When legends retire, you stand up and you applaud. For the past month of shows the audience in the Ed Sullivan Theatre have been rising to their feet as David Letterman walks out to do his monologue at the beginning of what are to be the last episodes of The Late Show with him at the helm. The monologues are not the strong suit of the show and five minutes later only one good guffaw may have been unleashed. Still they are on their feet clapping. Most likely not for the monologue or even the show to come. Most likely not for the guests on that night. Possibly not even when things are going particularly well. No they’re rising to their feet and giving a standing ovation for over 6,000 shows over 33 years. A lifetime of memories that Letterman gave us from a lifetime of work. They’ve come from around the country, most are long-time fans, and they’ve paid money, booked tickets and waited outside. They haven’t done this for nothing. They’ve done this because they want to see the man in the arena either one last time or for the first time because one more times are fast running out. A pilgrimage to let the man know it mattered, what you did mattered and we are grateful. Part of this is nostalgia and sentiment for time passing. Would we have appreciated him signing on for another year of not being Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel? But the outpouring of love and reminiscing runs deeper.
Letterman’s origins come from so long ago we kind of take for granted how much he changed the comedy landscape. Tenure gives you respectability as Letterman has pointed out adamant that he is no Johnny Carson but Judd Apatow, the two Jimmies, Conan, Jon Stewart, Ray Romano, Stephen Colbert to name a few have cited the importance of how 80s Late Night show changed everything. The hyperbole of the moment includes Late Night television will never be the same. You hear laments about how talk has left the genre of talk shows. So it’s important to remember in September there is going to be a lot of buzz devoted to Colbert’s arrival as the second ever host of The Late Show and the ensuing interest to see if Fallon can stay No.1 and if Fallon remains king what will this mean for all the new players.
Time marches on and the world continues to turn. In a moment as we all get misty eyed about Dave and his achievements it’s easy to forget sometimes that he’s been a little lazy in recent years, a little a bit of a prick to people who didn’t deserve it, a little too awkward around young starlets. So why the love? Seriously is it all for the revolution that was Late Night in the 1980s? I mean why didn’t Jay Leno get this much press last year? Seriously he didn’t. 22 years at the top in the ratings, far nicer to people and probably on average funnier moment to moment than his rival. Partly this was due to the fact that Leno had gone away before and come back but also because critics have never loved Leno as much as Letterman.
Maybe it’s because Letterman is 33 years of Late Night, the last link to an age when Johnny Carson was still on the air. Conan O’Brien has become the elder statesmen and he is only has 11 years to go to match Dave’s record, Kimmel has 20 years, Colbert has 20 and Fallon has 27 years to go. Although television as we know it going to be around in 2022 let alone 2042. They might make it and hell if any goes with 20 or 25 in the bank it will deserve our recognition. However this is about more than longevity. It’s about more than all that the gap toothed youngster did in the 1980s. All this love is about Dave.
I’ve been watching David Letterman since 2001; I was a university student living in public housing in Australia with a TV and five channels. In the middle of the night if you didn’t want to watch Tony Robbins infomercials The Late Show was it. This was before torrents. Before YouTube. Before cheap DVDs. I had seen Jay Leno on my parent’s cable and thought he was funnier and nicer. Kevin Eubanks seemed more hip than Paul Schaeffer and the bigger stars seemed to be on Leno but this was nothing else on so I watched. Then something funny happened. One night I was over at my parents place and I asked my siblings to turn the channel over to him at the allotted time. They didn’t get it. They mocked it but that’s when I knew, I was a fan.
Was dropping random objects in a giant water tank mesmerising television? No it was not. As sexy and talented as a grinder girl was I don’t think I needed to see her that many times or hula-hoops lady either but stagehands Pat and Kenny reading Oprah transcripts –that never got old.
Alan talking sexy to the camera. Love it.
When Biff yelled out at a jogger with a bullhorn “You’re going to die anyway.” While passing by in a car I laughed so hard.
Letterman himself played over and over a clip from a Gap Jeans commercial just because he liked the girl in it. Given at the time he was 30 years her senior that is perhaps a little leery for today but it spoke to my youthful hormones and on some level you knew Jay wasn’t doing stuff like this. Dave was the rebel and as the years ticked away that became why I loved him. When you think about some of his best interviews some of the ones that immediately come to mind were distinctly unpleasant. Letterman would milk the awkward tension and unpleasant vibe for all it was worth.
A personal favourite was Paris Hilton coming on the show after her time in jail.
I’ve seen the clips of Cher, Madonna, Andy Kaufmann and Harmony Korinne from before my viewing time as well. They’re all solid gold as well as any number I watched live with Bill O’Reilly though they have mellowed around each other somewhat.
Regis Philbin who was an unknown to me here in Australia has been on the show more than anybody else for a reason. Some of the best shows Dave had were with Regis. Just two old guys on a couch arguing like an old married couple. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFx3n6DSD9E
But other interviews I’ve loved with Letterman had nothing to do with awkward pauses and glib putdowns. If Dave has become known for openly showing disinterest in the parade of young stars with repetitive products to shill he has become the go to guy for former Presidents, current politicians, war heroes and journalists to be interviewed by.
Some of the celebrity ones have been stellar.
I’m not interested in pointing the finger at younger rivals and complaining that they can’t do this. The Dave of Late Night couldn’t have brought gravitas like the Dave of now. They can grow into it just like he did.
Yet Dave does bring something only he can. I don’t know if it’s the Midwest in him or his interest in wordplay but there’s something deeply unique and profoundly simple in the some of the way he talks about things. On Robin Williams he described his comedy force arriving at the Comedy store in comparison to the other comedians. “We’re like morning dew and he comes in like a hurricane.” When jousting with Bill O’Reilly “You’re putting words in my mouth just like you put artificial facts in your head.” Or when returning to the air after September 11, 2001 “We are told these attacks were carried out by zealots fuelled by religious fervour and if you live to be 1000 years old will that make any sense. Will that make any Goddamn sense.”
