Today marks late night television veteran David Letterman's 30th year on air, a run matched only by Johnny Carson. (Though, to be fair, Carson did it all on one show, Letterman's been on two on two different networks.) It's quite an achievement for the gap-toothed weirdo, and a reminder of just how comforting it is to have him on the air.
Remember the horrible, bloody Late Night Wars of 2010? It was a fraught but exciting time, when new king Conan O'Brien was cut down by the very people who had put him in power, when old man Leno refused, dictator-like, to give up his position despite a few-months-long pretend exile. It was fascinating to watch, with the dark and angry side of the otherwise so genial O'Brien beginning to poke through, and Leno chuckling and trying to act casual all while tightening his iron grip. It was drama and intrigue and all that. And the one constant through the storm (besides the Jimmys) was David Letterman, whose palpable schadenfreude at the whole mess — remember, he'd similarly duked it out with Leno over The Tonight Show in the early '90s, and lost — made the whole experience more thrilling for everyone. He was never cruel or cutting exactly, he's clearly an ally of Conan's and wouldn't throw him under the bus like that, but he also wasn't network TV polite the way others might be. Letterman acknowledged the meta-ness of the situation, the navel-gazing of it. He was brilliant about stepping out of the moment he was currently a part of and pointing at it and laughing, bringing viewers into the situation as co-conspirators, people equally in on the joke. Letterman during Late Night Wars was terrific television, and made us grateful he never actually got the Tonight Show gig.
Letterman in late night peacetime is just as indispensable (if a little less thrilling). He doesn't typically play any games of kiss-ass with his guests — if they're being rude or uninteresting, he'll both let them know and give us permission to laugh at the situation. Once again, he's brilliant at being in the moment but also framing it, defining it with an uncanny analytical speed. One need look no further (but please do! there's a wealth of examples!) than Twilight star Kristen Stewart's disastrous first appearance on the show in 2009, in which Letterman made only little effort to hide his disdain for Stewart's dismissive, low-energy presence.
That clip also illustrates another thing that Letterman is good at: He's aged very well, hasn't he? He was smart to put up the ornery old man flag fairly early on, so if he doesn't "get" Twilight or the latest band, he doesn't make embarrassingly out of touch jokes about them like other late night hosts (paging, Mr. Leno), but rather earns an easy laugh with his (faux, perhaps) out-of-touchness while also slyly tweaking whatever trend or phenomenon he's discussing in a way that gleefully points out its frivolity. Memes of the day are both vital and silly in Letterman's worldview, which he deftly communicates to his audience.
So yes, he's great, he's smart and sharp and direct. And he's also so consistent, as both a reliable entertainer and a better actual interviewer than anyone else on late night. (Conan is fun, but he can get too caught up in his own shtick.) So we hope he sticks around a few more years past this 30th anniversary. He doesn't show any signs of slowing down, so we probably have no reason to worry, but you never do know with these things. Change can happen quickly. But if that sad change does happen, at least we can depend on Letterman to have the smartest things to say about it.