By Erin Moyer || Senior Editor
I believe, as elderly page Kenneth Parcell once asserted, that television is the true American art form. I believe there are certain moments within the medium’s history that stay with us, that guide us and inform us. I believe that these classic TV moments leave us not just rejuvenated, but restored.
And one such moment? David Letterman’s 2007 interview of Paris Hilton shortly after her release from prison.
If you have not seen this watershed moment in a while– indeed, if you have never seen it, I urge you to change that. In the words of Tina Fey, presenting David Letterman with his 2012 Kennedy Center Honors designation, you need to go and watch that piece of poetry right now. It was not until last semester, when I was putting off all of my work and was on a YouTube bender of watching various videos of Tina Fey speaking at things, that I first stumbled upon those words. I decided to take a risk and not watch the next suggested video, “Tina Fey Honoring Carol Burnett.” I decided to see David Letterman and Paris Hilton for myself. And with that, my fate was sealed. David Letterman is now my idol. And, if he ever returns my calls, my betrothed.
Here’s how this all goes down: a whisper-thin, platinum-blonde Paris Hilton struts out onto the stage. The studio audience meets her with a polite round of applause, of course, but David Letterman? David Letterman is just emanating contempt for her. It’s actually astonishing. You will feel your soul withered from your computer screen, and not just from the normal radiation your computer is already giving off. Ms. Hilton, there to promote her new perfume “Can Can,” sits down, and she and Dave make some idle chit chat. (Paris, for those curious, does prefer Los Angeles to New York.) Then, Letterman suddenly says, “Uh, how’d you like bein’ in jail?” And if you can believe me, the interview only goes uphill from there.
This is not just a caustic run-in between a crotchety older gentleman and a tart, perhaps talentless starlet. This is a staid, mid-Western perspective meeting shiny, coked-up celebrity culture. This is vaguely conservative, common-sense America meeting the platinum-blonde, baby-voiced monster its guilty love of bad behavior created. This is the confrontation America needed, between the forces of the conventional, of the rational, and the embodiment of the exact opposite. And for once, the conventional comes out the winner.
In these eight minutes, we are all David Letterman. We all have the chance to purge ourselves of our addiction to reality TV garbage, to renounce it entirely, to spit on its grave and pretend we never ever liked it. Letterman so thoroughly embarrasses, so incontrovertibly takes down the perfume-hawking Paris Hilton, that it gives me hope for us yet. It makes me believe that there will always be the skeptical, critically-thinking voice of reason out there, someone who is prepared not just to pinpoint, but to out-and-out embarrass, parts of our culture that so deserve to be called out.
When you think about it, Paris Hilton actually exacted such harm onto our culture: she was, after all, the even emptier-headed precursor to the currently-reigning Kardashian reality TV empire. She defined a whole era’s idea of “sexy” around slim-hipped infantilization, complete with tiny dogs, tiny voices, and wispy blonde hair. She showed lots of little girls an idea of success and femininity rooted almost proudly in apathy and ignorance, in not knowing what’s going on and spending money that you never had to make.
I don’t mean to say that Paris Hilton should have constructed her persona around some corny, bullshit vision of the true American experience. I’m not saying she owed us all an intentioned portrayal of what is, at the end of the day, only my own idea of being a good role model. But it would be nice if she hadn’t popularized the vocal-frying, can’t-take-you-seriously baby voice. I would have appreciated it if she hadn’t so casually played with her own privilege and status. It would have been chill if she hadn’t made her babyish, puerile self the standard of sex and desirability for a long time.
After last week’s episode of Saturday Night Live, I was really disappointed. My roommate and I stayed in and stayed up to watch Donald Trump host the show. I had hoped SNL, so storied and famed for satirizing the political and ridiculous, would finally serve Trump with the very public comeuppance a man I find very hateful has yet to receive. And SNL, bless its soul, definitively did not deliver the refined, sharp critique I had hoped for, that I think we all needed. The cast turned in an episode that was, as the Reporter staff wrote in our masthead last week, both non-controversial and thoroughly non-funny. Trump was not embarrassed or called-out at all, unless you’re counting his own lackluster, on-camera self. Instead, the episode very much tiptoed around the serious insanity and hurtful invective the Trump campaign centers on. It took an opportunity for on-point satire handed to it on a silver platter, and it threw it out. The show didn’t go out with a bang, but a whimper.
And that’s why Letterman and Hilton’s interview is so important. We’ve lost satirical Stephen Colbert, we’ve lost Jon Stewart, and it would appear that we are slowly, sadly, losing Saturday Night Live. Television could be such an important function of public discourse and pointed satire, and I worry that its place for this capacity is flagging. But, we can at least take comfort in Letterman and Hilton. In this brief, shining moment, we had a host and a show who weren’t afraid to tangle with the celebrity establishment, who recognized that they were dealing with the ridiculous and self-promoting, and were bold enough to hash it out. As I said, I really believe television is the true American art form. And moments like this, like David Letterman sitting down and embarrassing Paris Hilton, show us what TV can do. This gives me hope for it and us all.
Senior Erin Moyer is the Senior Editor. Her email is email@example.com.