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Jeff Simon: It’s Letterman’s next act we need to see

He’s doing the right thing.

We still don’t know exactly what David Letterman’s final show Wednesday will look like. A declaration of peace and a sharing of old times with his old Comedy Store pal Jay Leno? Bruce Springsteen singing? That’s what some say.

But whatever it is, I think he’s right to retire from the show, as watchable as it still is. I didn’t think so when Johnny Carson ended his 30-year reign on late-night television. I thought he had a year or two left on his throne as the Monarch of American Show Business. But with Leno and his manager, Helen Kushnick, nipping at Carson’s heels, he was in a very tough position.

All that dark stuff that eventually surfaced in Henry “The Bombastic” Bushkin’s memoir of Carson’s dark side while Bushkin was Carson’s friend and lawyer was just lying there waiting for someone ruthless and ambitious enough to tap into it. After their 18-year relationship crashed, Bushkin and Carson were estranged.

His old attorney, and his information, were a massive potential weapon that could have been used against him. Carson bid us all a heartfelt good night and except for cameos on Letterman and jokes he contributed to his young friend’s monologue, walked off and was never heard from publicly again.

That would be a terrible error for Letterman, as much as I think he’s doing the right thing Wednesday night. His brain may no longer be wholly in the CBS late-night show that confirmed him as the most important late-night talk show host America ever had, but it’s clearly still creative and fertile. If he can find someone (CBS? HBO? Showtime? PBS?) who will allow him to appear whenever he wants doing whatever he wants and wherever he wants to do it, he’ll be able to continue his unprecedented career in a straight line.

What has been clear for at least the past 18 months is that he is simply not the Letterman we once knew. He’s been doing a slightly looser and smarter version of Carson’s old show for a couple of years now, not the wild improvised variation on Steve Allen’s 1962-64 show on the Westinghouse Network that I remember watching regularly in college, just as David Letterman has said he does. Letterman’s late-night expansion of Allen’s lunacy was both amazing and influential, even though it came 20 years after the original.

We can watch the Letterman we’ve still got pleasurably, mind you. But we don’t need him anymore – not the way we did on his NBC 12:30 a.m. show or we did after 9/11.

That original Letterman was the genius of anti-showbiz who first hit NBC in a 1980 morning show that was both incredible and incredibly out of place. And then, in 1982, NBC found the right spot afterw Carson for, at long last, someone to follow Steve Allen into Late Night’s Wild Blue Yonder.

No matter what Letterman might think, he was never meant to be Carson – a Midwesterner offering middle-class sophistication to a middle-American audience. Letterman was meant to be what he was and then brilliantly enlarged upon – an ambitious, fearless, horribly neurotic and troubled middle-American rebel breaking things apart and putting them back together in mind-boggling and exciting new ways that weren’t as new as so many assumed. If you had seen that Allen Westinghouse Show, you’d think Letterman the cleverest talk show host ever, not the craziest.

The television revolution against TV and show business announced itself on “Saturday Night Live” in 1975 and was carried to hilarious and incredible heights by Letterman and his bunch throughout the ’80s.

To see that guy a couple of months ago say goodbye to guest Kevin Spacey by mistakenly calling him “Kevin James” indicated to any who might doubt it just how intellectually disengaged Letterman had become from his own show. He was no longer a parody of broadcast school glibness. His tempo was now a reluctant andante rather than a perpetual ironic vivace.

To be personal for a minute, I cannot tell you sometimes how much it saddened me to watch, in the past few years, Letterman interview middling movie stars by asking the same kinds of questions that the most hopelessly sycophantic media types ask on press junkets.

We needed that other Letterman, the one who picked up where Allen and “Saturday Night Live” left off. The one who subsequently gave television one of its greatest moments ever when, in his maturity, he returned to the air after 9/11 and heartbreakingly told America about a tiny, struggling town in Montana that met after 9/11 and took up a collection for New York City, one of the wealthiest cities in the world.

We needed the survivor of quintuple bypass surgery who, unlike anyone we’d ever seen on TV before, got across how moved he was to still be alive. The one whose heart was reshaped again when he became a first-time father at the age of 56.

We needed him to be on the edge somehow, still – not to be 68, hopelessly distracted and fighting off sleep on the job.

What we may or may not know eventually is all that precipitated his decision to retire from the show. We learn from the current Letterman piece in Rolling Stone that he’s taking “a low dose of an SSRI” for depression, “the class of serotonin boosting drugs that includes Paxil and Lexapro.” Did they contribute to a slower tempo and a dulled edge? Who could deny him greater peace and happiness, even if so?

He needs time alone in his senior years to find something else entirely.

Godspeed. The rest of us can jolly well wait. Whatever he finds, we need him back as soon as he can get his unprecedented TV brain back into it.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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