Johnny Carson tucked America into bed for 30 years. If nothing else David Letterman did it that night. He still has that power. Letterman was the last to return to the air after Robin Williams’s sudden suicide and we waited to see what he would say about the man he had known for 30 years having passed away. By recounting the early days of the Comedy Store he acknowledged the extraordinary talent and generosity of the man. There was no homespun homily either. After a clip throughout the years he closed with “I had no idea the man was in so much pain, that the man was suffering. Robin Williams what a guy.”
David Letterman doesn’t lie. This is troublesome when he’s bored by someone you or the populace likes. Yet that brings its own reward. When at 67 years of age he bounds onto the stage and says the indie rock band playing was good you know he means it. When he introduces a guest as the very funny or the very talented it’s high praise.
Not lying allowed him to interview Warren Zevon and not gloss over then fact that he was dying. Zevon is a musicians’ musician who amongst other hits wrote and performed Werewolves of London. But in 2002 when Dave has Zevon it’s fair to say he wasn’t the biggest star in the world. Long-time Letterman fans knew him thought from multiple appearances including sitting in for bandleader Paul Schaeffer. He devoted the whole show to him and me who didn’t know Zevon or their mutual history was mesmerised. “It’s lung cancer.” Zevon told him and David responded “That’s tough.” with a heartfelt grimace having gone through a quintuple bypass a couple of years earlier. Mortality was circling the now middle aged rock’n‘roll baby boomers.
You can hear a pin drop in the clip as the audience goes deathly quiet. Zevon cracks wise throughout the interview and looks great if a little thin but does not shy away from what is happening. Death is a part of a life but seldom is it dealt with on television with such authenticity. It is here. Hear Dave’s voice crack when he tells “Stop it Paul” who is offering Warren to play the songs in any order. Warren Zevon performs three songs on the night and while his voice can’t quite ascend to its full range during the ballad Mutineer he is right on point throughout his last public performance. Looking over at his fellow musicians in recognition and thanks at the end of every song I am always moved by the concentration on every band member’s face as they nail the horn finale of Mutineer.
During the interview Letterman asked Zevon if he knew anything about life that he did not know yet. Zevon answered “To enjoy every sandwich.” The sentiment is so simple and so profound it shows the similarity of their two sensibilities. At the end of the final performance Letterman strolls over and advises Zevon and us all to enjoy every sandwich.
It immediately spoke to him and he repeated the exchange in a tribute show to Zevon the following year when the news came that he had passed away. It was a lovely touch earlier this month when a cover of Mutineer was played and Letterman mentioned Zevon by name after. That whole show was just so real and I pray to God that tradition is maintained in the late night shows to come.
Not lying has brought him forgiveness too. Coming clean about having an affair with staff was an incredible low point. I used to watch Stephanie Birkitt on the show that is a few years older than me and I had a big crush on her. We’ve all got our own sins to make up for but I am pleased to see Dave trying as much as the rest of us, maybe even more and while it’s none of my business I hope Regina is now happy and at the time gave’em hell. I hope Birkitt and also those affected will be allowed to get on with their lives from this moment. But when Dave says he did a terrible thing and he has a lot of work cut out for him it kind of makes me happy to still count myself as a fan.
I just like Dave. But I also like the entire crew that he has brought in front of the camera. Rupert Jee from the Hello Deli, the aforementioned Alan Kalter, Pat and Kenny, Biff Henderson. Then there is Paul Schaeffer. Paul Schaeffer it turns out was just as hip if not more hip as Kevin Eubanks. He’s backed some of the biggest names in the business on the show and made some of the most magical musical moments on the show possible. Every night as the commercials have come and gone I have gotten used to the bands rendition of this song and that. I can’t believe they’re not going to be there anymore. This would have been more than an achievement but Paul has become one of the funniest sidekicks on TV even sometimes nailing a punch line as Dave searches for one. This supporting cast of characters has been as much fun as Dave has.
Yet it all does come back to Dave. When I think about my favourite bits from the last decade I usually recall stories he told at his desk in between the monologues and the guest interviews. One day he told a story of stealing the car keys of paparazzi following him while he jogged. When he threw the car keys away he closed with the line “I felt like Clint Eastwood.” Another story about a bear breaking into his house is a well-known classic https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWRTglU3GXU
as well as the countless riffs on the Conan vs. Jay war of ’09
Last year when announcing his retirement he again was in story mode and it softened the blow beautifully while also making you realise the one thing you were going to miss most about him – that of the storyteller. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5sVI_-LRCI
For two years I had Craig Ferguson and he became my favourite but he’s already gone. Maybe that’s a good thing because while I was still watching Dave these past few months have reminded me why Letterman was my Late Night host for all these years. I’ve seen a lot of clips of Johnny Carson and I get why 1992 was such a pivotal moment in American culture. Carson was everything. When Letterman says he is no Carson I understand what he means but Letterman is Letterman and that in itself is something special so let me put it out there in this little obscure part of the internet. Dave always feel free to come back and do anything you want big or small. It won’t taint your legacy and we’ll be happy to see you. Adam Sandler struck a nerve with me when he sang “Because you’re the king of comedy, my best friend on TV.”
When Craig Ferguson’s last show aired in the middle of the night I stood up alone in my living room in my boxers as Craig finished singing and the audience applauded. I smiled sheepishly knowing how stupid I was behaving but wanting to feel connected in some way.
No doubt I’ll be on my feet again this Thursday. Because that’s what you do when legends retire. You stand up and you applaud.