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Late Show with David Letterman.

With new network, stage, time slot, talk show host jokes, |The GulfWar didn't get this kind of coverage'

David Letterman is, without doubt, one significant figure in turn-of-the-century American popular culture. I happen to think Letterman is just great. But not as great as the hype surrounding his Aug. 30 CBS "Late Show" debut would indicate.

This event did not merit the cover of Time magazine, not even in the news doldrums of August. After all, that same week, the warring parties in Bosnia came out with a dubious peace agreement and some more American soldiers got blown away in Somalia. As Letterman himself joked on the first night of his new show, "The Gulf War didn't get this kind of coverage."

The hype is yet another ripple in the yearlong fallout from the resignation of Johnny Carson. Letterman served in the post-Carson, 12:30 a.m. slot for more than a decade. He thought that when Johnny moved on, he would move up to the more audience-friendly 11:30 position.

Instead, the job went to Jay Leno, a hardworking, ambitious and ingratiating comic who, irony of ironies, had built his reputation through frequent guest appearances on Letterman's show.

When he didn't get the big job, Dave was peeved. He'd never liked NBC anyway, so he went trolling for better offers. Now, from the expensively renovated Ed Sullivan Theater, he's going head-to-head against his old protege, Jay.

Little has changed about Letterman's product except the time slot and the classier stage set. He took Paul Schaefer with him as bandleader-sidekick. And, despite NBC's rumblings about copyright, the show still includes the famous Top Ten list, though now called the Late Show Top Ten.

The early shows from the Sullivan Theater were also of the standard Letterman quality -- smart, fast and very funny. The first show included a tribute to the construction workers who renovated the Sullivan Theater in record time. All 200 or so hardhats were marched out on the stage, a nice humanistic touch, even if it could be considered condescending coming from a man with a $14 million contract.

The opening night also made much of the Sullivan connection. This is the theater from which the late, great Ed presented his Sunday night variety extravaganza for 28 years. Elvis, the Beatles, the cast of "West Side Story" and Topo Gigo, the little Italian mouse, all occupied the stage where Dave now cracks wise. In fact, Dave announced that, during the renovations, they'd knocked out a wall and found a 45-year-old woman in there still screaming, "Ringo! Ringo!"

Technical gimmicks have always been a part of the Letterman repertoire. Once on NBC, the camera rotated 360 degrees during the show so that, at the half-hour mark, the image on the home screen was upside down. "Then there was the "Monkey-Cam," a tiny video camera strapped to the head of a chimpanzee, who was then turned loose in the studio.

On the new show Dave introduced the latest gadget, a miniature train running through the miniature new York City backdrop behind Letterman's desk. The hyperrealistic train comes complete with the repeated sound of a gunshot and a woman's terrified scream. "Ah, two shots," Dave quipped, "that must be the |D' train."

Letterman's show is bound to be the class of the field. He's funnier than Arsenio Hall and more adventurous than Leno. However, Dave does have one big handicap. His appeal to a female audience is negligible. This isn't a matter of sex appeal. None of these three will ever make People magazine's top 10 sexiest guys list, and that's OK. The problem is that Dave's show is very much a guy thing.

This handicap was apparent in the all-male lineup of his opening shows. And worse still, many of Dave's best comedy bits -- like the techno-jokes cited earlier or another one in which interesting objects (melons, bowling balls, baby dolls and such were thrown from a 10-story building or run over by a steamroller -- reflect the humor of mischievous little boys grown tall and clever.

Dave's guest lists are always male-dominated, and unusually heavy on professional sports figures. His female guests often run toward the type Dave himself calls "leggy supermodels." And when he does have women on the show Dave is very uncomfortable with them and has sometimes been downright insulting. Leno and Hall on the other hand are outspokenly pro-feminist in their views and more balanced in their presentation.

Also, in the bigger picture of TV history, Dave's mainstream validation at this late date is a classic anticlimax. A dozen years ago, when Letterman started his run on NBC, there was no MTV, no Comedy Channel and no Jerry Seinfeld playing himself playing himself on his own sitcom characters' own fictional show. Postmodernism was a term unknown outside of the academy. The Letterman show erupted onto the air as a sort of meta-talk show. It was television about television. It participated in the conventions of American mass entertainment, but with an ironic distance.

This was apparent from the very beginning when the cameras began frequently pulling back and showing the Letterman set -- scaffolding, cables, frantic stagehands, cue cards and all. Like Penn and Teller's postmodern magic act (which also got its first national exposure on the Letterman show), Letterman and company put on a talk show in the Carsonesque mold, while simultaneously demystifying the genre. They stayed within the conventions and exploded them.

That is why Dave was important once, and why his place in television history is secure. But it is an old trick now. A decade down the line, this pose of ironic distance has become a pervasive, and, I think, corrosive force in American popular culture.

Everything has quotation marks around it now, so no one is responsible for anything said or done. It should come as no surprise that the postmodern aesthetic has found its most fruitful home in television advertising, which must appeal to an audience terminally jaded by millions of hours of conventional hucksterism.

Now it's time for Dave to cash in and enjoy his position as the nation's official insignia of imaginary rebellion. That's what happens to old revolutionaries in America. If they don't get killed, they get tenure.

Danny Duncan Collum writes on popular culture from his home in Alexandria, Va.
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Author:Collum, Danny Duncan
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Sep 17, 1993
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