August 12, 2014 10:34 AM EDT

Why not CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman? Lower stakes = greater comedy, something Letterman proved in his early days as a local weatherman, predicting hailstones “the size of canned hams.” Like Ernie Kovacs (q.v.), Letterman at his best gives you the feeling of being lucky enough to watch him play with this awesome toy he’s been given. It was here that he honed many of the features he brought to CBS—Top Ten Lists, Stupid Pet Tricks—dropped watermelons off the tops of buildings, donned an Alka-Seltzer suit (in homage to Steve Allen) and had unsettling run-ins with Harvey Pekar. He also sharpened the ironic sense of humor that, far from being easy nihilism, is rooted in a good old-fashioned Midwestern distaste for phonies. David Letterman can be a ham, but he’s never canned.

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