[I know there will be a torrent of think pieces about David Letterman and “The Late Show” in the next few weeks. Please indulge me as I write my own. And please feel free to share your own Letterman memories in the comments.]
“At some point, all of a sudden, people in show business that I never knew before would say to me on the show, ‘Oh, it’s such an honor to be here.’ And I would think, What are you talking about? It’s just a goddamn TV show. And then I realized, this is what happens when you get to be older and you’ve been around for a while, people succumb to this artificial reverence. It was always kids that had only been in show business a couple of years. I just thought, Oh. I know. Your grandparents used to watch.” – David Letterman
There are some things in my life that are inherently consistent. I know that the subway is going to have train traffic or a sick passenger at some point during my commute. The Jets are going to play poorly, and then reach a whole new level of ineptitude. And, through May 20th, David Letterman is going to have a late night show.
I have a long, winding history with Dave’s show. I was too young to watch his 12:35 show on NBC, but remember vividly his move to CBS. (I even remember the terrible HBO movie about it.) Without knowing much about the late night landscape, I knew instinctively that I was a “Dave” guy, not a “Jay” guy. Some people loved Conan, some missed Johnny, and, as eroding ratings over the last two decades show, some people just didn’t watch late night. But Letterman has been a constant for me for the better part of 20 years.
In the summer of 1998, I went on a teen tour. Half the tour, we camped out, and half the tour, we stayed in hotels. The nights when we were in a hotel, we had a curfew of 11:00. Our routine was always SportsCenter at 11:00, and (at my insistence), Letterman at 11:35. The first night of the tour, my roommates asked why I would want to watch Dave. I told them to watch one episode with me, and if they didn’t like it, we could turn it off. And then Dave did what is, unquestionably, my favorite bit: Please, Stop Calling Me Chief.
Please, Stop Calling Me Chief has no business being half as funny as it is. It’s a bit that’s probably better for radio that somehow works perfectly on TV. The entire premise revolves around someone (potentially) catching on and realizing Dave is just referring to them as “chief.” That’s it! And yet, it was rare that anyone ever noticed that’s what he was doing. And the longer he went on, the louder the laughter from the audience got. My teen tour friends agreed – we could watch every night.
The genius of all of Letterman’s best bits (Stupid Pet Tricks, Stupid Human Tricks, Will it Float?) is just how inherently simple they are. Look at Will it Float? Dave takes an object, puts it in a tank of water, and sees if it will float. And it’s hilarious!
Dave’s silliness and zany personality make him rife for impression. Norm MacDonald’s “hey, uh, got any gum?” for instance, is pitch perfect.
But Dave isn’t just funny or weird (weird as in Chris Elliott living under his stairs.) My family and I have an interesting relationship with the show. My brother still loves the “hey, uh, got any gum?” bit; my parents always joked that our dog Trixie should be on Pet Tricks (she could very convincingly say “hello”); and my Bubbie loved Dave. In fact, at my high school graduation, Dave’s announcer, Alan Kalter, was there, and she could hardly contain herself. It’s not specific bits or interviews, or anything particularly funny that we all enjoy about Dave. In fact, I love his acerbic personality, and the contempt he shows for guests he doesn’t like. Dave doesn’t kiss ass. When he told Joaquin Phoenix, “Thanks, Joaquin, wish you could have been here tonight,” it was a funny line, but it also showed that Dave doesn’t suffer fools.
Frequently, people say that late night shows should be comfortable, and make you chuckle a bit before you fall asleep. And there’s definitely truth to that; when you’re winding down after a long day, something light and funny is probably the best choice for viewing. But what I love about Dave is that he could accurately dissect the issues of the day. He’ll have Bill O’Reilly on, and instead of being deferential and respectful, argue and debate with him about Fox News:
I’m an unabashed Jimmy Fallon fan, and there are times when Jimmy Kimmel has good bits (particularly the celebrities reading mean tweets about themselves). Since he’s been on TBS, Conan hasn’t been as funny, but he too can have the occasional funny sketch. But if something serious in the world happened, something that required a host’s gravitas, without question I would turn to Dave. There’s no better example than his first show after 9/11, when he had Dan Rather on as a guest:
That’s an interview handled as deftly as possible, given all of the circumstances. Dave let the emotion of the moment ring through, but also allowed for information and, occasionally, humor. People always said Dave was the heir apparent to Johnny Carson, but, when needed, he became the second coming of Tom Snyder.
Let me be clear: if there were one person who I think can handle a late night show with cogent analytical skills, it’s Stephen Colbert. I’m excited for what he will do, and for what his show will be. But as I wrote at the beginning of this post, there are some things that are inherently consistent. Dave was always there. And I’ll disagree with what he said in his interview with the New York Times – the guests on his show aren’t displaying artificial reverence. Obviously, I’ve never been a guest on his show (been in the audience twice, though!), but I will say this: the fans aren’t blowing smoke when we say that Letterman and his show are an institution.
People have asked Letterman what he’ll do once the show is done. Podcast? Web series? Write a book? Tweet out top ten lists every day? But my hope is that he’ll do whatever it is that makes him happy. And that one day, he’ll be walking the streets of Manhattan, and we’ll cross paths. And he’ll look at me, and say, “Hey, chief, you know where the entrance to the subway is?” And I can smile a wry smile and reply, “Please, stop calling me chief.”