Letterman was a turning point in American cultural history

Damned if it didn’t catch on. The next thing you knew, it was all irony, everywhere, all the time. It feels so ordinary now that few under, say, 45 seem to be aware that culture used to be completely different. It’s not a new world just because of the Internet or social media or cell phones or sexual openness. The big change is in how we speak to one another, and Dave brought that about, all by himself. Before Dave, even “edgy” TV shows such as All in the Family and Maude were direct in their appeal, of a piece with mainstream fare such as Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Wild Kingdom and Gunsmoke and all the rest. After Dave, irony and sarcasm defined nearly all of entertainment: Family Guy. The Simpsons. Eastbound & Down. Parks and Recreation. The Office. Arrested Development. Seinfeld. Even without the sexual permissiveness of those programs, imagine them on TV before 1980. You can’t. The abrupt shift in technique hit TV drama, too, from the real-world weirdness of 1982’s St. Elsewhere to the casual pomposity of House two decades later. As usual, we took our “cool cues” from TV and movies and started behaving that way, too.

The earnestness of Emergency! and Dr. Kildare is far in the rear-view, but sincerity was once the only propriety, period, and it had always been that way. Before Dave, irony was like that little jar of allspice your mom got out once a year for Thanksgiving. Dave decided it would go well with everything, and it turns out we agreed. We live in Dave’s world now, communicating by sarcasm, and not liking him doesn’t make it any less true. Dave dragged a narrow, curmudgeonly worldview from obscurity to majority. Not even Carson pulled off anything that big.

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