I have previously waxed poetic about the lovely if not talented David Letterman on this forum; and since the GAOTV divas have done several valentines to Mad Men, Justified, et al – I’ll drudge some more Letterman figurative felatio. I am not only fascinated by the gravitas a final episode of a series brings, but also the media worlds coverage of such.
A lot of the Letterman love was for his NBC show. When I was a wee youngster, repeats of Late Night With David Letterman was on A and E when I got home from school. My oldest brother instructed me to forgo the cartoons of the MTN Kids Club and watch Dave. It was cartoon-like in its own right, with elevator races and cameras on monkeys. All the writing about Letterman has been about how subversive and how he was breaking all the rules of TV, but since I grew up with this – Dave ushered in the new normal. Watching old YouTube clips of the NBC show – I’m agog at how low budget it is. Nobody seemed to care that this show was even on. Aside from celebrity guests, the show has a very cable access feel. The size of the studio audience is small, so rather than the standard TV roar you, get this nondescript smattering and can hear individual’s laughter. What is impressive from this era is the amount of content that is cranked out. Lots of cutaways and pre-taped vignettes. Pointless extra bits added just for fun. Why do a simple viewer mail segment when you can have a robot arm deliver mail? Let’s have Phil Donahue get into hijinks, just because we can.
In the death march to end of Letterman’s nightly broadcast I devoured interviews with him. Despite him being a recluse he gives a very nice interview. His best are done on the Late Late Show with Tom Snyder and a public broadcasting / podcast chat with Alec Baldwin. From these you get that Dave is more a broadcaster than comedian. His first jobs in Indiana (after sacking groceries) were in TV and radio. He had to be a talk show host in the height of Watergate, with no business doing so, and others as he puts it – where basically the goal was to have a job where you could goof off and drink warm beer. Dave has a myriad of great stories from this time in his life. The crux of which are mainly having this awe and reverence for television when he got his first jobs and then becoming disenchanted but not bitter, later. Truly it was a case of, “oh yeah…you think you can do better??” Then, he did. He kept this time in his back pocket of skills. Since being in Midwest-broadcasting wasn’t a passport to fame; it was just a passport to slightly bigger towns and slightly more money in Midwest broadcasting. So Letterman left Indiana and went on to be truly savant in stand up. So, with a slightly battle tested act and the knowledge of what boring broadcasting was, he was able not to be boring in his own program.
In the Letterman tributes, subtle shots were taken at Jay Leno . How Leno has maybe one cool moment – the Hugh Grant interview and the rest is steady but unspectacular. High ratings but not much acclaim. How he wasn’t subversive or dangerous. Keep in mind this comes from people in the media. To write about entertainment you have to have a passion for it, behind and in front of the scenes. I know what it is like be fascinated by the minutia and dissecting all facets of whatever subject you tackle. Leno in this regard subverted the subverters. He wasn’t going do a revolutionary show, he was going to the standard, American talk show, and people will watch and critics and Rolling Stone cover choosers be dammed. My old man was a”Leno guy”. He installed turbines for hydro. Installed conveyor belts for fertilizer plants, made big machines bigger, and shut them down once they got old. He wasn’t interested in those who transcended genres while reinventing them. ALF was stupid, Dallas was cool as hell, and Leno was the guy who wrapped it up at the end of the day. This is why Dave died hosting the Oscars. A crowd full of celebrities who are there to be feted and not skewered, a fully mainstream audience. The music elite and intelligentsia I’m sure would go bonkers if Tom Waits, Leonard Coen and Gwar did the Super bowl halftime show but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. I loved Dave at the Oscars. I remember laughing and then watching the live audience not follow suit. I wasn’t sorry for Dave – I was legitimately scared for him – like seeing a child chase a balloon across a crowded street. It was not his audience of night owls and media geeks.
My Letterman exposure comes fully from the CBS Late show. I vividly remember watching it on the “big” TV in our living room. The set in stone bedtime was obliterated during the first show and many shows thereafter. While the show wasn’t as revolutionary, and nor it have been, Dave was older, and more tired. So the frenetic cartoon attitude of the show was not as present, but it was a forum to show off Letterman himself. The staff would put Dave in situations where he could be Dave. Letterman is not a master joke teller or writer. He’s really sharp and reacts well to the world around him. In the last weeks of show, they showed classic material; and it’s all so fun. Fast Food eating with Zsa Zsa Gabor stands outs, in which Dave and Zsa Zsa just goof around fast food joints, brush their teeth and rag on her husband. But it’s the little stuff, the night in night out – rank and file material that didn’t make the highlight reels that I shall cherish. In high school, my squad were heavy set blokes and closeted homosexuals – and our favourite was either “Will it Float?” or “Is this anything?”. Random objects put into a giant tank and…will it float? Then a random supposed piece of entertainment, and then Dave would judge…is this anything? Often times – no, it was nothing. And we got it, “Is this anything?”, was in fact nothing itself. This huge meta in joke wrapped in little quips and barbs of the joke itself. I think we were looking at ways to try and figure out if it was smart – it was too stupid not to be smart. This is pretty much the philosophy I foisted upon Dave.
The last show itself was what it had to be. Clips, cameos and goodbyes. I loved the mini-documentary on how the show gets put together. Letterman serving as a type of managing editor in the way the anchor of the network news does. The massive staff puts the show together and then small tweaks are made right up until showtime. A great, genuinely sweet and funny moment was at the end where Dave introduces his son Harry, sitting in the audience. You can see Harry is very uncomfortable. He doesn’t want to be on TV, but kind of knows that he has to. Dave knows that this is perfunctory moment, but it has to have a payoff. I think my favorite part of the whole last show is Dave making sure that Harry’s friend, “Tommy Roboto” gets a shout out. Tommy is a little more hammy than Harry. Tommy basks in getting a mention on TV and the crowd whooping it up. The pressure is taken off Harry. There is this little moment where Harry shares in Tommy’s applause and you feel the joy he has for his father for letting him off the hook coupled with the cool factor of giving his more social butterfly friend a cool moment.
Part of my Letterman love is the nostalgia. He has been on TV since I have been watching TV. It was exciting to be up late doing anything let alone being vigorously entertained by Letterman. To me it’s not a sad (All Good Things) type goodbye feeling I have with a Seinfeld or Dawson’s Creek or Mad Men, as there is a lot of Letterman that I have never seen floating around out there. Game show appearances on the $25,000 Pyramid, him trying to host his own game show, his ill-fated morning show and it goes on. It is a great feeling to find “new nostalgia”. It’s akin to that of hearing an old/new a Springsteen song that I never heard before or a Bret Hart wrestling match that was revealed from the archives. I shall revel in it with the appreciation of what came before. To Dave Letterman – my gap toothed TV pal, thank you for making so much TV that I don’t have to miss you. Sniff, tear, pencil breaking a fake window.