People can be divided along many different lines. Black & white. Male & female. Catholic & protestant. Left brain & right brain. Morning people & night owls.
I’ve always been a night owl, hence an affection for late night television, my admiration for which I have written about a few times here over the years.
Less than 24 hours ago David Letterman aired his final episode of The Late Show on CBS. Now I have been hard on ol’ Dave the past several years, but there comes a time when one needs to lay down the sword and express respect. That time is now.
I was never an outdoorsy kid. Due to my disability my hobbies were always more sedentary, which means I became a bookworm and watched too much TV until The Internet came along. Now I read books, spend far too many hours online, & still watch too much TV. I used to feel guilty about that, like maybe I should be spending my time more wisely. That’s probably true, but as my father is fond of saying, if I haven’t made my first million by now it is unlikely that it’s going to happen, so I offer no apologies for the choices I make, including my preferences in entertainment. I am a flawed human being just like everyone else. If you are willing to overlook my imperfection and still want to be my friend then you are more than welcome.
My parents always made me go to bed at a reasonable hour on school nights, which is good because otherwise I have a feeling my academic success would have been…well…nonexistent. But I got to stay up later on the weekends, and watching Johnny Carson on Friday night was always a treat. His monologue was funny, and oftentimes he would do a comedy sketch with The Mighty Carson Art Players. Then he would interview guests, usually celebrities promoting a book or movie. A lot of standup comics appeared on The Tonight Show, and an “okay” sign or an invitation over to the couch from Carson had the power to launch a comedian’s career into the stratosphere. It was an entertaining show that did its job…it put a smile on peoples’ face as they ended a long day and prepared to go to sleep. However, Carson’s show was somewhat methodic. Don’t misunderstand…it was great…but it was kind of like going to a restaurant whose menu rarely changes. Satisfying, comfortable, and safe.
And then in 1982 NBC decided to add another hour of late night television. David Letterman came along and not only challenged the status quo, he pretty much tossed the rulebook into the garbage.
Some of that “rebellion” was dictated by others, including Carson. He didn’t want Late Night with David Letterman to just be a copy of The Tonight Show. For example, Letterman was not permitted to have a sidekick like Ed McMahon. The band couldn’t have a horn section similar to that of Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show Orchestra. The monologue had to be shorter & less “newsy” so as to not mirror Carson’s staple opening. There were restrictions on guests…basically Carson had dibs on old school Hollywood types. Both NBC & Carson Productions wanted Letterman to focus on tickling the notoriously sophomoric funny bones of younger guys since The Tonight Show had the older demographic locked in. It seems as if Dave was perfectly fine with all of this, and the result was a fresh, funny, irreverent twist on the established late night television blueprint. It delivered the 20something male demo but also appealed to a wider audience.
Letterman, in comparison to what had preceded him, came across as kind of nutty…in a good way. Sure he interviewed big stars about their movies, TV shows, books, & albums (that’s what we used to call CDs & digital downloads kids), but he also traveled way outside the box. He included his staff in his skits and involved people in the neighborhood. He made minor celebrities out of folks like Meg at Simon & Schuster, a young publicist that Dave would call on the phone for a chat occasionally, and who he would have do silly things like drop water balloons from her office window. After he moved to CBS he found Mujibur & Sirajul, two immigrants from Bangaladesh who worked at a small knick-knack store near the Ed Sullivan Theater. Dave once sent them trekking across the USA doing various goofy things with random citizens. And of course there is Dorothy Megering, aka Dave’s mother, who made annual appearances via satellite from her Indiana home so that her son could guess what kind of pie she was baking for Thanksgiving. He also sent Mom to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, as a special correspondent, which is absolutely hilarious. There were so many other “real” people that Letterman utilized in great comedy bits. Rupert Jee of the nearby Hello Deli. Stage manager Biff Henderson. Announcer Alan Kalter. Calvert DeForest, aka Larry “Bud” Melman. Intern Stephanie Birkitt.
Unlike most talk shows where we watch for the guests, people watched Late Night and its successor The Late Show for the host. Personally I would have been fine with him never interviewing any celebrities. The stuff that Dave did himself was way better. He did crazy stunts like drop objects off the roof of the building or run over something in the street with a steamroller. He would have a bunch of people dress in costume as Santa Claus or Batman and one by one send them into a coffee shop to see how long it would take for folks to notice. He would work the drive-thru at a fast food joint and mess with customers. One of my all-time favorite moments came in the mid-90’s when Letterman spent a day in Los Angeles driving around in a convertible filled with tacos. There were absurd audience participation games like “Know Your Cuts of Meat” & “Will It Float??”. And of course there were trademarks of the show like Viewer Mail, Stupid Pet Tricks, & the nightly Top Ten List.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give a tip of the cap to Paul Shaffer as well. He had spent the late 70’s as part of Saturday Night Live’s band and was a member of the original Blues Brothers band that grew from an SNL skit to a feature film but also did actual concerts as well. He was with Letterman every step of the way the past three decades as bandleader of The World’s Most Dangerous Band and its successor The CBS Orchestra. Dave’s original blueprint may not have included a traditional sidekick, but as fate would have it Shaffer became just that. His role as a musical virtuoso certainly helped the energy of the show and undoubtedly helped attract many of the fantastic bands that made appearances. However his participation as “Ed McMahon 2.0” should not be overlooked.
After the tragic events of 9/11/2001 and Dave’s own health crisis a couple of years later things changed. Letterman changed. He not only transformed into the status quo of which he’d always been the antithesis, his humor became more topical…more political. The young, hip, irreverent man became a rancorous, disdainful, disenchanted curmudgeon. Oh there were still some highlights, but most of the time it felt like when a pro athlete finally gets the BIG payday and then never quite performs as well as he used to. To be honest David Letterman probably should have walked away 8 or 10 years ago. However, even though I hadn’t watched him regularly for the past few years, now that he is gone I am kind of sad.
I remember when Johnny Carson retired. His penultimate show featured Bette Midler & Robin Williams, and the finale was just Johnny sitting on a stool, center stage, reminiscing. I hated to see him go, but I was 20 years old. I didn’t understand loss. I didn’t appreciate the passage of time. I liked Jay Leno, and we still had Letterman. I was in college. All was right with the world despite Carson’s retirement.
Two decades have passed. I am in my 40’s. I am all too familiar with loss and the rapid passage of time. It’s only a TV show, and one that I haven’t even been all that fond of in recent years, but it was a small reminder of an era. It was a last remaining link to the 1980’s. My childhood. My boyhood home. My hometown. My family. I likely would have waxed nostalgic about Carson upon his departure had I access to this forum back then, but it still would have been different. Johnny Carson had been around for years before I was even born. He had grey hair by the time I started watching him. But I grew up with David Letterman. I was there at the birth of his late night television fiefdom. I witnessed him evolve into an entertainment icon. I laughed at his jokes & stupidity. And now it’s over. 33 years gone like a puff of smoke. Fallon, Kimmel, Conan, & others will continue to try to make us laugh late at night before we go to bed. And maybe someday, in 2 or 3 decades when those guys retire, I’ll feel just as wistful as I do now…but I doubt it. It is just as likely that, at long last, I will begin my own transformation into a cantankerous old geezer and be in bed way before 11:30pm. more & more often.