Individual Award: David Letterman
David Letterman entered our late-night lives like a ghost of television’s past and its future, reviving the anar-chic, anything-goes antics of pioneers like Steve Allen and Ernie Kovacs but also pushing the parameters with a postmodern sense of irony. On Late Night with David Letterman, post-Tonight on NBC, he was a one-man fringe festival, a daffy dadaist who found hilarious new uses for Velcro, watermelons and monkeys. He dismissed the obsequious veneer of showbiz chitchat and made celebrities work for their promotional plugs, expecting them to play at his comedic level or be left twisting in the wind. His irreverence, his tongue-in-cheek Top Ten lists, his outlandish sight gags and his prickly personality resonated with the young and the sleepless and the TV-jaded. Late Night won a Peabody in 1991, cited by the Board of Jurors for its “freshness and imagination.” When NBC didn’t give him the retiring Johnny Carson’s chair, Letterman in 1992 took his circus to CBS, where the earlier Late Show with David Letterman enlarged his audience, gave him the leverage to produce other shows, notably Everybody Loves Raymond and the Peabody-winning Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and allowed him to mature before our very eyes. He talked about an affair he’d had and a blackmail attempt he had scotched. He talked about his heart surgery. His first broadcast after the 9/11 attacks in New York, heartfelt and eloquent, is one of his best remembered. By the time of his retirement last year, he was still a master of mischief but also a late-night statesman, as comfy with a sincere commentary as a stupid pet trick. He is missed personally, but his imprint is everywhere. Late-night is the Land of Letterman now, with every show and every host bearing some trace of his groundbreaking style. For enlivening television for 33 years and reshaping the tone and form of late-night entertainment, David Letterman is awarded an Individual Peabody Award.