Do you live in London?
Imogen: Yeah, I do.
David: Could I come there and have dinner?
Imogen: Of course you can.
David: I'd love to.
Imogen: I can cook for you. What do you like to eat?
David: I don't care. Whatever you got, I'm there.
Imogen: Okay.
David: I'm there, dude.
(Imogen frowns)
David: Imogen Heap, ladies and gentlemen!

So, in the end, what is one to make of all this?

Letterman, presumably intending to attain the same sort of immortality as his late mentor Johnny Carson, has, contrary to his best intentions, not aged gracefully. His jokes are, in an effort to stay hip and attract the prized 18-34 age bracket (which moved on to Craig Ferguson a long time ago), the same sort of bizarre, irrelevant humour that is found in the comic strips of many university student-run papers. In a sense, he's like Royal Canadian Air Farce, a show that, in an effort to remain current, found itself relying on the same old stale jokes, reheated over and over until they could no longer pass as entertainment.

One wonders if, given the fact that his stint on the Late Show is nearing its 16th anniversary, Letterman isn't considering following in the footsteps of Jay Leno and being replaced with a younger host.

But where would Letterman go, if such a change were made?

In what is undoubtedly a survival of the fittest (and funniest), David Letterman seems like the proverbial Hare, starting out at top speeds but choosing to take a nap towards the end of the race, figuring that no-one can possibly toss him from his coveted seat as the king of late-night television.

If I were Letterman, however, I wouldn't be taking a nap.

I would be looking over my shoulder.

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