Letterman and Irony

With the end of David Letterman’s long TV run, it seems that everyone has weighed in on his significance and contributions. Here’s my take (originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education) on Letterman’s characteristic stance–irony.

“What’s all this irony and pity?”
“What? Don’t you know about Irony and Pity?”
“No. Who got it up?”
“Everybody. They’re mad about it in New York.”
–Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

To paraphrase Philip Larkin, irony began in 1973, between Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Randy Newman’s fifth LP. The ur-text, for me, was the first paragraph of the preface of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions:

The expression “Breakfast of Champions” is a registered trademark of General Mills, Inc., for use on a breakfast cereal product. The use of the identical expression as the title for this book is not intended to indicate an association with or sponsorship by General Mills, nor is it intended to disparage their fine products.

The kind of irony I’m talking about is verbal, which I define as a form of expression in which one makes a point or conveys an idea by saying something other than what one means. (It’s different from situational irony — the “Gift of the Magi” sort of thing — and dramatic irony, as in a novel where a character traveling on the Titanic excitedly discusses what he’s going to do after landing.). The term, which derives from a stock character in Greek comedy, the eirôn, describes a rhetorical device that obviously originated long before the 1970s, and is most famously employed by Mark Antony: “Brutus is an honorable man.” Anatole France, in the 19th century, adopted “irony and pity” as a sort of watchword; it got into The Sun Also Rises via the critic Gilbert Seldes. (The Language Hat blog has helpfully sketched out this history.)

Hemingway is the great modern ironist. His particular discovery and innovation was the invocation of strong emotion via (ironic) terseness. That extends to his characters, such as Jake Barnes, who remarks, “I’d a hell of a lot rather not talk about it.”

Irony wasn’t a mere technique for Hemingway: It was rooted in his sense that the standard literary language of his time was outmoded, false, and, to a certain extent, debased. He was the most influential stylist in 20th-century American literature, inspiring Raymond Chandler and other private-eye novelists, sports scribes like Jimmy Cannon and W.C. Heinz, tabloid columnists like Jimmy Breslin and Pete Dexter, “minimalist” short-story writers like Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie (who early in her career incorporated as Irony and Pity Inc.), and Vonnegut, who, along with Donald Barthelme, expanded the comic possibilities of irony in the 1960s and 70s.

When I read Breakfast of Champions in 1973, the phrases that jumped out from the preface and gave me an I-needed-that slap in the face were “breakfast cereal product” and “their fine products.” I gathered, without being able to articulate it at the time, that Vonnegut was appropriating corporate and promotional language, thereby suggesting how debased it had become. But he wasn’t asserting that the products weren’t fine, which made what he was doing irony, not merely sarcasm.

And that brings me to Vonnegut’s fellow Hoosier David Letterman, whose final television broadcast aired on May 20. Think of Letterman mouthing the words “television broadcast” — or “beverage” or “ladies and gentlemen” or even introducing himself as “Dave” Letterman — and you get a sense that he was working similar effects, in the realm of the television broadcast. The opposite of irony is sincerity, and sincerity has for a long time been debased by TV talkers, with their sympathetic nods, creased brows, and phony concern. For years and years, Letterman was palpably not sincere in a single syllable he uttered.

Starting with and moving beyond the 1960s “put-on,” Letterman’s comedy generation did remarkable things with ironic poses. The list is long: Bill Murray’s smarmy lounge singer on Saturday Night Live; Steve Martin’s wild and crazy guy; Albert Brooks’s faux standup persona; SCTV’s pinky-ringed Sammy Maudlin and Bobby Bittman (played by Joe Flaherty and Eugene Levy); Martin Short’s Jackie Rogers Jr. and Irving Cohen on SCTV — and his whole self-presentation for the last 10 years; Letterman’s band leader and sidekick Paul Shaffer, with his groovy lingo, elephantine shades, and circus-clown sport coats. All took on the dissembling and self-aggrandizing affectations of an earlier show-biz era. (That this shtick played so well and lasted so long is testament to the pleasures and power of the old model. Again, irony and not sarcasm.) The younger Stephen Colbert went ironically all in to an extent never seen before, in his decade-long stint as a preening and blustering conservative talk-show pundit.

Of course, Colbert ended his run last year and will step into Letterman’s time slot in the fall, presumably playing himself. That’s appropriate. Irony is extremely hard to carry off over the long haul. Look at Hemingway, who was unable or unwilling to drop it and became a self-caricature.

Letterman’s pivot from irony has been a result not merely of getting older but also of a series of powerful events in his and the nation’s life. In 2000, he had quintuple bypass surgery and a glimpse of mortality. The following year was 9/11 (which Graydon Carter predicted would bring the end to the age of irony. Not so much.) Letterman came on the air less than a week after the attacks and delivered what was probably his most sincere televised declaration to date: “If you didn’t believe it before, you can certainly believe it now. New York City is the greatest city in the world.” In 2002, after his friend Warren Zevon received a terminal diagnosis, Letterman devoted an entire affecting episode to the singer; three years later came the death of his mentor, Johnny Carson. In 2009, after receiving blackmail threats, he acknowledged multiple affairs with staff members and devoted a segment of the show to a public apology to his wife and staff.

But the biggest happening was the 2003 birth of his son, whom he often talks about on the air, with warmth and emotion. Once, referring to his bypass surgery, he held up a picture of the lad and said, “This is the reason I think my life was spared, so I could be part of this kid’s life.”

In the run-up to his final show, Letterman has said what he means, a lot, expressing appreciation for his long run and gratitude to his longtime staffers and favorite guests, especially musicians. But it’s not that easy being sincere, especially for someone with so much irony in his blood. In these weeks, he’s tended to haul out go-to phrases like “Thanks for everything” and (when someone thanks him) “You’re too kind,” making him sound like he’s in a receiving line.

And, as inevitably happens when an ironist puts away his mask, there’s a bit of the Boy Who Cried Wolf effect. When Oprah Winfrey finally came on his show, ending their years-long feud, or “feud,” Letterman told her, “It means a great deal to have you.”

“Does it really?” she replied. “Or are your just doing your Dave thing?”

Ironically, you couldn’t really tell.