His cutting edge may have dulled a bit and his Top-10 lists are looking a little long-in-the-tooth these days, but David Letterman is still the best thing on late-night television.
Tonight, the gap-toothed one celebrates his fifth anniversary on CBS with a 90-minute "Late Show with David Letterman" special beginning at 9: 30. Filled with clips, guest cameos and reprises of the best Stupid Human and Stupid Pet Tricks, the show is a riot.
There's Dave trolling a New Jersey neighborhood with Siskel and Ebert; Dave and Steve Martin on a beach, exchanging knowing glances; Dave manning a Taco Bell drive-through; Bill Cosby climbing a ladder to the balcony of the Ed Sullivan Theater; and, best of all, Dave working with kids who, unlike their adult counterparts, have no trouble saying what they think. If you don't find this stuff funny, check for a pulse.
The show also includes some of the more notorious moments of the past half-decade, including Madonna's profanity-laden diatribe (one of the pluses of a critic's preview tape: It doesn't have the naughty words bleeped out) and Drew Barrymore's impromptu flashdance.
There's also Farrah Fawcett, acting as though she just dropped down from Pluto, and Marv Albert, squirming uncomfortably as Dave grills him about an alleged encounter with a transvestite.
It's in such situations that Dave shines most brightly and that he separates himself most dramatically from the competition, the funny but relentlessly fawning Jay Leno. For Letterman's not into playing sycophant, not into massaging egos; he holds his guests' feet to the fire, even long-time friends like Albert. That approach was on display as recently as Thursday, when Dave needled Christian Slater about his much-publicized drug problems and wouldn't let him simply change the subject.
The result is sometimes uncomfortable, usually entertaining and frequently unexpected. Say what you will about Letterman, but he's an original, not simply a redesigned Johnny Carson, like Leno and Arsenio Hall, or a latter-day Mike Douglas, a la Rosie O'Donnell. Of today's talk shows, only Conan O'Brien's approaches -- and sometimes surpasses -- "Late Show."
True, Letterman's nightly hour is not what it was in the glory days back at NBC, when he was inventing a new approach to TV comedy, making things up as he went along. "Late Night" devotees no doubt remember Brother Theodore, an old, white-haired, German-accented, rumpled-shirt of a man whose gig was basically to come on the old show and rant. Brother Theodore was over-the-cutting-edge, not-ready-for-prime-time TV at its bravest, and here's betting you'll never see his like on CBS.
But as tonight's retrospective proves, it's way too early to give up on David Letterman.
What: "Late Show with David Letterman 5th Anniversary Show"
When: Tonight, 9: 30-11
Where: CBS (WJZ, Channel 13)
Pub Date: 11/23/98