One of the most influential people in American culture today is a TV comic who cannot even manage to win his time slot. That is just one of the many ironies swirling around CBS late-night host David Letterman. Cool and composed, indirect and innocent, Letterman says just the opposite of what he means, boomeranging his put-downs by making them sound like grandiose compliments. In doing so he not only slams his target but also spikes phony sincerity and with it, the whole culture of Sucking Up to Get Ahead. Over the past twenty years, this brand of sarcasm has become the primary element of American dialect, and Letterman himself drew it out. No other entertainer in the modern era has had such a profound effect on the way people conduct such a basic element—conversation—of their daily lives.
Letterman’s perhaps unintentional success in changing American culture is built on four pillars, the first of which is the polar opposite of Letterman’s act: the Baby Boomers’ humor of the 1960s and ’70s, in all its directness, anger, and confrontational glory.
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