Of all the things David Letterman has given us–the Top Ten list, Stupid Pet Tricks, the Alka-Seltzer suit–maybe the most influential is the mainstreaming of absurdist humor. Back when Letterman was working as a local weatherman in Indiana, it was a truly weird thing for a weathercaster to talk about “hailstones the size of canned hams.” Last night, celebrating his 25th anniversary in late-night TV, when he presented a woman in the audience with a box of raw meat for her 40th birthday, it was the most normal thing in the world.
Normal–that was the word that kept going through my head watching Letterman’s anniversary show. So many of the elements that once made Letterman revolutionary are utterly business-as-usual in TV now: Dave making a phone call with Bill Murray to bust Les Moonves’ chops for instance; the casual assumption that viewers will know who CBS president Les Moonves is, for another instance. The snarkiness, the non sequiturs, the absurdism are not just the stuff of late-night comedy; they’re the lingua franca of ESPN and advertising. (Not to beat a dead Mooninite, but without Dave’s brand of absurd juxtapositions, could we still have ended up with this?)
None of this makes Letterman any less funny–even though I’d personally take Conan most nights–but it’s the mark of a revolutionary entertainer that he makes you forget, through his very success, how much he changed the culture. Dave started out as a weatherman; today he’s the weather, whether we realize we’re breathing him in or not.