The man who changed American culture

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Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night by Jason Zinoman, Harper (HarperCollins Publishers), US $28.99, Pp 368, April 2017, ISBN 978-0062377210

In 1915, David Letterman retired, leaving behind a legacy built over thirty-three years on television. His career outran every late night show in history including legends like Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan. During his career, David Letterman redefined the modern talk show with his comic style. Letterman may be one of the most celebrated stars in America, his career is commonly misunderstood. In Letterman, New York Times comedy critic Jason Zinoman writes the first authentic biography of Letterman and explains his legacy. Zinoman tells the story of Letterman’s from his early days in Indiana to his retirement. Zinoman goes behind the scenes of Letterman’s career to explain modern comedy.

David Letterman entered the national consciousness in the early 1980s when the roiling revolutions of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players of the original ‘Saturday Night Live’ were in transition, and the most popular comedian in America, Steve Martin, had just retired from stand-up comedy. ‘Late Night with David Letterman’ went on the air at 12.30 am when that seemed much later than it does now. Zinoman says that, before the internet and thousands of cable channels changed the cultural landscape, Letterman’s main competition was reruns, old movies, and sleep. ‘Late Night’ started with shots of empty New York streets followed by the camera panning up a dark skyscraper before zooming in on the one lit-up window. The opening carried a distinct message: this is the only thing on right now that matters.

Zinoman says that Letterman represented a version of New York cool that seemed more accessible than punk singers in ripped shirts on Broadway. He wore white sneakers, unkempt hair, and a conspiratorial expression. His smirking tone was so consistently knowing that he seemed as if he must know something. In the 1950s and early 1960s, during the first comedy boom, when clubs sprouted across the country and stand-up became one of the quickest routes to sitcom stardom, Letterman inspired an entire generation of comedians. He created a blueprint that was followed by almost every late night show with an adventurous bent and helped define a sensibility that changed the entire culture. At a time when talk shows were still trafficking in the chummy sensibility of the celebrity roast, David Letterman brought a certain kind of knowing, ironic, and elusive voice into the mainstream.

Letterman wasn’t the first late-night talk-show host or the most popular or popular or powerful one. But he was the most influential. Zinoman writes, “Letterman didn’t just create two new network television franchises and produced some of the funniest, most innovative comedy in the history of television in a career that spanned more than six thousand hours of performance. He created a new comic vocabulary that expanded our cultural sense of humor and made a persuasive case for the daily talk show as an ambitious art form.”

David Letterman is an integral part of modern American culture. Zinoman provides a profound analysis of Letterman’s person and legacy and explains how they are inseparable from modern American culture. Zinoman provides deep insight into how Letterman impacted the modern American culture. In this beautifully written book, Zinoman takes you to 1980s, 1990’ and 2000s’ and behind the stage. He brings Letterman alive as you read on and, at times, you feel as if you are present on stage with Letterman. It is a necessary read for everyone interested in Letterman and American talk shows.