Dave


Tomorrow will be the first day of my entire life that there won’t be a television show in development or production starring Johnny Carson or David Letterman.

I grew up as most of us did: television ingrained in our daily routine, for better or worse. But unlike a lot of my peers I was never really informed by episodic TV. The shows that most attracted me as a pre-teen and teenager were late night shows: Saturday Night Live (which I couldn’t start watching until KTXL–40 in Sacramento started showing reruns), The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Late Night With David Letterman. Those shows, and my dad, are how I developed the sword-sharp comedy instincts three or four people know me for today.

For a long time there was nobody but Carson. Unfailingly warm even in cutting, wisecrack mode, Carson accompanied a lot of us to sleep feeling, if not happy at day’s end, then at least comforted that one part of the day ended correctly. The Tonight Show was a friendly gathering. Carson had incredible stage presence, the keenest timing ever on the tube, and a sincere interest in all of his subjects. He was just as excited about interviewing an 80-year-old grandma from Ames, Iowa as he was about talking to Burt Reynolds.

David Letterman, on the other hand, took the reassuring descent of late night TV and – as an employee of Carson’s production company, who initially oversaw Late Night – ended the late birds’ night in disorientation. Not enough to derail you, but just enough to stick a twitch in your power-down routine for the night.

Dave was the first host to demystify the tubular myth of talk shows. On NBC in his earliest years, he carved his approach from a standpoint of irritability. Television was still confused for an outlet of the yellow brick road; outside of sketch comedy it had no truck in outright cynicism. Dave was the pioneer in deflating the television legend. So he got a show on a major broadcast network – who the hell cares? You’re watching it? Why? Did your favorite UHF channel stop carrying Andy Griffith reruns? It was like a new language. Nobody thought you could do that on TV.

It opened his show up for a lot of contrarian antics. So you’re stuck with this show, eh? Well, let’s make the most of that questionable decision and throw watermelons of the roof of a tall building. Let’s put on a suit made out of velcro and jump onto a carpeted wall section. And after that we’re going to show stupid pet tricks. On NBC Dave reduced celebrity, both his and his guests’, to something he just had to get out of the way. (There’s a reason Cher called him an “asshole.”)

For me, seeing this vicious counter-attack on the grinning somnambulism of stardom was a revelation. Two of my attitudinal role models as a teen were Dave and Bill Murray. I acknowledge that might have been a mistake.

Once established as a new voice Letterman started allowing some strange things to happen on his show. Charles Grodin was a big favorite guest of mine; he always seemed to be there to one-up Dave in the department of crankiness. There’s the time championship wrestler Jerry Lawlor jackknifed situational comedian Andy Kaufman (which was completely staged). And let’s not get started on Harvey Pekar.

The safe comforts of Johnny gave way to the prickly discomfort of Dave. It worked amazingly well. It all played out in New York, which was known at the time for being dirty, mean and absorptive. Dave reflected that annoyance to the smallest cell.

By the time NBC shafted Letterman for Jay Leno and Dave got his big payday at CBS, that confrontational aspect against the world was still there – but now Dave was adored by the celebrity culture he poked at with a stick every night. The edges rounded out a little bit. Now working from the ground floor in the Ed Sullivan Theatre, he started bringing his neighbors into the act. Letterman became a quality interviewer (side note to Jimmy Fallon: See? You have time to get better at that). As New York, again for better or worse, started cleaning up and became at least a bit more hospitable to tourists, Dave again reflected that sensibility.

Which is also why he became a changed man after 9/11. His milieu, the most constant muse of his barbed comedy, had been devastated. From that point forward he viewed New York as an irreplaceable gift, which most of us did after that day. You saw Dave be more grateful. There was an emotional clarity there. There was no point in using a base of rancor for his show anymore. And he grew out of that tragedy as New York did: a little more reflective, a lot more appreciative, still keeping a compact core of defiance and rebellion. His heart scare and a fairly benign but still troubling sex scandal increased his humanity. We knew he meant it, because all those other years he’d been a class-A crank, and it was just a matter of time before he softened up. When that time came, because we’d seen his snark, we believed him because it had to take a lot of humbling for him to be that way. Johnny was an automatic pal; Dave started out as an acquired taste. Then he acquired his own taste for humanism.

If David Letterman had done nothing more than open my eyes and ears about Elvis Costello – which he did in the first episode of Late Night I ever watched, on August 23, 1983 – that would still make him a peripheral hero. But that show was just the first in a long series of nights that extended past 11:30pm, that calibrated a meter of comedy I’d be influenced by the rest of my life. His au revior has resurfaced a part of my childhood I’d nearly forgotten: hunched in bed, a small black and white television on, turned down low so my sister wouldn’t hear it, waiting to see something so mundanely perfect that it’s incredible it got on TV.

New talk shows (well, mainly Fallon’s) now go for miniature, web-conceived events more than showing sides of characters and guests. It’s a trend, firmly ensconced, not much the old guard can do about it. So David Letterman’s exit is pretty tectonic. The future of all late night broadcast TV feels a little vertiginous now. Vaporous. This time it’s real: The last of a dying breed is leaving the vicinity.

The David Letterman of the 1980’s would chuckle and scoff at such puffery, but the David Letterman of today would embarrassingly accept it. That range of development is why he’s still one of my heroes. After 33 years, I guess we can say he nailed it.

Thanks, Dave. See you around.



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