The last episode of The Late Show with David Letterman aired last night — just over twenty-two years and four thousand episodes after I watched its debut in the middle of a hurricane warning, on my first evening as a college student in Virginia. I can’t really improve on all the commentary recognizing the significance of my all-time favorite TV personality to American popular culture, but I want to ask my readers to help me think aloud about a theme that has received only superficial treatment in most of these end-of-an-era essays: Dave as Midwesterner.
Now, it’s been a long time since David Letterman was the “boy from a small town in Indiana” that Alan Kalter announced him as to open last night’s finale; he’s worked in New York longer than he lived in the Hoosier State. But it seems like writers are obligated to describe Letterman as Midwestern, by implicit comparison to Johnny Carson (born in Iowa, raised in Nebraska) and often explicit contrast to the late night talk show hosts remaining (Jimmy Fallon – New York; Jimmy Kimmel – New York and Las Vegas; Conan O’Brien – Boston; Seth Meyers – born near Chicago but raised in New Hampshire; Stephen Colbert – Washington, DC and South Carolina; etc.).
But what does it mean that Dave shares a “Midwestern sensibility” (as one writer put it) with Johnny — and his first and last guest, Bill Murray?
I mean, gosh, we Midwesterners can’t even agree on who’s one of us, doncha know? In a March 2014 survey for FiveThirtyEight.com, 20% of respondents didn’t identify Illinois — Illinois — as being in the Midwest, and it was the most popular choice. About three in ten didn’t place Letterman’s Indiana in the region; four in ten, my Minnesota. Which is just…
Well, we’re nice, so I’ll stop there.
But there’s more to Midwestern than niceness. So says Paste‘s Bonnie Stienberg:
But “nice” sometimes gets confused for “passive” or “meek,” and it’s not until you spend some time outside the region that you realize there’s another predominantly Midwestern trait people are less aware of—a certain directness, an aversion to pretense. An allergy to bullshit. This is why celebrities feared David Letterman, and one of many reasons why the Indiana native was able to completely change late-night TV for the better.
And here the contrast with the post-Letterman crowd, with their fawning over celebrities and apparent comfort with BS becomes rather stark.
Now, it’s not like Midwesterners don’t want to be noticed. Overlookedness is a central grievance of those of us who inhabit “fly over country,” a region whose largest urban area is known as the “Second City.” But being the center of attention is one of the greatest temptations for the Midwestern soul — and if the cost of being noticed so intensely is lifelong affectation…
It struck me last night that the brilliance of Letterman is how he reconciled this most Midwestern paradox. For six thousand nights over three decades, he was the center of attention for millions of people, but he built that celebrity almost entirely on three things: weirdness (another of Stienberg’s themes), self-deprecation (just rewatch last night’s episode and count the number of jokes at the host’s expense), and disdain for all the trappings of celebrity.
Then there’s this concise but acute diagnosis of what it means to have a “Midwestern sensibility” from a Minnesotan who left to pursue a comedy career in New York and later returned home: Sen. Al Franken (28 times a guest with Letterman). Writing for the Boston Globe, Franken compared Carson and Letterman:
[Johnny] Carson and Letterman were both from the Midwest and conducted themselves with a certain Midwestern reserve and decorum. But there’s a dark underside to the Midwest sensibility, which Letterman let us see.
I’m sure it’s hard to understand how a comedian who made his name with Stupid Pet Tricks and taking Alka Seltzer baths conducted with himself with “reserve and decorum.” But Franken’s absolutely right. Take Letterman’s response to the infamous Madonna visit of 1994, as recounted by producer Daniel Kellison:
It was the most censored late-night broadcast in television history, with Madonna saying “fuck” 14 times. She took off her underpants and complained when Letterman wouldn’t smell them. And if you think Letterman was happy about all the subsequent attention and newspaper coverage the interview brought, you’d have guessed wrong. He always understood the privilege that came with the ability to broadcast, and the responsibility that accompanied it. Ratings and press were less a consideration.
(Back to celebrity for a moment… It’s also telling that Kellison continued: “Compounding matters was the fact that Madonna would not leave the stage. We bumped the next guest (a grocery bagger — an annual human interest competition winner that Dave, a former bagger himself, genuinely always enjoyed).”)
I think Letterman exemplifies the sense that to be Midwestern is to grow up on a closed frontier. Hard to believe, but people used to uproot themselves and relocate to places like Indiana and Minnesota in order to reinvent themselves. The Midwest was boundless… but rigid boundaries came quickly. (As you’ve flown over fly over country, you’ve no doubt noticed all those squares, formed by roads running along perfect north-south and east-west axes.) Its climate enforces a kind of claustrophobia as well — you spend a lot of time finding warmth within the confines of 10×10 foot rooms. But, as music critics have observed often, that restlessness has been known to foment a fierce creativity.
But often within well-established structures (three-chord rock’n’roll, twelve-bar Chicago blues). As much as people like to remember the NBC Late Night years as a time of uncompromising, anarchic experimentation… At the end of the day, they featured someone at a desk, interviewing celebrities in chairs, with a stand-up set or musical performance. In last night’s finale, Letterman set up a very funny clip reel of him talking to children — by gleefully pointing out that he was just repeating a bit inaugurated decades earlier by Art Linkletter.
So in the end, you get rebellious streaks bounded by a conviction that there’s a “right way” for things to be done.
Finally, there’s the “dark underside to the Midwestern sensibility”… Carson didn’t radiate this from his Burbank soundstage, but all sorts of Midwestern darkness breaks through the Californian sunshine in the great 2012 American Masters episode on the “King of Late Night.” Letterman’s darkness was never too far below the surface of his comedy, as self-deprecation constantly verged on self-loathing.
And in the end, the three moments in which Letterman most completely shattered the fourth wall separating him from his audience were unbelievably dark, showing him confronting death (his open heart surgery; his post-9/11 return) and depravity (responding to a blackmail threat by speaking openly about having sex with female employees).
So there you go: my attempt at unpacking what it means for one Midwesterner, and perhaps many of us, to be “Midwestern.” This is really more in the wheelhouse of an actual Midwestern historian — yes, that’s a thing now; the New York Times says so — like Paul Putz. So hopefully I’ll sound ridiculous enough that he’ll be goaded into writing a better think piece.
(Note: Midwesterners don’t actually believe in “think pieces.” That’s some nonsense they cooked up out East to sell magazines not titled Readers Digest. I’m using the term ironically, which is how Midwesterners express disdain while smiling.)