In a lengthy discussion about David Letterman, TV critic Tom Shales was asked what he thinks Letterman will do after his “Late Show” comes to an end this May:
I think he’ll be afraid of looking like television exposure is some sort of necessity or compulsion, that he’s “needy” in that way. I hope he’ll do something serious like sit down for a long, long interview with the TV Academy for their archives, as many TV greats and near-greats have done (he’s a great, of course, nothing “near” about it). But that’s for history, not for general consumption.
He may take heed from the things that happened to Johnny once he left TV. Among others, Carson got (relatively) fat, he got sick, and then, prematurely, he died. Even though none of us can really empathize with Dave, unless we’ve spent four decades in the public eye and become a daily national habit, we can certainly feel concern about his welfare when he’s no longer receiving the rewards that his kind of fame grants. It’s ego gratification, yes, but something beyond even that. And I wonder how he’ll deal with that deprivation, because it can’t be easy.
Whatever he does, it’ll probably be consistent with his career philosophy; he wanted to avoid the usual show-biz excesses and pitfalls, and I think he succeeded most of the time. You could use the word “uncompromised” to describe his success: Dave wanted to get through the experience with as much dignity (as odd as that may sound) as possible. He didn’t make a bargain with the devil. I remember him saying early in his late-night life at NBC that he wouldn’t “wear silly hats” to get laughs — in answer to a guest’s attempt to plop one on his head. Then again, 30 years or so later, there he was dropping his pants next to, as I recall, Alec Baldwin. Maybe, though, there’s a dignified way of dropping one’s pants and he found it. His bits with kid scientists, the woman who brought new toys to the show near Christmas, the mock trick-or-treaters at Halloween, the grocery baggers and many more perennials were always in their way impeccable. He never stooped to the obvious, unless he was lampooning stooping-to-the-obvious.
He groveled not, neither did he pander. He never displayed the kind of desperation that has long been common in comedy. He didn’t cave in to trends in style or follow dictates on what was “cool.” It’s a little thing but indicative: he didn’t start telling the studio audience to “Give it up for” his next guest just because that became the fashion, and he seemed determined to avoid the shameless hyperbole found in all kinds of show business. He was determined, I think, to remain David Letterman and not become somebody else. And his success at doing that is one reason his most devout and loyal fans love him, myself included, and are dreading his departure.