David Letterman's retirement announcement is one of those moments to take stock and say, "Yeah, I'm old." Not ancient, or over the hill. Wizened, maybe? This happened a few years ago to me when another pop cultural institution I grew up with, R.E.M., called it quits. Like Dave, their great years were surely behind them but they were still capable of a blast or two of vitality. Also like Dave, they first emerged into some form of recognition in 1982, releasing the Chronic Town EP in the same year Late Night with David Letterman premiered on NBC. So it's fitting that the first leak of Dave's surprise in-studio reveal came on Twitter from former R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills who was one of the musicians on the show during the taping.
That being said, I've noticed a few reactions to David Letterman's retirement announcement that bring up the idea that he may be stepping down because he never "got" the viral video phenomenon that the Jimmys -- Fallon and Kimmel -- have so clearly mastered. I say, nuts to that. Letterman invented viral videos -- we just called them "watercooler moments," and they were spread with your lips, not your fingertips.
In fact, almost every content move you can make online was done by Letterman first and in many cases better. Here's a Top 10 List to prove it:
10. Cute Animals Doing Cute Things - rampant on YouTube but we were prepared for such things by Stupid Pet Tricks
9. Dumb People Doing Dumb Things - also rampant wherever clickbait is found, and on YouTube, and pioneered by Dave with Stupid Human Tricks
8. Awkward Interviews - Dave upped the nice factor on CBS but before Zach Galifaniakis rolled two ferns onto a bare set, Letterman had a reputation on NBC as a prickly, sometimes disdainful interviewer.
7. Trolling - Oh, you thought that was new? Letterman regularly busted into neighboring local news show Live at Five with his cameras unexpectedly, or patched in live feed, or roasted his bosses on air.
6. Breaking Stuff - Blendtech was a viral sensation for years on YouTube with their "Will it Blend" series of high-strength blenders meeting hot consumer items like iPads and Xboxes but Letterman busted stuff to see what would happen first with stunts like tossing objects off of a warehouse roof.
5. Ironic Distance - Is Gawker a gossip site or a "gossip" site? The Daily Show is satire, "news" if you will, except to the sizable portion of the population who get their news info primarily from Jon Stewart (as some once did from late-night monologues.) The self-awareness of doing a show that is partly about the absurdity of doing a show is Dave's home turf.
4. You Put a Camera Where? - Before go-pros and dashcams, Letterman strapped a camera to a monkey and showed the POV of it scampering around the studio. The Thrill Cam was mounted to a faux roller coaster and eventually became a parody of itself, busting through the studio doors and down hallways, usually ending on a scene of surreal whimsy like a Conquistador and a guy in a rabbit suit spray-painting broccoli. That last bit of casual surrealism could be its own entry on the list, a direct granddaddy to memes like Keyboard Cat.
3. Copyright Takedowns - It happens all the time on YouTube but it also used to happen to Letterman -- his Dancing Waters fountain (itself an amazing prank -- a fountain in front of his desk that was filled with whatever substance struck the staff's fancy) had to be renamed the Prancing Fluids and Letterman himself had to rename and abandon most of his old bits upon leaving NBC for CBS. Even Larry "Bud" Melman had to revert to good old Calvert DeForest.
2. Confessionalism - This is the juice that makes the Internet run, from blogs to comments to video confessionals, rants and apologies. It's the one thing Dave brought to CBS that wasn't much of a staple on NBC. Whether talking about his heart surgery, his son Harry, his thoughts following 9/11, or detailing the attempted extortion against him, Dave had the gift of being compelling and never showboat-y.
1. Listicles - Like this one. It's the tactic that built Buzzfeed and keeps countless online publishers in business, lists of the best this or 10 ways to do that. Letterman's Top 10 Lists are satires of something that wouldn't even blow up until the last five years -- and he was doing it in the late '80s.
It is worth pointing out that almost all of these were staples of his NBC show, and were mostly absent on CBS with the exception of the Nos. 1 and 2. It's not that Letterman didn't know how to create buzzworthy content. He just didn't feel the need to chase it. More to the point, he matured and evolved his act.
In his great book on the original late-night wars, The Late Shift, Bill Carter wrote about how Letterman felt that he had to tighten up his show and mature it to get the coveted Tonight Show slot. Though he didn't end up with the prize, what he did on CBS is very much that vision: tailored suits replacing sports coats and a curmudgeonly but fundamentally gentle Dave in place of edgy sardonic Dave.
What has changed perhaps is that Letterman's innovations are mainstream. The meme-friendly bits that fill late-night now are as much from Letterman as they are from Instagram and YouTube. It's just been easy to forget because on CBS Dave has moved past that and Dave won't kowtow to the fickleness of audience demand and network execs. He won't do something if he doesn't feel it -- just like the most successful digital stars, Dave has maintained something that Leno always struggled with: authenticity.