One week after he watched his old rival Jay Leno return to television as NBC’s great prime-time hope, David Letterman will start making a statement of his own.
He will start with the president of the United States.
Letterman will have President Obama as his only guest on Monday night when he returns from a week off. It will be Obama’s sixth visit to Mr. Letterman’s late-night CBS show, but his first as president.
Obama, of course, famously was the first sitting president to visit any late-night entertainment show when he dropped by The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in March. The Letterman bookers have been diligent ever since in arguing for some fair play — and equal booking — for their guy.
Obama’s visit, to be followed on Tuesday night by another guest of note, former President Bill Clinton, happens to dovetail with a larger strategy for The Late Show With David Letterman.
The comedian has been reshaping his program around a longer, more ambitious, more politically pointed monologue — the kind viewers associate more with that long-running late-night show on NBC.
“When he began in television, Letterman was virtually apolitical,” said Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse. “Now he’s moved to the point where he could be called a political comedian.”
One reason may have been Letterman’s own unexpected role on the political stage in the last year. He had a famous contretemps during the presidential campaign with Obama’s opponent, Senator John McCain, after he cancelled an appearance at the last minute.
Then, this spring, Letterman found himself in a war of words with Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice presidential nominee.
“I think when Letterman became a target of the right wing over Palin, it energized him politically,” said Alan Schroeder, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.
Certainly, Letterman has not hesitated to hurl more comedy thunderbolts at subjects like Palin and former Vice President Dick Cheney.
One longtime late-night production executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of associations with competing programs, said: “Dave is wearing his views on his sleeve now. Is he going out on a limb? Why not? What’s he got to lose?”
Thompson saw a broader context for the increase in political commentary on the show. “Letterman, as he redefines himself as more political,” he said, “is positioning himself as Carson-esque, by way of The Daily Show. He wants to emerge as the reigning late-night choice for the audience that used to watch the Tonight Show for political humour.”
Johnny Carson, almost two decades after he left the air, remains the gold standard for late-night topical monologues. And The Daily Show is now the circus maximus for pointed political comedy on television.
The Obama visit is more serendipitous than strategic.
Obama is turning up on the Late Show on the first night of the new television season for CBS, a week after Leno’s star turn in prime time with his new The Jay Leno Show.
And Letterman is now locked in a nightly ratings battle with Conan O’Brien on NBC.
But as Letterman’s producers and CBS executives noted, this appearance is much more about Obama’s priorities than Lettermans.
Still, the timing works out beautifully.
As he did when O’Brien had his big first week as the new host of The Tonight Show, Letterman chose to play a little rope-a-dope last week and let NBC punch away with big guests and monster audiences for Leno’s new show while keeping his show in repeats.
The idea was to come back in the second week with as strong a lineup as possible.