Friday, May 15, 2015

Thanks For Watching. Good Night, Everybody.

It’s difficult for me to overstate the profound impact David Letterman has had on my life. That may sound ridiculous or, at the very least, pretty lofty for something that Dave himself has repeatedly dismissed as just a TV show. But for over 30 years, Dave has helped shape my sense of humor, my taste in music, even my image of New York City, a town I’ve only been to once in my life. Without David Letterman, television would have been a far more boring medium for the past few decades.

I first discovered Dave on his short-lived daytime talk show. I can only assume I was home from school sick that day (and I’m sure Dave would say, “Well, that explains a lot.”) (Note: Actually, a quick internet search reveals the show debuted in June, so I probably watched it all summer long. But that home sick joke seems appropriate, so I’m leaving it in.) I was hooked from the very beginning. I loved his total lack of talk show phoniness and the absurdist streak in his comedy. A favorite gag from the daytime show that I still remember all these years later: Dave’s Household Hints – Scrape the dried up globs of toothpaste from the bathroom sink and serve them as after-dinner mints.

When school began in the fall, I would occasionally skip class just to catch the show. Still, nobody was happier than I was when The David Letterman Show was canceled after just four months. In those pre-VCR days, skipping school was my only option but not really a viable long-term solution. But staying up to watch Dave guest host The Tonight Show or, as of 1982, even later once he snagged the post-Carson slot? That I could do.

Thus began a steady diet of Stupid Pet Tricks, Top Ten Lists, Viewer Mail, Small Town News, suits made out of Velcro and Rice Krispies, Larry “Bud” Melman and various Guys played by Chris Elliott. At its best, the comedy was sharp, surreal and utterly ridiculous. At its worst, Dave would give the camera a withering, knowing look and somehow make it work.

It also didn’t hurt that Dave brought out the best, and occasionally the worst, in his guests. Recurring favorites like Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, Martin Short, and many more always brought their A-game to Dave’s shows. Hell, even Jay Leno was a frequent and hilarious presence during the Late Night years. But Dave could be, in the immortal words of Cher, an asshole but really only when the guest deserved it. Dave had zero tolerance for fools and idiots and while that edge may have softened a bit after he moved to CBS, it never entirely went away.

As much as Dave helped mold my sense of humor, Paul Shaffer was an equally big influence on my taste in music. Paul was the perfect choice for the show, having honed his comedy chops on Saturday Night Live in addition to his prodigious musical gifts. I was introduced to countless songs and artists thanks to Paul and The World’s Most Dangerous Band/The CBS Orchestra playing them during commercial breaks. Not for nothing is Paul the musical director for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. These folks can back up pretty much any artist, play any kind of music under the sun, and sound amazing.

As for the musical guests, it goes without saying that I discovered countless artists thanks to their exposure on Dave’s shows, first and foremost, the late, great Warren Zevon. But over the years, there have been so, so many others, including Janelle Monáe, Heartless Bastards, The Heavy…the list goes on. Dave clearly loved nothing more than when a mostly unknown band or artist made their network television debut on the show and proceeded to “blow the roof off the dump”. And what Christmas is going to be like this year without Darlene Love’s annual performance of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is simply too awful to contemplate.

So far, Dave’s swan song has been refreshingly and predictably free of sap. Dave has never seemed like the sort of person who dwells too much on the past. But if (when) some sentimentality creeps into these final shows, it’ll be borne of genuine, heartfelt emotion tempered by a realistic view of what’s really ending here. It’s natural to get emotional when you’re saying goodbye to people you’ve worked alongside for years and closing a major chapter of your life. But at the end of the day, it’s just a little comedy show, one of way too many cluttering the airwaves these days. In a few months, Stephen Colbert will make the show his own. Life will go on.

Dave’s best on-air moments have always struck that balance, whether it was his return to TV after 9/11 or his heart surgery or speaking candidly about the birth of his son or his sex scandal. When it mattered most, Dave always spoke from the heart and helped put things in perspective. These bigger issues, community, family, health, wellbeing, these are what matter. Everything else is pretty small in comparison. But if crushing watermelons with a steamroller and having stagehands Pat and Kenny read Oprah transcripts helps us to momentarily forget about these bigger problems in some weird way, so be it.

It’s important to remember that for the most part, all these indelible memories are just that: memories. Sure, we have some YouTube clips these days and there were a tiny handful of best-of releases on VHS long ago but there are no DVD releases of Late Night or the Late Show. Part of me doubts there ever will be. It’s no easy thing to revisit these old episodes. Somewhere deep in storage I have a few videotapes full of episodes of Late Night. For years, I kept one right next to the VCR, ready to be popped in if there was a good guest. Eventually that practice fell by the wayside, but at least I got some gems including anniversary specials, the Holiday Film Festivals and the Dave-hosted Academy Awards.

Dave’s final episode of Late Night on NBC was just about perfect, capped by a surprise appearance from Bruce Springsteen, making his first appearance on the show after years of requests, performing (what else?) “Glory Days”. The show ended on a high and why wouldn’t it? It was a send-off, not a farewell. Dave was on to bigger and better things.

This time is different but I suspect the final show will still be a celebration, not the quiet, somewhat mournful goodbye of Johnny Carson’s final Tonight Show. The show and its host have always been too modest, self-deprecating, and irreverent for that kind of treatment. Over the years, it’s become easy to take Dave for granted but to a lot of us, he really mattered. A lot. And we’ll miss him when he’s gone.

Thanks Dave. Maybe I’ll run into you on the street in Montana someday. Enjoy your retirement and, of course, enjoy every sandwich.

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