|Esquire - David Letterman Article
Old Sincerity - David Letterman
Humorous style: Bashes talk, mocks network.
Identifying marks: Gap in teeth
Trademark laugh: Sardonic chortle
Most unpleasant encounters: Cher, Shirley Mac Laine
Reputation: Reclusive, likes dogs
Most frequent butt of jokes: Quayle
New Sincerity - Jay Leno
Humorous style: Affable satire
Identifying marks: Lantern jaw
Trademark laugh: Jovial chuckle
Most unpleasant encounters: None
Reputation: Hardest-working man in show business
Most frequent butt of jokes: Quayle
Personally, I don't know if people think I suddenly can think now, or I'm smarter than I ever was. - Kevin Costner
Next spring, when the Tonight Show passes from Johnny Carson, it will be the transition for which we have waited for years. From that moment, mid-Kennedy Administration, that he stepped up to the task of overseeing the culture from a New York stage, Carson stood for the country as nobody else: a libidinous, Midwestern Vitalisage Pan in a three-button commuter suit who bantered, that first night, with Groucho Marx and Joan Crawford, and who engineered his longevity by feeding incessantly off the public and private evolution of the country.
The mike is passed to a new generation.
And upon whom is the sensibility chairmanship of America being bestowed? History, it seems, has feedback. It was given to Jay Leno, Mr. Nice Guy; not to David Letterman, Mr. Increasingly Dispirited, Disaffected Guy.
For thirty years or so, as went Carson, so went the nation. NBC had a big choice, which they didn't think was a big choice at all. Leno - probably the best monologist in the country and proper heir to the title of current-events comedy king - was friendly. Leno was direct. He talked to his audience. He had high Q-ratings (this means people like him) and he made affectionate jokes about his parents (who can't work their VCR) and about his home state, that dotty dowager, Massachusetts. "By the time my name was brought up," Leno told the Washington Post, "it was, 'Oh, he seems like a nice guy.'"
Dave, who is from Indiana, was mad. His trick laugh sounded as though he just remembered the funny answer to a riddle from hell. His joke - powerful enough to convert part of a generation - was that his audience, his life, his network, the very medium of television, was just ... getting in his hair? Damn it. This is a very good joke and has made for some good comedy. It even once made for a good Tonight Show host (Jack Paar). But not this year.
This year we were perceived as wanting something different. This year, the kind of found humor that makes the ordinary in American life look ridiculous, has been put on the low-profit shelf with other attitude antiques of the era of weird feelings.
There is a New Sincerity in the land. Jay is sincere. The President, of course, is sincere. Practically his first orders as chief executive were to strip away the stage trappings created by his predecessor; so, too, was his rhetoric stripped clean; not an extra flourish could be found in the State of the Union. Where Reagan sold himself by inflating Capra emotionalism with right-wing ideas, Bush went for a John Ford laconicism - the rich man's Henry Fonda. Where the Reagan years were a Buffalo Bill medicine-show pageant, retelling the previous twenty years from the right's perspective, Bush just called in the cavalry.
We have a new purported directness. And a sudden cessation of attitude. And a new emphasis on niceness, the lack of which was suddenly seen - from Nancy to Dice - as the great sin in the United States. It's the determined trend toward clear exposition - making even the New York Times a McPaper - so anybody can understand anything. It's Regarding Henry, about an Eighties amorality case who is reborn Nice. It's frontal, scrubbed, never enigmatic or layered. It's Kevin Costner.
We've just come through a period in which subtext dominated: Certain cultural contributors - from Tom Wolfe to Dave Lynch to Spy - acted like consumer reporters, purporting to show the difference between what we were seeing and what really was. This was a kind of sincerity in itself -- an attempt to puncture the ruses of the moment. A kind of universal ironic attitude became the tone of the day, as a network of underground cultural agents passed each other notes day and night, debunking the culture by reciting its jingles, slogans and symbols. Yes, it was mean (Blue Velvet). But it was mean with a purging purpose.
So Letterman turned the cameras onto the show itself., mocking television by simulating its dance. It was faux innocence with a point - the new America that said the old conventionality and traditionalism were fake.
But it was replaced by something else. Around the world, a kind of pragmatic shakedown was taking place - the rise of free markets, demand for democracy. And it made its way around to American sensibility. Where was the irony in the fall of Communism? The repatriation of Germany? Why not lay claim to this sweep of history and just call the whole thing a New World Order? What could be more sincere that that?
So was Letterman another victim of world peace? Well, let's not trivialize! Two or three other things had already begun to strip away the Old Sincerity. The stock market crash was one. There was no time for irony or even staying up late when Gordon Gekko was in jail and suddenly you had to compete with a lot of other white-collar maniacs just to pay the rent. The recession shut up the Razz Age pretty quickly.
Next came Dan Quayle. The Choice of Quayle as our generational playmate should have been one of the peak moments in the postwar period of high irony: It was like having a lawn-jockey JFK. But instead of being one of those life-is-like-funny-art moments it was a revelatory insult, a surprise slap in the face. Was this the leadership we had made for ourselves? It sobered.
