David Letterman's departure from The Late Show is a sign of the times

Letterman's work was seminal for its era, but in 2015 when sketches with sharing potential are king, he was left behind

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David Letterman signed off The Late Show for the final time this week after 33 years of after-hours hosting. Amid the plaudits from celebrities and former US presidents, opinion makers lined up to rake-over his legacy. All agreed Dave was hugely influential; but it was the past tense they spoke in.

Jimmy Fallon compared the post-11pm space back in Letterman's early days as "like the Wild West… what late night has become is a result of him playing with the genre and experimenting. I, like every kid who grew up watching him, will miss him.” said Fallon, host of The Tonight Show and ratings winner. And that’s the key point: Letterman’s work – like throwing balling balls off towerblocks - was seminal for its era, but in 2015 when sketches with sharing potential are king, he was left behind. This was a fact he recognised in an interview last year: “I hear about things going viral and I think, ‘how do you do that? The 68-year-old told Rolling Stone. “I think I’m the blockage in the plumbing .“

His rivals however, have it nailed. Jimmy Fallon’s lip-synching battle segment, --- where he challenges guests to mime along to music - gets millions of hits. Our own James Cordon took over The Late Late Show in March and joined the fray. In one segment, “carpool karaoke”, Cordon sings along with a celebrity. As I type, Wednesday night’s croon-off with Justin Bieber is racking up shares, hits and headlines. 

Over here, our later night chat shows fronted by the likes of Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross follow a similar monologue-guests-music format, but without the same level of sketches and skits. This week, for example, George Clooney has filmed Friday’s episode of The Graham Norton Show. The news websites are awash with stories about him moving to Berkshire and playing pranks on Brad Pitt. All very well but it’s just chatting. You sense that across the pond, they’d get Brad in for Clooney to prank on the sofa.

Here, we seem to prize the extraordinary-ordinary. There was a segment from Graham Norton that went up a day ago showing a girl turning a bloke down for a date on the show. At the time of writing it had three-quarters of a million views on YouTube. Or multiple millions of us go crazy for Britain’s Got Talent, middle aged men showing off their dance skills or talking dogs. Or we lap up the eccentric “stars” of Gogglebox and First Dates. “David Letterman taught us to ward off celebrity stupidity. But stupidity won,” was one US headline this week. Okay, what’s going viral over here at the moment may be stupid, but it’s our brand of stupid.

Taking the fun out of 'Fun House'

News outlets this week tantalised us with the idea that nineties children’s quiz-gameshow combo Fun House was making a comeback. You remember it –whether you were a child or a parent– that show with a mullet-haired Pat Sharp and “the twins” Melanie and Martina Grant, guiding kids around an obstacle course to win crap prizes, ride on go-karts and get gunged. Further reading revealed that the new revamp is actually a one-off organised by a pub chain. It will be held in Lichfield in June and families can enter to win a £1000 holiday – alas, this spectacle will not be aired. 

Elsewhere there are other gems reminiscent of the era. ITV’s Ninja Warrior UK, based on a Japanese format (what else?) looks a lot like 90s hit Gladiators. It’s described as "the toughest obstacle course ever seen on British television” Saracen”, aka 51-year-old Mike Lewis and a regular on the original show gave it a go. He literally fell at the first hurdle. What happened in the nineties is best left there, I say.