By 1978, Indiana-born ex-TV weatherman David Letterman had moved to Hollywood, become a favorite at The Comedy Store, appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and tapped to be a semi-regular guest host of that show on some of Johnny’s many nights off.
If you never saw Letterman in this era, you missed his particular approach to stand-up comedy. As my old, dear friend Dr. Bill once said, as we debated the stand-up comedy of our teenage years, “How can you like Letterman? The whole act is just sarcasm.”
Yep. Bitter as day-old cold coffee, David Letterman’s stand-up act was – in a nutshell – “What is wrong with you people!?!” He did not tell jokes, really. He made cranky observations about the inanity of contemporary life – observations which compelled you to laugh at, possibly, your own stupidity. One of my favorite of his bits, later turned into a full stage piece with Chris Elliott in the earliest days of Late Night With David Letterman, was his observation about the newly-improved taste of Alpo Dog Food.
“How do they know?!?”
As a 60’s-born child of the vidicon tube, Johnny Carson was one of my first idols. I worshiped at his altar from as far back as I can remember, and all the way up to May of 1992, when he left us. But when Letterman showed up, whether it was on Mike Douglas, The Mary Show (with Michael Keaton), The Starland Vocal Band Show (with Jeff Altman and Phil Procter), or a slew of game shows, I had to watch. His easy exasperation, intolerance of tomfoolery and love of the non-sequitur just totally spoke to me. He was a smart-ass, maybe the smartest one I’d ever seen.
In 1980, someone at NBC lost their minds, and for 90 glorious live shows, Letterman hosted a morning talk show following Today. First running ninety minutes (?!?!), and then trimmed to an hour, The David Letterman Show was daily, snarky anarchy. Featuring Edwin Newman as the on-set newsman, a band, games and prizes (“Winky’s Cow Paste“), and it was a joy to behold. It was also the reason I bought my first VCR in 1980, with money from my first real job, to see it every morning… after I woke up. Just last week, Steve Martin reminisced with Dave on-air about his first appearance on the show, in late September 1980. A still-store frame showed Steve in bed for that interview, as he complained of the early hour. I wasn’t alone, see? And, if memory serves, on the last show, a small fire broke out on set. Letterman’s response was something like, “That’s about right.”
NBC held David under contract after that show ended, and in February 1982, Late Night With David Letterman appeared, following Carson each night. And, with breaks only for switching networks, having bypass surgery, and the shingles, he has been on late-night TV for thirty-three years straight. Longer than Carson’s thirty-year tenure, he is now the truest – and possibly final? – King of Late Night.
Certainly, the world has not stood still for these thirty-three years. A new comedic generation, or possibly two, have come to us since. But he is a massive influence on those who have followed, and not just on talk shows. Former Letterman writers and producers have created, or been involved in the process of creating material for shows like Ed, How I Met Your Mother, Get A Life, Everybody Loves Raymond, The Last Man On Earth, Monk, The Simpsons and Seinfeld – among countless others. Everyone from Tina Fey to Jon Stewart to Conan O’Brien to Stephen Colbert acknowledge Letterman and his show’s influence on them.
But in less than two weeks, he will be gone. And the cold reality of that has only now begun to hit me. And I mean literally cold. Bumps rise on my arms and hairs stand up, as I begin to experience preemptive withdrawal. I am anxious. The void to be left will be immeasurable, unfillable.
I enjoy what Kimmel and Fallon do. Stewart’s show is a lesser icon, but he is also soon to be gone. It is the end of an age.
Yes, Letterman’s humor is different than the late-night pioneers that preceded him. But he is of an age to have seen, have known and have had on his show the founding fathers. Steve Allen, Jack Paar. Johnny Carson and even Dick Cavett – for the intellectuals – influenced David. When he goes, that age ends. And though Leno’s show did not really look back at these men in the same way Dave did, Jay’s already gone. Sixty years of “that kind” of talk show, even though Dave’s greatest gift to us and his descendents was to savagely deconstruct most of the rules of those shows, are finally and fully over.
I’ve never felt as old as I do now.
I’ve never had as much affection for David Letterman as I do now, despite being lucky enough to be in his studio audience twice in twenty-five years.
And though I do love so much of the modern comedy – Schumer, C.K., Tina, Apatow, Key & Peele, etc. – I suddenly hear a variation on the words of my old friend Dr. Bill.
“They’re not like Letterman. They’ll never be sarcastic enough.”
Hang on to your wigs and keys, kids. The next two weeks will fly by.