The third, of course, was the Gulf War. If there was ever anything that was going to drain detachment, it was that. You may have noticed that anywhere you went in America during those months of preparation and battle, it felt a little bit like 1944. Irony was not only in bad taste but worse - not funny. People didn't want sensibility; they wanted either information or diversion . Television turned from the joke of a decadent amusement into a window onto Sparta. Actions suddenly had results.
In the Old Sincerity, when we worked for political causes, it was basically a nostalgic exercise (unless you were a Reaganite). In the New Sincerity, we work to elect our friends or build new sewage plants.
In the Old Sincerity, we told little stories with a detached "isn't this crazy?" attitude, showing like as a kind of wacky, nonsensical proposition; comedy was the universal language. In the New Sincerity, we aspire to tell everyday stories with the intensity of Forrest Sawyer reporting from Kuwait. Life is pretty serious business.
In the Old Sincerity, everybody - from Joe Isuzu to Federal Express - sold everything by mocking windbags. The New Sincerity sells cars by telling us they'll last forever and save our lives with airbags.
The Old Sincerity pointed out everything fatuous the boss said. The New Sincerity says it really likes the boss and sees his or her point of view.
The Old Sincerity taught through attitude that - as Bob Dylan once wrote - propaganda all is phony. The New Sincerity reembraces the need for a message and wants to teach us that propaganda all is necessary.
The Old Sincerity was a summing-up of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. The New Sincerity asks, what were the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties? Let's get on with it.
The Old Sincerity was pretending to Get It.
The New Sincerity is Not Getting It.
Like the night Kevin Costner met Madonna. You might think that one of the great bridge moments between irony and sincerity was the moment in Truth or Dare when Eliot Ness came backstage to tell Madonna that her act was "neat." She waits for him to leave, then gags herself with her finger. "Anyone," she says, "who thinks my show is neat has got to go."
But who's the sincere one here, anyhow?
Madonna's putting on a big sex-parody show. She's all attitude. But she's attempting to punch through a lot of our inherited notions about men, women, private performance, public performance, underwear and outerwear. It may be lip-synched, but it has its own integrity.
Whereas Costner, our Boy Scout, is coming backstage to smite the platinum harlot with ingenuousness. He later told the New York Times he didn't think her show was "neat" at all. He thought it was kind of disgusting. Still, he wanted to convey what he wanted to convey, something that sounded like sincerity, and that is the New Sincerity. This isn't something you can imagine John Lennon doing. But you'll find it moving along through many nice members of this society, from the President to almost any Democratic candidate (if you're not sure you can pull it off, however, it's better to not even try it. See: Gary Hart), and possibly, you'll find a growing tendency toward it in yourself.
You can spot a master of the New Sincerity if he or she admits to not getting it and waits openly and expectantly for you to explain it; he or she is waiting for some information, for you to drop your attitude so you can meet without pretension. The New Sincerity is nothing if not ingenuous. In public.
About ten years ago, Letterman was leaving the Improv in Los Angeles late at night when he saw a friend telling a street corner audience what he had seen on television the night before: a comic destroying his own career on Tom Snyder's show by attacking Frank Sinatra; the teller pantomimed the comic slashing his wrists and then his own throat as he cathartically tore into Sinatra. His audience - comic colleagues - practically cried right there . It was brutal. "That," said Letterman of Jay Leno, "is the funniest comic in the business."
Most of us have learned not to say those kinds of things in public anymore. We've learned to quash our more corrosive impulses these days, to operate on a friendlier plane. It subsequently gets us the promotion. There is no heroism or villainy here. The Old Sincerity was a device to splay the truth to accommodate the age. The New Sincerity is a kind of condomized truth; safe statement.
But from the moment idealism ended among young people in this country, both became almost an inevitability. To two generations - one that lost its banner and a successor that saw fallen idealism as no honor - irony became a hip substitute for involvement. And directness in public life became anathema. Imagine Lenny Bruce or Dr. King or Janis Joplin in our lives today. Their rawness would seem strange, even irritating; get out of here, as Bill Murray used to say. Look at three old-fashioned champions of pugnacity in American style - Norman Mailer, Bob Dylan, and Muhammad Ali - all seem anachronisms not because of what they said (much of which is now basic to us) but because of how they said it. It's no longer done. But who will spit, roar and pummel the truth for us now? The McLaughlin Group?
Real sincerity is a great thing, unafraid of idealism, unembarrassed by directness, hungry for ideas. It reconciles our best instincts with public risk. It is our best self pursued aggressively. And it is up to us to find it once more, to make good on conscience. That doesn't mean that we have to give up insincerity, nuance, or the spitball; the nice guys who finish first always need the most watching.
Don't throw out the old jokes. They're redeemable at the millennium. Have a nice Nineties.
|"Forget irony - have a nice decade!"
"A survival guide to the new sincerity"
"Wipe that smirk off your face (a nice and almost wholly irony-free guide to the new sincerity)"
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