D moves on Letterman makes a change of place as well as of pace

June 25, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

So, it's time for another big farewell on NBC. Carson, Cosby, "Cheers" and now Letterman.

At 12:35 a.m. on WMAR (Channel 2) it's the final "Late Night With David Letterman" on NBC.

Of course, there's not the same sense of loss for viewers with tonight's farewell as there was with the others. Letterman is, after all, merely changing networks. The wise guy with the wire-rim glasses and the big cigar is leaving NBC to start the "Late Show With David Letterman" on Aug. 30 on CBS.

"It's just goodbye to NBC," said Peter Lassaly, the executive producer of "Late Night" who is making the move with Letterman.

"Same Dave, better time, new station," is the way CBS puts it in an ad campaign it will launch later this summer to trumpet the arrival of Letterman's new show. CBS and Letterman say the show will hardly change.

"The best way to put it is that you'll basically see the same show on CBS that you've seen on NBC," said Rosemary Keenan, a "Late Night" publicist who is also moving from NBC to CBS with Letterman.

New names might have to be used in some cases to avoid copyright problems with NBC, but Stupid Pet Tricks, Top 10 lists, Monkey-Cam, repeated visits by Teri Garr, a band led by Paul Shaffer, as well as most of the rest of Letterman's staples, will make the transition, CBS said.

But something will be lost from the TV landscape after the last Letterman show on NBC. It does mark a pop culture passage. Letterman's move is part of the larger movement by baby-boomers from the margins into the mainstream of American life.

From the start, the move was all about Letterman trying to seize the mantle as Johnny Carson's successor, which he feels he was wrongfully denied when NBC brass picked Jay Leno as the new host of the "Tonight Show." Letterman moving from TV's margins of late night into Carson's old time period is the show-business equivalent of Bill Clinton moving into the White House, succeeding George Bush's generation.

And one of the first laws of popular culture is that as you move from the margins into the mainstream, you change. There is no way "Late Show With David Letterman" is going to be as on the edge, sophomoric, critical, distanced, or as much the underdog as "Late Night With David Letterman" was when Letterman was eight or 10 years younger and looked like he actually belonged in blue jeans, rep tie, button-down-collar shirt and blue blazer -- the "dress up" uniform of the undergraduate male.

"Late Night" was the kids suddenly finding themselves in control of the TV studio after the adults had gone to bed. It was the kids running NBC, playing with the technology of television by letting monkeys run around with cameras mounted on their heads and using roving cameras to disrupt adult activities in nearby offices.

Its sense of being on the outside and looking in was the best thing about "Late Night With David Letterman." Twelve years ago, when "Late Night" debuted, it was a new sensibility for nightly network TV -- a postmodern mockery of most things mainstream including TV itself. Now that sensibility is all over the place -- from "The Simpsons" to "The Larry Sanders Show."

At 46, Letterman isn't a kid any more. He seemed to be feeling some of this himself back in January when he said, "Maybe it's time for someone younger to be in that 'Late Night' period."

Maybe the initial edge of "Late Night" had already been lost years ago simply as a result of Letterman getting older and more successful. The show did seem to have flattened out, up until the time NBC announced that it was passing Letterman over for Leno.

In some ways, getting dumped on by NBC was the best thing that could have happened to Letterman. Suddenly, he really was on the outside again -- at odds with the adults wearing suits and calling the shots. His sense of rebelliousness resurfaced, and viewers tuned in to see what Letterman would say next about his bosses at NBC and General Electric, whom he referred to as "weasels, weasels, weasels."

With a $42 million contract, that big cigar and new bosses willing to spend $10 million to make the Ed Sullivan Theatre a suitable home for him, it's kind of hard to think of Letterman as someone on the outside these days.

None of this is to say that Letterman won't somehow reinvent himself come Aug. 30 and be the hit CBS believes he will be. But just because CBS and Letterman are downplaying tonight's finale and saying nothing's going to change for business reasons, let's not ignore what happened on NBC the last 12 years with "Late Night." Let's admit that after tonight, it's gone, and that we'll have to wait and see if we like the new, grown-up Dave on CBS as much.

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