I’ve attended a number of retirements lately, including those of my wife and many friends. They’re all a mix of sentiment and bathos, salted with optimism and gratitude. But the one retirement that’s proven the most poignant to me is the pending departure of David Letterman from The Late Show on CBS.
My relationship with Dave dates from his first NBC show in the summer of 1980. After hosting the Tonight Show a few times in the 70’s, NBC gave him a daily live show that ran from 10:00 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. (I think). It featured a live New York audience, a jazz quartet, a cast of regulars (including the brilliant Rich Hall, Will Shriner and Edie McClurg) and even a daily newscast from NBC veteran newscaster, Edwin Newman. From the start a morning show seemed a stilted playground for someone as novel and improvisational as Letterman, but to me it was Nirvana – a comedian who could slide effortlessly between serious interviews and mad-cap ‘bits’. I remember vividly a studio fire while Judy Collins sang “Where are the clowns”, which Letterman saluted with a fire extinguisher, as well as busting the fourth wall of tv with a live remote broadcast of “Floyd R. Styles Day” at the eponymous home of a middle-American rube. During the course of the morning show, Dave’s humour slid from zany to arch and, after some 90 episodes, the show was axed in the fall. But NBC saw that guys like me – college students in their 20s, who worked the afternoon shift at Canadian Tire – ate up his smart, edgy brand of humour, and slotted him after Johnny Carson as “Late Night with David Letterman”. That ran for the better part of 12 years, followed by his jump to CBS in 1994.
I won’t go more into Dave’s history because others have done it so well. Let me just say, if every joke is a tiny revolution, then Dave was my Lenin, my Castro and my Rosa Luxemburg; and if good writers borrow and great writers steal, then every performance I’ve given deserves a charge of theft. Dave inspired me with his intellect and extemporaneity. He timed a joke brilliantly, and made irony glorious. His ingenious Top Ten List made me howl; concise, brilliant witticisms, concocted decades before the economy of Twitter. He also possessed a luscious mean-streak, with which he devoured vacuity; whether he was mocking Madonna’s lasciviousness or decimating Bill O’Reilly, Dave was always way more fun grouchier than goofier. True to his midwestern reserve he eschewed sentiment, but when things needed to be said, he would. Jon Stewart said Dave Letterman was the only guy who could have gone on first after 9/11, and that he did, on September 17, 2001, with a moving elegy for his wounded city. He also refused to be blackmailed, even to the point of airing–rending, really–his dirty laundry, with his confession of sexual infidelity. He was funny, smart, cranky, fallible and had guts.
I went to the Late Show at the Ed Sullivan Theatre twice. The first time was just after Dave returned from his quadruple heart-bypass operation, and even though I had just crossed an item from my bucket-list, Dave seemed wan and uninterested (also Kathie-Lee Gifford was the guest and she stank). The second time was better – Sandra Bullock and Emmy-Lou Harris – but, even though the talent had improved, I found that I could not avoid ‘the man behind the curtain’; the mechanics of a large theatre and throngs of production staff had stripped the aura from my hero.
Dave’s last show is on Wednesday night, May 20. I chide myself on using the past tense to describe him, when he is simply retiring and will likely go on to make more funny, insightful tv. But, regardless of what he may do in his retirement, I know that the part of me that loves Dave will ache a little on Thursday morning. He’s been my muse and comedic big brother for over three decades, and I’ll miss him.