(and why it was never quite the same after that)
When David Letterman signs off for the last time on May 20th, it’s going to suck in a very big way and a part of my youth will disappear with him. But I won’t despair! Late night television is in very good hands. Still, I’m feeling nostalgic and his farewell “tour” is stirring up some memories, most of which are good and involve belly laughs.
The departure of the Late Show host is truly the end of an era for anyone of my generation. After more than 6000 shows over 32 years, Dave is finally packing it in. I’m a little conflicted about it because although I was as devoted a fan as anyone who came of age as an adult during the prime years of Late Night (prior to his “conscious uncoupling” from NBC and subsequent revival on CBS) I haven’t really watched his show with any regularity for years. I suspect he doesn’t care about this. Part of Dave’s appeal was always that he didn’t really seem to care. That was exactly what my friends and I loved about him. The notable exception was when he didn’t get the Tonight Show. He cared about that. Probably way too much, as even he admits.
If you went to college in the ’80’s, there was no other late-night show to watch. Late Night with David Letterman was it. The Guy under the Seats, the velcros suit, chucking footballs into passing yellow cabs, the drive-thru window stunt and stupid pet tricks… all of it was like nothing any of us had ever seen before. It was the irreverent antidote to the corny kind humour that made our parents and grandparents laugh at Johnny Carson and Jack Paar before him on The Tonight Show.
Even through the ’90’s when Jay Leno got The Tonight Show gig, I didn’t know anybody who watched Leno instead of Dave. The ratings indicate Letterman lost the battle in that decade, and in a recent New York Times article even he admits he took his eye off the ball a little bit in those years. But for me, there was no better host on television. There still isn’t, in my opinion, anyone who has the comedic range and let’s-get-serious interviewing skills that Dave has. Seth Myers is a smart, snarky-with-a-smile kind of funny, no doubt. Conan O’Brien is hilariously self-deprecating. The two Jimmy’s, Kimmel and Fallon, are brilliant in their own unique ways, and legions of fans prove they are very skilled entertainers. In the internet age, the viral quality of their work is what advertisers and TV executives drool over. They are the kings of the new multimedia universe. Letterman should get a lot of the credit for pioneering the creative platform they’re singing and dancing on today.
Letterman, though, ruled in a different era. He’s always owned a calm coolness that must be a result of his humble, mid-western upbringing. Not too showy, not too frenetic, always just right. From Presidents to celebrities to the guy who showed up for Stupid Human Tricks, he didn’t suffer fools, called them on the bullsh*t and always… always… got the best out of them.
In the past few years, he’s changed a bit… more curmudgeonly I think, frustrated perhaps by the inanity that so often passes for entertainment nowadays. Maybe he thinks the ‘celebrities’ of today are somehow less authentic, more contrived and rarely as funny as those in the past. There are some exceptions of course, and we’re seeing the best of the best guests this week as he counts down to his last show, but generally he seems slightly more perturbed. Which brings me to the time I lived a dream and saw David Letterman live.
It all started with what sounded like barely a whisper. We were walking along showing some visiting friends the sights, minding our own business as you do in New York City when I thought I heard a guy say “Hey, you want to go to David Letterman?”
It stopped me in my tracks. As a long-time Letterman fan and recent resident of New York City, it had always been on my bucket list. Damn right I wanted to see David Letterman!
I was the only one who heard it. I was with 2 friends visiting from Mexico via Calgary (this would prove to be important later) and my wife Jane. We had lived in New York only a year, but had already become exceedingly suspicious of any stranger spontaneously sparking up a conversation about anything on the street. This guy, however, seemed like he might be on a lunch break from classes at Columbia University, 20-something, dressed in khaki pants and a golf shirt and a haircut that looked a lot like mine back then. I looked right at him and said “Did you just ask if I wanted to go to David Letterman?”
Why yes. Yes he had.
I remember we all felt a certain amount of trepidation believing we were about to get rolled in the alley, but hey this was Letterman and seeing his show live was absolutely worth the risk. And so began our introduction to the David Letterman comedy machine.
