Wednesday, May 6, 2015
Monday night my family sat down together for a rare chance to watch a TV show as it was actually being broadcast. This momentous occasion was created by the airing of 90 minute special honoring the career of the great David Letterman. We all LOVE Dave and are sad to see his 35 year run on television come to a close, and so we gathered to celebrate his genius. In some ways these last 13 shows are like a farewell tour for a family friend. Why do we love Dave? Let me count the ways...
My own relationship with Letterman began sometimes in 1980 when I stumbled across The David Letterman Show, an NBC morning talk show that aired at 10 am. I was immediately mesmerized. There is a very vivid memory of Dave calling someone out of the studio audience and talking about their job with them. He got the phone number of the woman's boss and called him at the office. After some small talk and outing the employee for being at his show instead of work, Dave demanded a raise for the woman, threatening to have her quit if the employer failed to comply. The boss was confused, the woman terrified and the audience on the floor laughing. It was all so wrong- and yet it was amazingly funny. Dave started his career way ahead of his time. The morning show only lasted just over a year, but it won 2 Emmys and set Dave on the path to stardom and Late Night with David Letterman.
It didn't take long for Late Night to turn the talk show world upside down. Nothing Letterman did was normal; from Top 10 Lists to Stupid Pet Tricks. His interviews were neither fawning nor condescending; in fact, Cher called him an "A-hole" on air. There were skits and recurring characters, like Chris Elliot's Man Under the Seats who "lived" in the theater. He destroyed things with great comic effect, like dropping watermelons from the top of 30 Rock or launching bowling balls through TV screens. He also began a career-long tradition of bringing us music and bands we couldn't see anywhere else. The show was edgy and unpredictable, and was a cult smash among college students- which at the time included me.
When it came time for Dave's idol and mentor Johnny Carson to retire in 1993, Letterman was clearly Johnny's choice as his successor. NBC saw things differently and allowed Jay Leno (who has never once done anything original) to snake the show away from Dave, and make no mistake- the "nicest guy in show biz" did indeed steal The Tonight Show. So Dave headed to CBS for The Late Show with David Letterman and we went with him. His first show on CBS was August 30, 1993 and featured Bill Murray (one of my favorite people) and Billy Joel (my wife's favorite musician). The date is stamped in my head, because we stayed up late on our 7th wedding anniversary and watched live. One of the highlights of the night was the late Paul Newman standing up in the studio audience to a great ovation before asking Dave, "Where the hell are the singing cats?" and announcing he was in the wrong theater. Dave had moved, but not much had changed. There were still wacky antics and crazy game shows like Will It Float? and Know Your Cuts of Meat. He gave away canned hams to audience members. The monologue got longer and the interviews got better, but the spirit of Late Night remained intact. For several years we would use the old VCR and record Dave each night and watch him the next evening. That ended as Will became a toddler and our lives changed, but we watched whenever we could and were always comforted knowing Dave was still there to make us laugh and bring us the absolute best in musical acts. Eventually, we began to DVR shows again and Will became a huge fan as well. We were with Dave though 9/11 and his heart attack, through his scandals and his triumphs. In the early 2000s I was n the studio audience at the Ed Sullivan Theater on 3 occasions, and each one is a treasured evening. Dave was part of the family.
If we made Dave a part of our family, he included us in his as well. We got to know Paul, Biff, Tony the Cue Card Boy, Stephanie the Intern, Alan the Announcer and other crew members through the years. He introduced to the neighborhood and such memorable people as Rupert Gee, Mujibar and Sirajul. He took us out the streets of NYC to goof on locals and tourists alike. His friends, like Murray, Steve Martin, Michael Keaton, Don Rickles, Regis Philbin, Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis, Tom Hanks and so many others were always anxious to spend time in the chair next to Dave. He both touted and tortured politicians and leaders. And he never let us forget about "that thing on Donald Trump's head..."
There were so many amazing moments. The 1982 night Andy Kaufman and wrestler Jerry Lawler got into a "fight" on the old show. His ongoing feud with Oprah and his "Oprah Journal." The 1994 Norway Olympics when Dave sent his Mom as a special correspondent and she was truly amazing, The night in 2008 when John McCain lied to Dave about his reasons for backing out of an appearance on the show and Dave proceeded to destroy him over the next three weeks until McCain finally showed up and admitted, "I screwed up." The night Paul McCartney played the marquee of the Ed Sullivan theater in a free concert for the people of NYC. Drew Barrymore dancing on Dave's desk before flashing him. The Christmas traditions of Darlene Love singing Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) and Jay Thomas telling the Greatest Talk Show Story Ever Told before trying to knock a pizza off the the top of the Christmas tree with a football. It would be difficult to pick a favorite moment, but if forced it might be Dave's interview with Rush Limbaugh in 1993. After trying to get Limbaugh to stop his disparaging comments about the Clinton administration and talk about himself, Dave finally looked at Limbaugh with exasperation and said, "Hey Rush- do you ever get up in the morning and think, Geez I'm full of hot air?" Shutting up Rush Limbaugh is no easy task- but Dave did it! Or it might be the night that Sixpence None the Richer performed and Dave called Leigh Nash over to the couch to talk and explain their name. The two of them talked about C.S. Lewis, faith and hope. And then Dave finished by saying, "Well God bless you and what you are doing." It was a magic moment.
The best way to judge David Letterman is through the affection of his peers. Old SNL cast members used to wait outside the stage door at NBC just hoping to met him. He is a hero to all of his contemporary late nights competitors- Fallon, Kimmel, Colbert, Stewart and Conan. They freely admit that without Dave, their lives would be vastly different. Kimmel worships him and Fallon steals from his old shows on a regular basis. In last week's Entertainment Weekly Conan had this to say: "Dave was a true revolution- and I believe his innovations are up there with the light-bulb and the Twix Bar." Musicians adore him as well. Dave Grohl, former Nirvana drummer and lead singer of the Foo Fighters had this to say to EW: "We've done a lot of those shows, but nobody has the heart that he has. Not even close." Presidents and presidential candidates from both sides of the aisle have come on the show because they know the power of Dave. Comedians lobby for a few minutes of air time. After his retirement, Carson made several appearances on The Late Show, even taking time to write jokes for Dave on occasion. The Late Show was seldom the most watched show in late night, but it was ALWAYS the most important.
And now it's about to be over. In this last year I confess we have watched Fallon more often, in part to start the grieving process. We will miss Dave very much. When Ed Sullivan did his last show in the same theater back in 1971, nobody knew it was his last show. It was cancelled after the end of the season- so no one got say, "Thanks Ed, for all those years of amazing entertainment." That was a shame. And we should not let it happen again. Do not let May 20th pass without saying, "Thanks, Dave- for changing everything." So THANK YOU, David Letterman, for being the most creative and lovable curmudgeon ever. You will be missed.