Exit Strategy for Letterman: Get Jon Stewart

Dear Dave,

You don’t know me, but we go back a long way. I was one of maybe six people in the nation who caught every episode of your long-forgotten, failed but brilliant Morning Show , the one you did before you switched to late night and became a big star. I loved that morning show; it was so exhilarating to see television being reinvented, turned inside out, turned into a satiric commentary on television. Nobody saw through its tics and tackiness, its pretenses and strangeness better than you. Nobody. The group of writers and performers (like Chris Elliott) you gathered around you was smarter, sharper and funnier than the overrated Algonquin wits, more sophisticated than Saturday Night Live at its best, cut as deep as the geniuses of SCTV , MST3K , The Simpsons , the best of Spy and ranked up there with, I think, the almost-forgotten, unacknowledged model for talk-show mockery, the great Fernwood 2Nite .

But now it’s all gone bad, and we’ve got to find you an honorable exit strategy. It’s painfully obvious that it’s torture for you to do the show, it’s torture for us to watch and no amount of shouting and whooping by the overamped frathouse morons in your studio audience can conceal the painful emptiness in the Ed Sullivan Theater.

It started to go bad the moment you made your supposedly triumphant switch from your fringe late-time slot at 12:30 A.M. on NBC to prime-time late-night, 11:30 on CBS. It started to go bad the moment your show stopped being about ridiculing big-ass, pompous television-and started becoming big-ass, pompous television. In doing so you made your show a big tourist attraction on Broadway, but that’s the problem: You’ve become a bad theme-park version of yourself.

I’d like to blame Mike Ovitz. By extorting that huge, $15-million-a-year contract from CBS, big mainstream-star money, he put you in a position where you felt you needed to earn it by doing a big mainstream-star show. But really, it wasn’t the money, it wasn’t Mr. Ovitz’s fault, it was your decision, your misguided belief you had to be bigger and brassier to live up to the money; your belief you had to become someone else, to become someone more mainstream, to become Johnny Carson.

And I’d like to blame Johnny Carson, to blame your childish hero worship of that overrated icon. Because it misled you grievously. You’re much funnier than Johnny Carson ever was, much sharper, and you were doing something Johnny Carson in his vast complacency was never doing. You were doing anti-television, meta-television, television that made fun of television. But somehow you never copped to the nature of your own genius, to the value of what you were doing, to the fact that, at your best, you were the anti-Carson. Instead you idealized a guy who, however appealing (and I liked Johnny myself), was just doing TV and at the end had little to offer beyond tired celebrity plugathon television.

You, by contrast, had invented something brilliant, television that saw through television, that gave all of us who have a love-hate thing about the tube, who had to put up with the piety and crappiness of television, at the end of the day, a relief, a virtual exorcism of television’s hysterical conventionality. But the moment you stopped mocking television, the moment you started doing television, the moment you became all reverent about the “great tradition” of the Ed Sullivan Theater, the moment you allowed your producers to whip your audience into indiscriminate woo-woo frenzy that guaranteed you a laugh no matter how lame your material-and it just kept getting lamer-the moment you started flashing those lustrous, expensive double-breasted suits, was the moment it all began going bad.

I wish I could blame the suits. A few years ago I wrote a column just about those suits, about the way they embodied all that was going wrong with your show. About the way they had become expensive confinement garments, like the expensive trappings of your new set, lush and shiny on the outside but increasingly empty on the inside: The real David Letterman, the brilliant sardonic ironic genius, had been devoured by your suits. Their double-breastedness expressed the double bind you’d put yourself in: trying ever more fanatically to be someone you weren’t. The David Letterman show, you, Dave, had become an empty suit without a real David Letterman, just a tortured simulacrum, inside.

But you didn’t listen to my advice then-to go back to being the one TV show that took on TV, that made mincemeat of Must-See TV. Instead, the show became ever more painful to watch. It used to be about your contempt for showbiz phoniness, it’s come to be about your contempt for yourself, for being in show business. A self-hatred not without a bit of phoniness to it, by the way. If it’s all so contemptible, if it’s all so beneath you, if you’re so morally superior to it, then why not just get the hell out, Dave? You’re not gonna starve to death if you leave, but you will die inside if you stay without changing. Look what’s happening to your hair: That’s not male-pattern baldness, that’s test pattern baldness, bad TV on the brain burning out the follicles from within.

There was a moment on one of your recent shows, a moment in a sketch that inadvertently said it all about your awful self-image. It was a sketch about alleged TV bloopers, and you ran some tape of a “little glitch” you’d supposedly noticed in one of the opening-week broadcasts of the new Bryant Gumbel morning show. It was a clip of Bryant and Jane chatting superimposed on which was footage that made it seem as if a donkey was meandering in front of the camera-the “little glitch.” Pretty funny, I’ll admit. But beneath the subtext of the gag-your long-running, slightly overdone hostility to Mr. Gumbel-there was I think a sub -subtext: your own self image as jackass wandering loose on network air, meandering pointlessly with nothing much more than jackass attitude to justify your presence in front of the camera.

