To the surprise of many, the mainstream late-night audience, long inured to Johnny Carson's comfort food, proved ready to embrace the more dyspeptic Letterman, who had previously appealed to a younger, hipper crowd. More surprisingly, perhaps, Letterman proved ready to embrace the mainstream. That's not to say that Dave has lost his edge, but rather that he's leavened it with a newfound amiability. When, toward the end of his 11-year run on NBC's Late Night, Letterman was passed over as the heir to Carson's throne, his growing bitterness made him fascinating if unsettling to watch. Having at last got his due, he is obviously happier—sometimes he seems almost fiendishly merry—and it's infectious. From the first night he walked onto the stage of the refurbished Ed Sullivan Theater, to a now-routine standing ovation, the slimmed-down, smartly tailored Letterman has radiated a self-assured casual ease that befits the new King of Late Night.
Dave's success is a testament to his and his staffs skillful reworking of the old show. Whereas Late Night had a clubby, inside-joke atmosphere, the new, physically upscale production, with its loopy Great White Way graphics, is more accessible—a happy medium between talk show subversion and talk show convention.
Of course, thanks in no small measure to the comedian himself, subversion has become convention. By now an entire generation of TV viewers has been bred on Letterman-style irony. It's no wonder that his studio audiences sometimes laugh before he reaches the punch line—shades of Carson—or that even his most goofy, non-sequitur bits are greeted with cheers of affirmation. So thoroughly has Letterman reinvented the genre, in fact, that his competitors have adopted parts of his format. But they're still playing catch-up; for now, at least, Dave is the man to watch.
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