I don’t know which fact is more surprising (depressing?):
1. David Letterman is older than Johnny Carson was when Carson retired.
2. I’m older than David Letterman was when he began hosting Late Night.
When Johnny Carson aired his final Tonight Show in 1992, I had recently turned 14. I was old enough to understand that Carson’s retirement was a big deal, although I couldn’t appreciate it on the same level that my parents could.
I’m also too young to remember a time when David Letterman wasn’t on the air. He took over the post-Carson timeslot in 1982. I initially became aware of Letterman first-hand during one of his early prime-time anniversary specials, since staying up even to 11:30, much less Late Night‘s 12:30, was a tall order for a kid in single-digits.
Letterman’s show was, in some ways, an evolution of—and a reaction to—Carson’s Tonight Show. Some of that was by design, as the Carson team specifically forbade Late Night from mimicking certain elements that would have made the program too similar to Johnny’s. For example, Letterman wasn’t allowed to do a lengthy, Carson-esque monologue, and Paul Shaffer’s “World’s Most Dangerous Band” could only be a four-piece, not a full orchestra like the Tonight Show had.
Coupling Letterman’s own creativity with the external pressure of Carson’s restrictions gave birth to the most innovative talk show ever, and the most innovative late-night program of any kind in history, with the possible exception of Ernie Kovacs‘ brief stint as the host of Tonight.
Letterman would be the first to admit that he could never be as good as Carson at what Johnny did best. Dave wasn’t nearly as charming as Johnny Carson was. He also didn’t have Johnny’s acting chops or more multifaceted background as a performer. To wit: Carson had begun his entertainment career as a young magician, of all things, but he later gained experience as a game-show host and possessed musical abilities entirely beyond the scope of Letterman’s more finite skill set.
But that was the point.