There was a time when Australians only heard about the great American tonight show hosts. Our knowledge of Johnny Carson was limited to occasional clips, but when we did see him in action behind his desk and compared him to our very own Graham Kennedy we saw that they were in a different league. Kennedy was far better.
His In Melbourne Tonight (IMT) show was one of the few examples of Australian television in the 1960s and 1970s that could be described as sophisticated. Kennedy walked a knife edge between comic genius and anarchy as he tested Australian values and tastes that were still rooted in the stilted 1950s.
America’s David Letterman, who announced his retirement this morning, is another television great. He doesn’t have the acting talents of Kennedy, nor his willingness to push his audiences and guests to the edge, but he shares that same level of supreme confidence a night show has to have. As a viewer you want to know that when faced with a guest, be they a drunk, drugged or paranoid celebrity, the host has the poise and comic skills to milk the situation to his, and the audiences, advantage. Kennedy and Letterman never showed fear in the face of adversity.
Australian audiences got to see Letterman for themselves about 20 years ago when his shows were broadcast here overnight. We could compare him to our most recent tonight host Steve Vizard whose “Tonight Live” on Channel 7 was almost a replica of Letterman’s show down to the coffee cup, cityscape background, live band and funny lists.
Although Vizard’s show had its moments, as did Vizard, a viewer could never feel completely comfortable that Vizard was relaxed with the recalcitrant guests who could get the upper hand in a testy interview.
Letterman, a giant in American television from the early 1980s, showed the rest of the world that Americans do get irony. He, and his brand of sardonic, post-modern humour that could cut through a celebrity’s narcissism as effectively as Dame Edna, will retire from the screen in 2015. Here are a few of our favourite Letterman moments – and out of respect we haven’t included the only time he faltered when he hosted the 1995 Academy Awards.
Madonna gets tough and smokes a cigar
Joaquin Phoenix mystifies everyone
Bill Murray/Liberace serenades Letterman
Drew Barrymore gives him more than he bargained for
Sonny and Cher reunite