But you’re not a jackass, Dave, you’re a talented guy trapped in a jackass role, a format that tortures you and what you need is an exit strategy. I can offer two.

Exit Strategy No. 1 : Junk the celebrity plugathon and go all comedy. Of all the aspects of your show, this is the one-the couch segments with the Arnolds and the Julias plugging product-where your discomfort, your self-hatred has always been most painfully obvious. And the stupid competition with Jay Leno for idiot stars telling vacuous anecdotes to plug lame action movies … It’s sickening to watch, it’s a pathetic simulacrum of entertainment, but every talk show has been convinced they have to do it.

And it isn’t even working for you. If it were part of a winning formula, if you were regularly beating Jay and Nightline in the ratings, perhaps it would have some pro forma economic justification. But you’re not, and it doesn’t.

So why not just junk it? Tell CBS, “Homey don’t play that no more.” Instead, go all comedy, give us real laughs, hire more smart, funny writers, hire back some of the people that made your NBC show great (like Chris Elliott, say), feature sharp young comics; I have a feeling you could find and encourage some genius comic talent: You have a pitch-perfect ear for it. And go back to your own inventive, subversive comic roots. Take on the idiocies of TV; be the TV show for people who love to hate TV-which is really all of us who love to watch TV. Take on the entire celebrity plugathon culture, ridicule the way Jay and the awful morning shows fawn over big stars with bad movies. Take on the bad movies themselves; people are dying to have someone ridicule the emperor’s new clothes, the big-assed double-breasted suits of infotainment-industrial-complex product. You could create controversy, revitalize show business, entertain us and have a lot of fun doing it.

I think it could be a big success. But if it isn’t, you’ll still go out in a blaze of glory, making a statement, doing the kind of TV you want to, not the stupid celeb plugathon that makes you cringe doing it and us cringe watching it. And if CBS doesn’t like it, pick a public fight with them. You’ll be a major hero telling the network you’re tired of shilling for second-rate Hollywood crap. You might actually do something to turn the tide against celebrity schlock plugola.

Recently, you’ve been obsessing in your monologue about the fact that Entertainment Weekly named you No. 64 in their special issue on “The Hundred Greatest Entertainers” of the past half-century. You sort of make it sound as if, in your mind, being No. 64 is some kind of diss. You get self-deprecating laughs out of ranking behind Jim Henson (No. 59), Cher (No. 58) and way behind The Simpsons . You ought to take a lesson from The Simpsons (No. 10), which has maintained its subversive anti-television television stance and still done well. It’s kind of sad that a Fox cartoon has far more edge than you do. But really, Dave, with the kind of show you’re doing these days, 64 is generous . The high 90’s-near James Garner and Garth Brooks-is more like it. But you could change all that with one bold stroke by casting off the chains of celeb plugola, striking a blow against the publicity industrial complex. I think that would put you on a lot of people’s all-century Top-10 List.

But maybe you’re not up to a bold move like that, maybe too much bad TV has taken too much out of you. You don’t have the energy. If that’s the case, you still need an honorable way out of the hell you’ve created for yourself. So let me suggest

Exit Strategy No. 2: Control your succession, get Jon Stewart to replace you . I don’t know if you’ve been watching The Daily Show , maybe you think you’re above checking out the competition, but Jon Stewart has just become majorly great. In a low-key unobtrusive way that doesn’t draw attention to itself, his Daily Show on the Comedy Channel has become the smartest thing on TV since The Larry Sanders Show and MST3K went off the air.

I have to admit it, Dave, I was a little late in catching on to just how smart Jon Stewart’s version of The Daily Show had become in the 10 months since he took over last January. I guess I’d tuned out on the Craig Kilborn-hosted version of the show by that time-after his one-note, ain’t-my-arrogance-cute shtick began to grate on me. That and the fact that it was up against Simpsons reruns in the 7 P.M. slot and I found myself preferring to watch Homer and Apu go to India for the fourth time rather than The Daily Show once.

But The Simpsons recently moved to 7:30 and so I began checking out Jon Stewart and quickly became hooked. It was not just funny, it was consistently funny: I found myself laughing out loud throughout every half-hour. And consistently smart: The Daily Show realized that the satire of anchormen and newscasters à la Saturday Night Live ‘s “Weekend Update” had just about been done to death. And they found themselves a juicy new target on the infotainment spectrum: the TV “magazine shows” that are devouring prime time, spawning clones like 60 Minutes II , multiple Dateline ‘s and 20/20 ‘s and the like, not to mention the even schlockier cable counterparts the E! Hollywood specials, the VH1 Behind the Music mini-specials etc.

