How David Letterman Drove Fringe Comedy Mainstream (Guest Column)
The host changed the game, and we all were followers, disciples or at least of a generation in his comedy debt.
In any medium, the fringe — as opposed to the mainstream — is often where the greatest risk-taking happens, and television is no exception.
Late night television comedy — most notably David Letterman and Saturday Night Live (and going back to Ernie Kovacs, but all TV was a petri dish then), always has represented the progressive forefront and unsupervised playground of network television. The phrase "not ready for prime time players" perhaps best describes the landscape of late night. But slowly, over years and decades, the mainstream shifts to embrace what once was the fringe. Indeed, yesterday's weirdo in a velcro suit is literally today's retiring elder statesman.
The breakthrough of the progressive artist also reverberates in massive and long-lasting, if less obvious, ways. A voice like David Letterman's transmits at a frequency that, while mistaken for a dog whistle to some at first, is a siren call to a generation. It signals innovation and opportunity. Happy Days and The Facts of Life were the dominant comedies on prime time when Late Night with David Letterman premiered. You can imagine how happy a generation of comedy writers felt to see Dave hit the airwaves.
I never worked for David Letterman, but he's the host I watched as a kid, and when I helped my former improv theater intern get a foot in the door to write there 20 years ago, both of our careers really took off. I realized then that what made me laugh lined up with the writers in charge, and that was an opportunity for me and my funny and weird like-minded friends. I subsequently sent over a wave of folks, many of whom occupied the 14th floor of 1697 Broadway for a generation and went on to do wonderful things there and elsewhere. Both 30 Rock (the building) and the Ed Sullivan Theater smelled of show business. To be welcome there was an honor for me; I imagined I was visiting a modern day Your a Show of Shows writers room (the real original one was but blocks away), and I was careful to avoid eye contact with the new Caesar so as to never outstay my welcome.
Fringe lets new voices through, lets them cut their teeth, lets them fail anonymously and succeed wildly. That many of those folks left for prime time was never an insult to the show, but a signal that the mainstream was welcoming the fringe. Opportunity was created. Everyone saw the Worldwide Pants logo on Everybody Loves Raymond, but the talent cutting their teeth at Letterman was varied and energetic, and it is safe to say as an example that How I Met Your Mother would not have existed had Dave not hired and given that writing team early encouragement, credibility and momentum. Click around IMDB and social media today, you'll see many career debts being paid.
Fringe doesn't usually last forever, and as the relevance of dayparts themselves disappears, it's tougher to find the edges. SNL still represents it. Adult Swim keeps its cred. Netflix is the new face of it, for sure. But Dave did it in a three-network world, and that Dave is still cool on the day he calls it quits says so much. He changed the game, and we all were followers, disciples, or at least of a generation in his comedy debt.
David Miner is a manager, producer and partner at 3 Arts Entertainment.