I’ve always been a night owl.
When I was a little boy, I had a 5 inch black & white TV in my room. Mom would send us to bed at 10:00 or 10:30, and I’d either lie in bed and read, or just sit and stare at my Atlanta Falcons alarm clock until 11:29. That was the magic time when I’d lean over and turn on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I was only 6 or 7 then, and I’m sure most of Johnny’s jokes flew right over my head. Still, there was just something about having Johnny there. His gentle, if predictable, humor and grandfatherly presence were a big comfort to me, and helped me drift off to sleep night after night after night.
Until one fateful night early in 1982. I had dozed off during Carson, and awoke to a new, different show. The host was talking to his band leader about how the show had been on since the late 1950s. I was half asleep and totally puzzled: the host looked like he was in his late 20s or early 30s, so how could he have had a show back in the 50s? And if he’d really had a show since the 50s, shouldn’t he be in his late 60s? How could he look so young? And if the show had been on since the 50s, how come I’d never seen it before?
So at first it wasn’t the humor that got me to watch, it was the confusion. The host was David Letterman, and the band leader was Paul Schaffer. The show was Late Night with David Letterman, and of course it hadn’t been on since the 50s. It was brand new. And the thing that so confused me – Dave’s deadpan, earnest delivery of the “this show’s been on since, when, Paul? The late 50s?” line – totally sucked me in.
But there was more, so much more. There was Larry “Bud” Melman and his “Toast on a Stick” commercials. Dave would toss pencils through the “windows” behind him, but the sound effect of glass shattering would always come 3 seconds late. He’d call random people on the phone. He’d throw stuff off five storey towers, or run over it with a steamroller. He hassled a poor woman who ran a store called “Just Shades”. He’d don a suit made of Velcro and jump onto a Velcro-covered wall. Or a suit made from Alka Seltzer tablets and lower himself into a giant glass of water. And, in those early days, he’d have just about anybody as a guest, including an old lady who collected potato chips that resembled famous people.
As much as I loved The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson was just too cushy, too set in his ways. Carson was nice; Letterman would often appear antagonistic towards his guests. Carson was the consummate showman; Letterman often looked bored or uncomfortable. Carson had old farts like George Gobel and Charlie Callas on his show; Letterman had cutting-edge comedians like Steven Wright and Andy Kaufman. Barry Manilow performed on Carson; R.E.M. performed on Letterman:
Carson had the same “Art Fern” and “Carnac the Magnificent” sketches he’d been doing since the Spanish-American War. With Letterman, you never knew what was going to happen next:
In short, Carson was for my parents and grandparents’ generation, but Letterman was for my generation. Johnny Carson might have been The Beatles, but David Letterman was The Clash.
Nowadays, late night antics are commonplace. Jimmy Fallon, Seth Myers, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, James Corden and, until recently, Craig Ferguson… all those dudes – every last one of them – can do what they do today because Letterman did it 30 years ago. And with so many shows competing against YouTube, Netflix and the rest of the Internet, late night talk shows don’t have the cultural significance they did back then. To today’s teenagers, David Letterman might seem like a cranky old man; they might never know the man’s genius, and how he broke the damn mold of late night talk shows.
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Those of you who remember Letterman’s NBC show might remember the “Viewer Mail” segment, where every Thursday he’d take a few minutes out of the show to read letters from viewers.
I’m proud to say that Dave read one of my letters on the air!
I was in sixth grade, and was an autograph hound. I had the autographs of tons of football and basketball players, and even Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Some of these I’d gotten in person, but many came through the mail. So it wasn’t much of a leap that I’d write Late Night and ask my favorite TV personality for an autograph.
I wrote a letter to Dave by hand one weekend and dropped it in the mail Monday afternoon. I hadn’t given any thought about my letter being on “Viewer Mail” at all, especially not that very Thursday. After all, it was just an autograph request, and it seemed almost impossible that my letter could get from Atlanta to New York, then be opened and read by staff by Thursday.
But there it was, on the air. In my letter, I asked Dave for an autographed picture, assuring him that such a picture would make me the coolest guy in my middle school. I was mostly sincere, but exaggerated my love a bit. It was a rule for people who collected autographs by mail: don’t just write and say “hey, send me an autographed picture”. Write something sincere. Tell them why you want their autograph.
