Yet another Letterman tribute.
I can’t talk about David Letterman’s legacy without thinking of my younger brother, Ross. In 1980, when I was a junior in high school and he was a freshman, he talked constantly about this guy on early morning TV, a guy he had seen on The Tonight Show, a guy that, well, was REALLY funny.
And we knew our comedians. We watched Johnny Carson religiously and faithfully parroted the routines of the old schoolers (your David Brenners, for example) and were practically fanboys to the new guys trying to make their way up. We eschewed the rock ‘n roll stages of the fairly nascent Summerfest in Milwaukee for the comedy stylings of a young Larry Miller and Jay Leno. My friend Dan and I would watch multiple sets and then hang out to chat with them after their set. We even drove Leno to his hotel one time (he signed my shoe).
We craved humor and reveled in its transforming power. Were we vulnerable to it because we were adolescents, vulnerable to everything? Saturday Night Live and its indelible first cast had just launched, Monty Python routines had become our mantras and all the while we feared Reagan and his cold war, doomsday rhetoric. We needed to laugh, we needed to survive. But we also wanted to be subversive.
Joan Rivers, Lenny Bruce, Mitch Hedberg, Redd Foxx, Ernie Kovacs, Richard Pryor, and many others made a permanent impact on comedy is today. And what they did for stand up, Letterman did for the talk show.
In the ‘80s, the talk show had hit its stride. Johnny Carson was synonymous with the format and he had honed it to perfection. He was untouchable. And his format? Set in stone.
Letterman honored his hero in the best way possible, by turning that format on its head.
Almost immediately, David Letterman was a part of the conversation. He booked young, cool acts. He connected to my generation, the ones lost between the Boomers and X. The ones that craved that connection through the comforting regularity of insanity that Letterman provided.
And he wasn’t afraid to make a fool of himself. He’d dress in Velcro and throw himself at a wall or fashion a camera on a monkey, as John Stewart so sweetly remembers in this tribute. He perfected treating his guests with an infectious mixture of smarm and adoration that Carson only hinted at. He delighted in exploiting antagonistic relationships with guests (see Cher), flirting with others (see Drew) and all out banning those who drove him nuts (see Krispin Glover). He was irreverent and charming, self-effacing and smug. And best of all, he granted us permission to unleash the creative in ourselves.
Letterman didn’t just sit behind the camera. He went out into the audience, he went out into the street. He used the camera in ways that were unheard of at the time, but are standard now. Check out Mental Floss’ list of 23 things Letterman invented. There would simply not be a John Stewart, Conan, and any of the Jimmys without him.
At Grantland.com, former Letterman scribe Daniel Kellison wrote, I’m not alone in my thoughts about that time. At that time, Dave was the hero to every college student in America. In this ’80s era of bloated egos, yellow power ties, and money over matter, Letterman did not give two fucks.
I had always thought if I ever had real success as a writer, I would be a guest on Letterman. Everyone who had wronged me would be jealous. It got so that any time a person said a critical thing, I’d think in the back of the mind, well they’ll be sorry when they see me on Letterman.
And I had a great stupid human trick too. I could and still can sing the alphabet backwards, to any tune, while finger spelling it, with both hands. I know, you want to be me. Join the club. (No seriously, join it. There aren’t any members.)
But it never happened. And things change.
I suppose it’s not a coincidence that I finally pulled the plug on cable TV today. It’s not the 1980's anymore, and I haven’t watched a talk show in ages. I won’t watch the finale tonight. I know that anything I need to see will be circulated online tomorrow.
Eras end and eras begin. Thanks for the memories, Dave.