by Ryan Meehan
On Wednesday, May 20th, the last episode of The Late Show with David Letterman will air on CBS. The show will mark the end of an era in late-night television, one which saw Dave become a fixture on the central focus of living rooms throughout the United States and eventually the world. Letterman will be replaced by Comedy Central alumnus Stephen Colbert, who will have to shed the faux-conservative persona he worked so tirelessly to develop but will likely do Dave’s time slot a tremendous amount of justice. Nevertheless, his departure will leave a monumental void in the world of network television entertainment.
David Michael Letterman moved to Hollywood in 1975 with high hopes of becoming a comedy writer. After a set at The Comedy Store in West Hollywood comedian Jimmie Walker approached him about joining a small group of comics to write jokes for his act, as Good Times was becoming a huge hit and Walker no longer had the available time to develop the quantity of material he needed to continue to crank out killer stand-up shows. This group of comics included some of my favorites in the industry, stand-ups such as Paul Mooney, Robert Schimmel, and the late Richard Jeni. Two years later, Dave became a writer and a regular guest on The Starland Vocal Band variety hour and shortly thereafter he had caught the attention of Tonight Show host Johnny Carson. Johnny did everything he possibly could to work Dave into his shows, and he helped fans soon discovered the man who would go on to be a huge star. In 1980, after a genius morning show that garnered Letterman two Emmys, NBC decided that his sarcastic wit was not a good match for AM television and cancelled his show after just four months.
However, NBC retained the rights to his talents and exactly a year and a half later they began airing Late Night with David Letterman on February 1st, 1982. The show became a huge success, and not so coincidentally aired on right after Carson’s version of The Tonight Show. This was a crucial moment in the history of television because although Carson was in many ways Letterman’s mentor and comedic hero, Dave was gaining the attention of a lot of younger viewers who were then introduced to Johnny. Letterman appeared to have the world on a string…He had officially made it.
But perhaps more importantly: He got it. He understood what it meant to be a comedian as well as a comedic writer, and over time he got much better at conducting interviews. He turned obvious tension into television magic (For example Cher calling him an asshole, to which he didn’t disagree) and he continued to entertain us with his bizarre gags and was poised to become the biggest comedic star on television. In 1992, Carson announced that he was leaving and retiring from late night television. Given the fact that Letterman had killed in the following time slot for close to a decade, it seemed as if he would be the sure choice to replace Johnny at The Tonight Show. Instead NBC executives shocked everyone by selecting Jay Leno to replace Carson, a move which infuriated Letterman and really…who could blame him? He had been denied the right to a job that he clearly deserved, albeit to a guy who probably didn’t deserve it at all.
Nonetheless, Letterman trudged on, inking a deal with CBS that would pit his program directly against Leno. Thus began the late night wars, a series of back-and-forth ratings duels in which Letterman easily crushed him the first two years. His show was much more tame, but the Top Ten lists still made it a must-watch late night program and his writing staff proved that the program was not to be denied. Over this time period Dave had too many great moments to document, so I’ll pull a memory that I’m almost positive nobody is going to list in any similar articles…
One of my favorite little Davequakes from the CBS era was when …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead was the musical guests on his show. Their performance of “Relative Ways” was very rushed – perhaps due to time constraints – and it wasn’t as impressive as I’m sure some of their festival gigs had been at the time. When they had regrouped from the chaos that typically follows a Trail performance, Dave walked over and politely informed them “not to neglect their studies”. The final comment was removed from the video linked here, but I am certain it happened and it was nothing short of hilarious.
It was that type of dry humor that became the show’s longest running theme. I’ve always been hesitant to dismiss an individual who has mastered the clever art of the dry wit, because in the back of my mind I almost always know that individual is smarter than I am. While I’ve met plenty of people in my life who don’t particularly care for what Letterman does, I’ve met plenty more who don’t know a goddamned thing about comedy at all and as I’m slowly – and sadly – learning that’s sort of how the entertainment industry cookie crumbles. Dave would invite Norm MacDonald on for no reason at all when Norm had nothing to promote just so he could have an excuse to sit and talk to him on camera. He would invite Howard Stern on to ramble for several minutes for the same reason, and in many ways he became a mentor for younger comics much in the same way that Carson did for him. That’s why I think his greatest contribution of all was that of introducing the world to boatloads of comics that people from small Midwestern towns would otherwise never have heard of. Comics whom I’ve had the privilege of interviewing right here at First Order Historians…Comics such as Carmen Lynch, Andrew Norelli, David Kaye, Adrienne Iapalucci, Nick Griffin, and Kathleen Madigan just to name a few. But there was the announcement of one appearance that shed an overbearing light on the finality of David Letterman leaving our television sets forever…
Not too long ago, several of the Midwestern comedians with which I’m friends with on Facebook posted about one of their own finally getting called up to the big show. They were thrilled that Waukesha comic Johnny Beehner would be appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman on January 16th to promote his new album “Tiny Weiner”. I was thrilled too, not just because I had just interviewed Johnny myself but also because it was a great opportunity for a good guy who lives in a suburb of Milwaukee to get his hands on a Letterman credit. And that’s when it hit me…
“Holy crap, after May 20th there aren’t going to be anymore Letterman credits.”
For some reason, this fact had never occurred to me before this stark realization. This was it. There are going to be stacks and stacks of great comedians who will never get to say they were on Letterman, because soon it’ll all be over. As much as I sound like a five year old who can’t seem to grasp the floating goldfish concept, I couldn’t come to terms with the certainty that he just wouldn’t be there anymore. He had seemed so invincible to me, so unbelievably above the sure mortality of show-business that I guess I hadn’t even considered it. This was the guy who had invited Bill Hicks on his show twelve times. This was the guy who was a late night legend. This was the guy who knew that he couldn’t find what he wanted out of life in Indiana so he drove halfway across the country with nothing but a a loaded pickup truck full of ugly clothes and a notebook full of jokes, something only a handful of people in this country have the balls to do. This was the guy who turned that notebook of jokes into all of the opportunities I’ve mentioned and so much more than that.
And in a couple of short weeks, we won’t be able to watch him any longer. The new era of late night hosts is most certainly here, as evidenced by the success of comedians such as Jimmy Fallon and James Corden in their respective slots. But in a way with Leno and Ferguson gone and Conan exiled to TBS, this is sort of the last domino to fall in the structure that was the old model of late night television. Although Letterman will probably not be the last late-night talk show host to throw random objects out of a fifth story window, he probably will be the last to not have a personal Twitter account. It certainly represents the end of an era for old school late-night network television. And while the years of laughter and stupid pet tricks we’ve come to know and love have filled us with many memories to cherish on YouTube for years to come, we’re all going to be worse off for wear without Letterman on TV. As Dave once famously said himself on air after a very bad sketch on The Starland Vocal Band Show…”Ah yes, I can hear the sweet sound of television sets being clicked off all across this great nation of ours…”.
In summation, simply put…things won’t be the same without David Letterman around and we all know it. With a healthy portion of his favorite guests set to round out his last few shows, we move forward realizing that the man who had a great deal of influence on shaping comedy into what it is today will no longer grace our TV sets with his presence. But his impact on the mediums of television and stand-up will live on for years to come, and one can only hope his final send-off will be very moving all the while assuring us that although it’s the end for him the show must – and will – go on.
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