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How David Letterman changed late-night TV

By Sonny Sachdeva, May 28 2015 —

May 20 marked a historic shift in the late-night television landscape as David Letterman ended his 22-year run as host of CBS’s Late Show.

Letterman’s departure is more than the beginning of a new era for the well-known talk show. It caps off an exceptional career that permanently changed comedy culture in North America.

David Letterman interviews First Lady Michelle Obama in 2012. His 22-year run as Late Night host ended last week. // Courtesy Chuck Kennedy

David Letterman interviews First Lady Michelle Obama in 2012. His 22-year run as Late Night host ended last week. // Courtesy Chuck Kennedy

Late-night television is a strange world. There’s an unavoidable comfort that comes with taking part in the spectacle. Regardless of the dour issues the news is relaying or the daily stresses you endure, a goofy host is there in a suit and tie, ready to crack a few jokes.

This all started with Letterman. There were shows that came before, but those programs were a little more suave and clean-cut. When Letterman was given Late Night in 1982, he brought a new energy to the genre.

The greatest gift Letterman gave the television world was his willingness to take risks. His stunts were absurd instead of inspiring or well-intentioned. Seemingly unconcerned with what his producers thought, he carried out inane segments that saw him wear suits made of Alka-Seltzers, stream video from a camera mounted on his dog and drop watermelons off the roof of his studio.

But that was only part of the story. He was also quick-witted, kind-hearted and genuinely invested in bringing people together. While much of the show’s run consisted of silliness, it had some truly poignant moments. Six days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Letterman spoke eloquently about the tragedy, urging New York City to come together in recovery. Letterman was the first comedian to return to air after the attacks, and his words paved the way for the sincerity found on television in the following days.

Though we won’t see his wry smile on our screens any time soon, Letterman’s impact on television is far-reaching. Current late-night TV greats are undoubtedly the result of his efforts. They’ll carry the comedy torch forward, but Letterman’s singular presence will be sorely missed.

Late-night television isn’t the most important industry, but Letterman’s career was something more than entertainment. He proved you need not settle for things as they are and that you can find success by following your own path, even if the odds are against you.

After 33 years of doing it his way, Letterman revolutionized the entertainment industry. His legacy as the king of late-night continues as many follow in his footsteps.

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