Nobody does the smarmy urgency, the earnest, empathic, head-tilted, reaction-shot hyper-sincerity of news magazine “reporters” than Jon Stewart’s current crew of “field reporters”: Vance Degeneres, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and Beth Littleford. Their heroic efforts to keep a straight face while interviewing the lovably demented eccentrics, obsessives and weirdos they track down is itself a hilarious subtext to their reported pieces, which are all true stories, real people and sometimes evince the deadpan sense of wonder Calvin Trillin and now Errol Morris bring to their dispatches from the land of the odd.

But the key distinction of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show from the past Daily Show and from every other show of its kind on now, Dave, is Jon Stewart’s apparent prodigy-level, almost idiot savant -level talent for spontaneous ad libs. I say “apparent” because sometimes I can’t believe they’re not scripted, they seem so lightning-quick. But it’s more than pure speed, it’s the little twist, the curve he puts on it, the spin that warps a wisecrack out of conventional comedy to some meta-wisecrack dimension. I’m not saying he’s the funniest or most innovative comedian I’ve ever seen, but he may be the fastest on his feet.

Or is he? Had I seen enough shows to say that? When I started writing this column, I got the Comedy Central publicist to send me several hours of past shows on tape, and a cassette of Jon Stewart’s appearance at a Museum of Television and Radio panel (along with the show’s super-sharp producer, Madeleine Smithberg, some writers and actors), and Jon Stewart was pretty impressive in what seemed unscripted circumstances. Just as fast on his feet as he appears in The Daily Show ‘s “Four Minutes With …” segments, in which he’s transformed celebrity plugola into a compressed, absurdist, sped-up version of the tired couch-talk-segment convention.

I had just finished watching those tapes, and I still wasn’t sure , when I got a fortuitous call from my friend Christine, who said she had an extra ticket for the live taping of The Daily Show ‘s Millennium Special that evening. (It airs Dec. 15.)

And I have to say watching Jon Stewart work live at that four-hour taping over on 10th Avenue, watching him interact, between the scripted segments, with the audience, the crew, the band (They Might Be Giants-a perfect touch: Jon Stewart in his low-key, nerdy way might be a giant), I have to tell you, Dave, he seems to be the real thing. Watching him catch a remark coming at him and mint it instantly into a smart, goofy, unexpected wisecrack-it’s the comedic equivalent of watching a Magic Johnson no-look pass: genius at work. Indeed, it was almost like watching a child prodigy do astoundingly complex mathematical computations in an instant.

Afterward, Christine, equally dazzled by Stewart’s verbal facility, compared it with the grim death march your nightly monologue has become-endlessly, tiresomely making the same smirking jokes about the failure of your jokes. Dave, your body language cries out: “I don’t belong here. I’m better than this shtick I’m doing, I’m on a higher level than Jay Leno, but I’m trapped into doing Jay Leno material.” It really begins to grate, Dave. Jay is what he is. You can’t keep pretending you’re meant for something better without at some point delivering something better. You can’t keep coasting on the serene certainty of your contempt.

Which is why it’s time to get you out of the self-created hell of self-contempt you’re trapped in. Time for Exit Strategy No. 2 to get you off the show. Time for you to arrange your succession. Now the thing people say about you, Dave-and it may not be true, but it’s true that it’s what they say -is that you are deathly afraid of letting other comics, other host personalities, show you up. Which is why, they say, a few years ago you nixed Jon Stewart for the time slot following you on CBS in favor of the unthreatening Tom Snyder. That’s why there are no guest hosts for you.

Garry Shandling had fun with that widespread perception when he cast Jon Stewart as his ambitious replacement-rumor rival. And maybe Mr. Shandling should be a lesson to you: He refused to shift his brilliant show from HBO to the networks, kept it fresh and focused on cable and then left it when it began to go a little stale on him. In doing so, he earned the kind of respect and honor you once had. He didn’t earn the kind of money you’re making, but you have enough to last a lifetime: What you’ve lost is the kind of respect money can’t buy.

Exit Strategy 2 is a bold stroke that could get it back for you: Find a way to make Jon Stewart your successor. Bring him on your show, the way Johnny did with you. Make him a regular, ask him to guest-host, set it up with CBS so you leave early to do some prime-time specials and he gets your chair. It would be a stunning, utterly classy move. And, hey, if you really want to go out in a blaze of glory that would reignite your career creatively, try Exit Strategy 2A: a job switch with Jon Stewart . Let him take over the Late Show gig and you go to Comedy Central. Work a smaller room for a while, where you can resuscitate and reinvent your talent. It would be like Michael Jordan playing basketball for love. From your new post at The Daily Show , you can become the cult fave you once were, you can really express your anger at the crappy absurdity of mainstream TV the way you no longer have the energy or edge to do on mainstream TV. The switch could be the hottest thing since those two Yankee pitchers swapped wives. Call me and we’ll work out the details. And do me a favor: Don’t listen to Mr. Ovitz this time.

Exit Strategy for Letterman: Get Jon Stewart