David Letterman's announcement on Thursday that he would be retiring from the late-night perch he's held in one form or another since 1982 was, in one sense, no surprise. He's 67, this possibility has rumbled around before, and he's outlasted his nemesis, Jay Leno, whose Tonight Show — the gig Letterman once so badly wanted for himself — ended earlier this year.
But what made the news a little funny was that it shared a quality that always made Letterman unique: Its delivery had a sort of raggedy naturalism. It didn't first reach the public through a press release or an interview with just the right well-positioned reporter. Letterman announced it while he was taping Thursday's show, and Mike Mills, former R.E.M. bass player who happened to be performing on the show, mentioned it on Twitter. And when Letterman told the audience, there was utter silence. They seemed not to be sure whether he was serious.
It was just right, in a way, that Letterman's announcement seemed so rough and organic, because as much as he's been credited for his contributions to irony and humor — all of which is perfectly fair — he was also a hugely important figure in the development of what you might call performative authenticity. Letterman — and, just as significantly, his collaborator Merrill Markoe — treated the 12:30 a.m. slot, when they had it, almost like nobody was watching, so why not ... do whatever? Drop stuff off a building. Stupid Pet Tricks. Leaping onto a wall in a suit of Velcro, or into a giant glass of water in a suit covered with 3,400 Alka-Seltzer tablets.
Unlike Candid Camera or the bloopers shows that became popular in the mid-1980s, around the same time David Letterman did, the unplanned or unpredictable — or the ending in disaster — wasn't treated as a mistake or an embarrassment. It was part of what they did. For many years, I kept a VHS tape of the episode of Late Night that featured the Monkey-Cam Mobile Unit, which consisted of Zippy the Chimp on roller skates with a camera strapped to him. I considered it one of the funniest things I'd ever seen, though I couldn't have told you why.
It was Letterman's "heck with it" looseness that gave him something very important in common with Jimmy Fallon: the ability to get people to do things. There may have been no clip that was ever, in history, more revealing as to the deeply complicated relationship between Cher and Sonny Bono — who had a son together but had been divorced for years by the time this happened — than Letterman cajoling them into singing together.
In later years, these moments of strangely bracing straightforwardness were sometimes very charming, as in some of the thoughts he shared after his heart surgery and the birth of his son, and sometimes very not-charming-at-all, as in the revelations about his infidelity that followed a bizarre attempt to blackmail him, all of which he explained on his show.
It seemed right that this news spread in a messy fashion at first, just because he went out there and sort of ... said it. None of the high drama of the NBC shuffles of recent years; just a lot of thank-yous, and a couple of jokes. There will be plenty of time to wonder what CBS will put in that slot, whether it's a similarly structured talk show or something else entirely. For the time being, though, he seems to be doing what he wants, the way he wants.