I am from a younger generation than the one that venerates David Letterman as the king of late night television. I am too young to remember much of anything about his tenure as host of NBC’s Late Night. My talk show loyalties started with Conan O’Brien, switched at some point to Jon Stewart, and now rest with Craig Ferguson. Of course I have watched Letterman more than a few times in my life. However, the thing that stands out most about Letterman in my mind is not his top ten lists, his interview style, or his banter with Paul Shaffer. Instead, it is his shows’ (both Late Night and The Late Show) tendency to bring out the best in its musical guests, meaning that Letterman’s talk shows have played host to some of the finest musical performances on television.
The Late Show has already had two great performances in 2014: Future Islands performing “Seasons” and Le1f’s rendition of his 2012 cut “Wut.” I am not able (or willing I suppose) to keep tabs on every performance on American late night television, but my year-to-date count has Letterman currently leading the field in this department two-nil.
This is not anomalous. I still occasionally watch TV on the Radio’s stirring appearances on Letterman, either blazing through “Wolf Like Me” in 2006 or rocking out on a fire escape in 2008. Letterman also famously gave R.E.M. its first significant mainstream exposure in 1983. For whatever reason, Letterman’s contemporaries have rarely stood out in this respect, at least not consistently.
While most media writers and comedians will remember Letterman as the funniest person in late night television, to me he will be the host of the late night show with the best musical performances.
TV On the Radio (2006)