The Letterman “scout” must have been looking for a certain type of potential audience member. The four of us certainly didn’t look like native New Yorkers (that comes after the 3rd year living in NYC, FYI) and we looked even less like trouble-makers. Turns out both of these qualities worked in our favour. After all, Dave doesn’t want a studio full of cynical New Yorkers. It’s not good television. He wants a studio full of zealous (but not too zealous) fans willing to laugh heartily (but not too heartily) at everything he says and does. This became very clear very soon.
The scout gave us a piece of green paper that he said would serve as our ticket ( I know, sounds sketchy right?) and all we had to do was show up at the Ed Sullivan Theatre a couple of hours before showtime and we’d be in. A dream come true! Well, yes and no.
We showed up to stand in a very long line with several hundred other people, all equally eager to see this master showman and icon of late night television. It wasn’t long before a very young-looking page came walking up the line, sparking up conversations with people as he went along. How are you? Where are you from? etc. etc. When he got to us, I didn’t say much because I got the sense it was more of an interview than a conversation and being the morning show host at Fox 5 wasn’t going to do us any favours when Dave’s show is on CBS. But when the page got to our friends Rob and Joanne (the ones visiting from Mexico) something magical happened.
They told him their true story of selling almost everything they owned in Calgary and buying a bookstore in the small Mexican town of Puerto Morelos just south of Cancun. The page’s eyes lit up like a child’s at Christmas. I guess it made us seem different from the other hordes of tourists, travellers, and not-quite-locals waiting in line. He scurried off and I imagined him exclaiming to his 22 year old supervisor “I got one, I got one!” as he described the characters he’d just met in line.
We received another paper ticket and were told to stand in another long line, slowly inching our way through the cue, surprised by the constant cajoling and encouragement from the interns.
You’re going to have fun tonight riiiiiight???
You’re going to clap loudly and enthusiastically riiiiight???
You are not going to whistle or yell “WOOO-HOOOO” okaaaaay!!!!
You’re going to laugh at everything Dave says riiiiiight???
No seriously at everything, riiiiiight????
Clapping and cheering was always expected after each of these lines was delivered. This went on in various forms for an hour.
It made my arms tired. And it made me think “Dammit, I’m going to laugh if Dave is funny.” After all, isn’t that what Dave would have wanted? I started to wonder if Letterman even knew what was going on in the lobby of the theatre every night as all of us… his adoring fans… so eagerly anticipated the experience of seeing him live, all the while being brow-beaten into making sure we didn’t whistle or yell WOOO-HOOOO! and that we better damn well laugh when they wanted us to laugh.
Anyway, it turned out our friends’ story got us the best seats in the house. When we finally promised to follow all the rules and we got into the theatre, we were dead centre, two rows back from the stage.
Ray Romano, a Letterman favourite, was his guest. He was hilarious. Avril Lavigne was the musical performer and I vaguely remember she was good too. It was an unforgettable experience despite the fact Dave did not even for a second speak to or acknowledge the audience. Years later, when we all talk about that day, we don’t talk about the show as much as we remember the brow-beating we took from the interns and how it kind of spoiled it. Maybe I’m naive about the control Letterman and his producers demanded over all aspects of “the show”, but it sure seemed inauthentic in a way that would have been disappointing to the Letterman I thought I knew.
This was confirmed to me a couple of years ago when Jane and I were invited to watch a taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Audience members were all crammed in the lobby waiting for the doors to open when someone associated with the show came out and said “We don’t have a lot of rules. Basically, don’t take pictures and don’t be a dick. Enjoy the show.” That was it. How refreshing! And so different from our Letterman experience.
If you ever get a chance to watch Season 12, Episode 14, you can see all of us for about a nano-second as the jib camera does a sweeping pan of the crowd in the opening shot. I am yelling WOOO-HOOOOOOO! as it goes past. A moment of irreverence I thought the old Dave might have appreciated.