And, of course, Letterman crapped all over my sincerity. After mispronouncing my name on the air (as “Cough-er”, not “Ko-fer”), he went on to say that I was wrong, that what I really needed to be the coolest guy in school was a nice car and a hot girlfriend. I know he was just going for laughs there… but COME ON, Dave! I said I was in middle school! I was, like, 11 or 12… way too young to have a car, and to be honest, I still thought girls were kind of yucky. My first real-life crush, on a girl with heartbreakingly beautiful cheekbones named Jenni, wouldn’t happen for another year.
The fallout was immediate. A teacher at my school saw the segment (Hi Mr. Hamrick!) and called my mom the next day to ask if she knew I was staying up so late. And if so, why was I allowed to stay up so late? I don’t remember how my mom replied, but I’m sure it was something along the lines of “man, I’ve tried to get that kid to go to bed before 11 for years now, but nothing seems to work.” When I got home from school that day, Mom gave me a half-hearted lecture about staying up too late, and how it looked bad for the family that Letterman read my letter on the air. But she knew. She knew if she took the TV out of my room I’d stay up and read instead. She knew if she took my books away I’d just hide some paper and stay up late creating new Dungeons & Dragons characters or something. Something, anything to keep me up at night. She’d read the letter I sent Dave and she knew it was just an autograph request, that I wasn’t trying to get the Department of Family and Childrens’ Services to show up on our front door. Still, for a brief time, I was the subject of a very mild version of fame: at school and in my neighborhood, I was “the kid who got Letterman to read a letter on-air”.
I waited for my autographed picture. A week, then another, then another went by. But nothing ever came. So I write Dave a second letter. I thanked him for reading my first letter on the air, and said that I thought his response was funny. But, ya know, I’d actually asked for an autographed picture, so… uh… could I actually, you know, get one?
A few days later, this showed up in the mail:
Holy shit, I treasured that picture! I hung it with pride in my room for all to see. I had the neat story about how I’d gotten it to tell friends. And, as time passed, I enjoyed people’s reaction to it: “my God, he looks so young!” He looked young because he was young in the picture.
I watched Letterman throughout middle and high school. My friend Rich and I would sometimes watch on the phone together, and the next day we’d talk about the best bits. We repeated many of Letterman’s best lines for years. Dave had an episode where he tried to come up with a new catch phrase for the show. The winner was “they pelted us with rocks & garbage”, and Rich and I ran that into the ground.
Dave had the famous “Stupid Pet Tricks” segment, and before any of the pets came out, he’d plead with the audience: “Please, please remember folks, this is only an exhibition. This is not a competition. So please: no wagering”. Not only was it funny, I still use the “please, no wagering” line to this very day. My friends and I often go to restaurants that claim to have 400 different kinds of beer, but I seem to have the supernatural ability to pick beers they’re out of. It’s become a bit of an inside joke in my social circle. Friends will ask me which beer I’m going to order that they’re out of today. They joke about placing bets as to whether the place will have my beer or not. More than once I’ve asked for “no wagering” as the waitress comes up to take our orders.
I’ve gotta confess: I stopped watching late night shows for a long stretch of time. I hated that Dave moved to CBS in 1993, and my love affair with his show kind of fizzled out. But I didn’t switch to Leno or anything else. I just kind of ignored the entire genre completely until 2008, when the enthusiasm of Internet fans caused me to add Craig Ferguson to my DVR list. Then Conan got The Tonight Show and I enthusiastically started watching that. Then NBC fired Conan, and that just stuck in my craw. I became a Team Coco warrior, and I waved the flag for Conan until he got a show on TBS. And I watched that for a long while. But again, the love fizzled out. Ferguson quit. I hate Jimmy Fallon. Seth Myers doesn’t do anything for me. I like Jimmy Kimmel OK, I guess… but his show just never “clicked” with me. And the less said about James Corden the better.
None of those guys can hold a candle to what Letterman was in his prime. Sure, the rare times I watched Letterman these past few years it did seem like he was phoning it in. That doesn’t make for great entertainment, but that doesn’t take away from his legacy. Letterman changed American TV forever, and made me laugh – sometimes almost uncontrollably – more times than I could count. I wish him well in his retirement, and thank him for playing a part – however small – in making me me.
God bless, Dave!