Three decades later, what was biting and revolutionary has become a formula. Tongue-in-cheek shtick has become such a staple of late night that it’s hard to imagine anyone ever took the genre seriously. As the shows have turned from a quiet corner of network programming to a nice little revenue generator for their corporate overlords, the gags have become bigger, broader, safer, and more predictable, and the interviews — guided heavily by pre-show discussions — have lost their spontaneity, their sense of fun, play, and intelligence and have become largely scripted enterprises in promoting new products.
This week, Letterman threw all that away. In a pair of shows — often awkward, clunky, poorly lit, and almost unscripted — he sat back and just talked, chatting with a largely celebrity-free roster of guests. In doing so, he reminded audiences just how much fun it is to listen to a wit as great as Letterman is just talk. Near the top of Tuesday night’s show, Letterman told a meandering, punch line–free tale of his day wandering through the hurricane landscape that was nearly Garrison Keilloresque in its leisurely pacing toward no particular direction, and every word of it was enthralling.