Tonight marks the end of an era in US TV as David Letterman hosts his last Late Show, retiring from late night TV after 33 years.
The American love of the “late night talk show” is a bit of a strange concept to us here in the UK. We have our Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton, but they confine their witty banter to prime-time, one day per week. Even Terry Wogan never had the temerity to show up more than three times in seven days. Over in the US, TV networks spend a not inconsiderable amount of money on a show which not only goes out five nights a week, at a time when most people are in bed (NBC’s late night line up goes on until 2am every weeknight).
There are now dozens of shows following the same basic format – topical monologue, desk-based banter, comedy sketches, a house band – but David Letterman is still the best one around. Letterman’s original NBC show became legendary for its dangerous, unpredictable nature, thanks to stunts like the 360 degree show, where Letterman interviewed Peter Ustinov as the screen gradually turned upside down.
Obviously, I came to the party a bit later than that. I remember stumbling across the show late one night, during school holidays when I was allowed to stay up late. Flicking around the cable channels, I alighted on Sky One which was showing The Late Show on a one-day delay from its US broadcast. I was hooked by the absurd humour, the Stupid Pet Tricks and the Top Ten Lists, and ended up watching it every night.
It’s a shame that no channel here in the UK carries the show any more. It bounced around for a few years – it went to Paramount Comedy, then ITV2, then ITV4, then DivaTV (no, me neither) – but it’s been absent for a while. You’d think out of all of the 6 million channels clogging up the Sky EPG, one of them could find room for the Late Show. It still generates newsworthy moments, such as during Hurricane Sandy, when Letterman did the show with no audience and handwritten captions held up by the show’s intern.
Fortunately there is a YouTube channel where recent clips are uploaded. Or you can relive the classics like How Many Guys In Bunny Suits Can Get Into H&R Block?
I’m genuinely sad to see David Letterman retire. Even though I can’t watch him every night, it was still nice to think that he was there. Stephen Colbert will take over in October, but it just won’t be the same.