A few weeks ago, I was in a committee meeting here on campus and misremembered the date of a movie to which I was making reference, calling it “a representative 1980s film,” when, as a colleague corrected, the movie in question had come out in 1991. He then tried to save my embarrassment by joking, “It’s okay. You work on the long 1980s.” (For those not hip to contemporary academic debates in the humanities, his quip played on how scholars have come to trouble the old rigidity of historic periods, discussing what we think of as “the Sixties” less as 1960-1969, and instead as, maybe, 1963-74. Historians and literature scholars speak of “the long Eighteenth Century,” by which they mean a series of political and cultural events that span from 1660-1800.)
While I don’t study “the long 1980s,” I certainly live them. I love Lacoste polo shirts and Clark’s desert boots and Levi’s jeans and my New Balance 501s. Films like WarGames, Ghostbusters, and The Breakfast Club are my cinematic comfort food. As I write this, I am listening to Talking Heads’ Fear of Music on vinyl. The 1980s–that is the literal decade, from 1980-1989–marked the emergence of my cultural consciousness, beginning with a nascent awareness of Top 40 radio and an alarmed curiosity about the Iran hostage crisis as garnered from the back issues of Time magazine my parents left lying around the house, and finishing with a studied interest in hip-hop, the Central Park Jogger case, and the novels of Bret Easton Ellis by my senior year of high school at decade’s end. And if there is a televisual objective correlative in how I conceive of this period in my mind, it is most definitely David Letterman’s late night talk show, which came to a close last week in its later iteration on CBS.
Late Night with David Letterman was one of the first shows designated for adults to which I was given access as the 1980s progressed and I came into adolescence. (The other notable example is Saturday Night Live, which I also adored, but still always seemed–especially in the way my parents spoke of its 1975-78 golden age–as a historical legacy of the 1970s rather than “of my time.”) The Letterman show was a past-the-usual-bedtime treat for me on Fridays, at the end of the school week, and more importantly, it was a mainstay of my blessed, stay-up-late-sleep-till-noon teenage summers. Letterman and his staff thrilled me to no end with their incorporation of the quirky context of 1980s New York into the “entertainment,” offering man-on-the-street bits that became part of the host’s frequent playbook. Its in-studio set-pieces were pleasantly surreal: the MonkeyCam, Stupid Pet Tricks, Chris Elliott as Marlon Brando. Of course, as a music-minded guy, I dug Paul Shaffer and his band. (In fact, I have searched in vain for years on YouTube for clips I remember of impromptu guest spots by other famous musicians, like when Branford Marsalis sat in and played Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” on soprano saxophone.) But, of course, like most people, it was likely Letterman’s style that left me most enamored. While I couldn’t have named it as such when I was an adolescent, I was drawn to the parody of form he offered–that is, his ongoing sly subversion of what had been the entertainment world’s primary mode in the previous generation: sycophantic, inoffensive to sponsors, faux sincere. Dave, by contrast, was ironic, aggressive on-air to television’s corporate facilitators (as with his frequent jokes about NBC’s parent company, General Electric), and unsettling to milquetoast celebrities trying to peddle their latest efforts. (His later rival, Jay Leno, by contrast, handily reversed all of these innovations, choosing instead to make ass-kissing the hallmark of his on-air persona.) In short, Letterman’s style made him in my mind an analogue to David Byrne (pictured above with Letterman in 1983), lead singer of Talking Heads, who, in the ironic juxtaposition of his jerky animated delivery and deadpan lyrics about apartment building conveniences, marriage, television, and real estate purchases, offered a running critical commentary on all of the nonsense middle-class America had prioritized with enthusiasm after the Second World War.
But just as Letterman proposed a subversion of the television personalities who preceded him, and effectively set the tone for many, many personalities to follow (you’re welcome, Jimmy Kimmel), he has come to be supplanted himself to a degree by the changing way we consume television. Few people I know watch television now in the manner I did back in those salad days summers of the 1980s: live, over broadcast television, on a schedule the network sets. Instead, we consume our television either in online binges, or in bits and pieces, on mobile devices where we watch excised clips someone has emailed to us, of parents being cruel to their children as urged by Kimmel, or of Jimmy Fallon doing clever, self-contained musical numbers with Justin Timberlake or Michelle Obama. Letterman, whose great talent was less the humor of “the bit,” than the triumph of his ongoing wiseacre tone, is less easy to anthologize for our inboxes. His personality doesn’t lend itself well to the culture of the viral video, and as so many pundits have suggested over the past year, Dave has become, well, somewhat antiquated in the twenty-first century. (Even that cringe-worthy fossil Al Roker, the morning weatherman on The Today Show, maintains an active Instagram account as a concession to the changing cultural paradigms of new technology.)
So, ultimately, what I’m saying here is: that’s it. In one week, with the Letterman finale, the long 1980s more or less came to a conclusion, and television as I remember it, pretty much died off. It was a good run for both, and I’ll look back on the pair fondly.