Over the past decade or so, David Letterman has become outspokenly liberal, but according to cultural critic Scott Timberg, the seemingly apolitical comedy that Dave did in the 1980s actually hurt the left. Specifically, it served as a sort of opiate which left his audience disinclined to push back against Reaganism.
“For those on the progressive or liberal side of the aisle,” wrote Timberg last Tuesday in Salon, “the irreverent irony ‘Late Night’ brought to the table probably helped neuter the American left…The helpless bemusement behind it certainly became -- for anyone aiming at social or political or economic change -- a dead end.” In Timberg’s telling, laughter, rather than activism, became the “default response” to “the stupid stuff thrown to us by cheap consumerism and the Reagan-Thatcher takeover.”
These days, Timberg opined, “you can see [Letterman’s] sensibility in pernicious figures like the smugly creepy Ted Cruz (who often seems like a bad, misfired Andy Kaufman impersonator) and Sarah Palin…All of Generation X…grew up in the ‘80s and breathed the same air, in which Reagan and Letterman were both cultural fathers.” (Timberg promoted his story by tweeting a link accompanied by the message “David Letterman + Ronald Reagan = Ted Cruz.”)
From Timberg’s piece (bolding added):
“Pac Man Fever” and mullets, Milli Vanilli and Rambo, menacing laugh tracks and Rocky sequels – the ‘80s were a hellish period even if we overlook political nightmares like Reagan selling weapons to Iran, Lee Atwater’s race-baiting and the rise of suspender-clad Wall Street studs who would repeatedly tank the U.S. economy. There may have been another reasonable response to all of this – in other eras, for instance, some of these things may have provoked outrage or morally focused scorn.
But instead, the default response in the 1980s – by a lot of educated urban and suburban folk, at least – was to throw the head back and laugh. And while he didn’t invent it – irony dates back at least as far as classical Greek drama – the man most responsible for the era’s embrace of the ironic smirk, deadpan laugh and self-mocking indifference is about to end his reign on late-night TV. It is surely David Letterman’s greatest legacy…
And this is where things get tricky. Thomas Frank has written how “Animal House” (which was set at Dartmouth, breeding ground of felon Dinesh D’Souza and the Dartmouth Review) was not just about a bunch of wild-ass cats like Belushi’s Bluto, but the birth of the coked-up, deregulating bad behavior of the New Right. Letterman, similarly, is not just a funny guy whose show changed the American sense of humor: You can see his sensibility in pernicious figures like the smugly creepy Ted Cruz (who often seems like a bad, misfired Andy Kaufman impersonator) and Sarah Palin (listen to her dismissals of the “lame-stream media”). All of Generation X, wherever across the political spectrum, grew up in the ‘80s and breathed the same air, in which Reagan and Letterman were both cultural fathers.
More important, for those on the progressive or liberal side of the aisle, the irreverent irony “Late Night” brought to the table probably helped neuter the American left – the smirk could easily turn to cynicism and heartlessness. The helpless bemusement behind it certainly became – for anyone aiming at social or political or economic change — a dead end.
Irony’s endgame was best diagnosed by a writer who was, for a while, one of Letterman’s greatest comic inheritors: David Foster Wallace…
…In the end, [Wallace] wrote, Letterman’s brand of dismissive humor led not to real rebellion or thoughtful skepticism but to passivity and corporate consumerism…
…Letterman is stepping down, and he’s made us laugh — a lot — along the way. What else were we supposed to do with all the stupid stuff thrown to us by cheap consumerism and the Reagan-Thatcher takeover? But he did something deeper and more corrosive to us and the body politic, and that will take far longer to unwind.