At around 10pm last night, my wife asked me why I seemed down. And I was. I wasn’t “Can’t Pay the Mortgage” down, or “[Favourite Sports Game Team] Suffering Crippling Loss to [Least Favourite Sports Game Team]” sad, or even “Lost eBay Auction for ‘The GoGo’s ‘Vacation’ Whiskey Tumbler Set'” depressed. David Letterman’s last show was about to take to the airwaves and it was to end an era. After 33 years and 6028 shows, he fiddled with his last two-erasered pencil, signed off, and walked out the way he came in. He was and is the same gap-toothed, self-effacing charmer that really had no business being there in the first place. He made his mark and let the people come to him. Everyone I’ve talked to about this had their rituals around watching his show. Mine was this.
In high school, I would record “Late Night with David Letterman” every night. My friend and I would race home at lunch hour and watch the previous night’s episode with bated breath. We had no idea what was going to happen on any given show. Would Dave drop stuff off of a five-storey tower in New Rochelle? Was there a guest blow-up like Harvey Pekar or Crispin Glover? Stupid Human Tricks? Who cared. It was going to be great. Guaranteed. If the show or even a bit of material ever faltered or outright failed, it was Dave that was first to draw attention to it and show everyone that he, like us was fallible. “Hey, everybody! Look at this piece of crap! Oh, well.” That is what made us engage with him. Like Johnny Carson before him, he was a common man from the mid-west with no pretension, which is probably why he and Johnny got along so well.
David Letterman forged a path for himself and showed us all that by sticking to your guns and being true to what you believe to be funny, you will find your audience. Or more to the point, your audience will find you. I was reminded on Twitter last night that Dave was fired from his weatherman job for being “too sarcastic”, the very tool in his arsenal of tricks that made us love him most. Beyond his self-deprecation, his acerbic wit helped him control his guests. He was able to build up a guest in the same way he could bring them down if they were unruly or disrespectful. Dave was the dog you play with a bit too roughly and who would gently place your hand in their jaws and just bite down a little bit. Never enough to break the skin, but enough to say, “If you want this to happen, we’ll go. And I have no intention of losing.”
It was what made “Late Night with David Letterman” the institution it was. Dave also gave voice to most of the amazing comedians we enjoy today. Yes, there were the household names your mom and dad would know, but Dave also gave us a look at the by-then-standards lesser known comics like Kevin Meaney, Jonathan Katz and Gilbert Gottfried. He also gave voice to comics that were too provocative for the likes of “The Tonight Show”, allowing Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison to grace the stage. Appearing on “The Tonight Show” gave you a career. Appearing on “Late Night” gave you a very loyal following.
When NBC needed to decide who would slide behind Johnny Carson’s vacated desk, the choices were Dave and Jay Leno. Leno was a frequent guest on “Late Night” and it is THAT Jay Leno I will always remember. Yep, Jay Leno used to be a comedian, and he was a great one. When NBC handed the show to Leno, Dave was livid. On the advice of his agency, he took the deal with CBS, knowing that “The Tonight Show” was gone and would never be replicated again, no matter who hosted it. Once again, Dave created a show in his own image and let the people find him. Yes, he had a loyal following that had to time their recreational pharmaceuticals an hour earlier than normal, but he rose to the challenge of the prime late night spot and shone immediately. This whole story is outlined in Bill Carter’s excellent book ‘The Late Shift’. Read it, and then read his follow-up book ‘The War for Late Night’ to see how little NBC learned from their mistakes in dealing with Conan O’Brien.
The last show Dave gave us was exactly what we’ve come to expect from him. From the beginning, he was still self-deprecating, still humbled and still funny. The show was a celebration of everything he had achieved over 33 years. No one crawling on his desk singing about how he’s their hero. No teary tributes. Not even a “There Goes My Hero” riff from The Foo Fighters closing the show. It was the show Dave wanted. To see him react to the frequent visitors of his show (Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Murray, Peyton Manning, etc.) shows the joy he had with his show and the respect he had for his guests. It’s that genuine respect that he still has and that we will miss.