David Letterman celebrates 30 years in late-night television tonight. Chances are, though, that you aren't gonna be watching the anniversary episode—especially if you're under the age of 50. It's been a long, long time since David Letterman mattered all that much.
When I was a kid, I watched Letterman all the time. I loved his show. I loved watching him put on the Rice Krispies suit and then jumping into a pool of milk. I loved watching him put on a Velcro suit and sticking to a felt wall. I loved watching him wear suits covered in things, basically. Some of that appreciation has lasted over the years. Like everyone else my age, I prefer Letterman to Jay Leno, and I have certain amount of reverence for what Letterman did for late night television. He was a genius, he was a pioneer, blah blah blah. Ask any other late night host or comedian about Letterman's influence and they'll slob his knob for hours.
But that slobbing doesn't make much of a difference when you watch Letterman today. Do you know ANYONE under the age of 50 who watches Letterman or Leno on a regular basis? Have you watched any funny clips of Letterman on the Internet since the whole Joaquin Phoenix thing? Probably not. Nowadays, you'll flip over to the Late Show for a second before you realize that you don't watch standard network late night shows anymore. It's filler. The Late Show is never something you HAVE to watch. If CBS cancelled it tomorrow, the tributes would pour in, but it wouldn't make much of a difference in your life or mine. It would just be another opportunity to post an earnest black-and-white photo of Dave at his desk to your Tumblr feed.
The problem isn't necessarily Letterman. It's his format. The late night template has been good and dead for some time now, mostly because it seems totally out of place in the Internet age. You don't need to watch the monologue, because everyone else made the same jokes on Twitter earlier in the day (and, given that this guy is Letterman's head writer, they likely did it better). You don't need to watch the Top Ten list, because it's clear that Dave doesn't like doing it anymore and would rather turn it over to some celebrity stopping by for a cameo. You don't need to watch the musical guests, because live music on TV usually sucks and because you can watch the clip of your favorite band playing live anytime you like on YouTube. You don't need to watch Letterman play "Let's Look For Swedes" or whatever the fuck because he's done the same gag 600 times already.
Most of all, you REALLY don't need to watch the celebrity interviews. Ever. I know there will be moments (like with Phoenix) when Dave comes alive and pokes fun at his guest, but those moments are memorable only because they rarely occur. Usually, those interviews are the same as any other bullshit celebrity interview: They throw in a boring anecdote, there's some light flirting, and then they roll out the ceremonial movie whoring. No reasonably with-it American is going to tolerate this shit for a full hour. It's an infomercial with extra cackling and a rimshot. If you want a truly in-depth plumbing of a celeb's psyche, you can go to Marc Maron's podcast.
The only thing going for Letterman these days is that he's still far cooler than Jay Leno. This would be notable if it weren't for the fact that EVERY human on earth is cooler than Leno. Fucking Buddy Roemer is cooler than Leno. If anything, Letterman should thank Leno for taking the brunt of criticism on behalf of their dying format. Then he should quit Late Night and start a new show that's a half-hour long and features him talking exclusively about all the staffers he's had affairs with. Now THAT would be appointment television.
But 30 years is a long time. We've tired of him, and he's tired of us. It's starting to show.