The fact that this post has a self-effacing title that ironically comments on what the thing is. that shows how much of an impact David Letterman and his work had on my life.
I never did a spot on The Late Show; when the show had a standup booker who dug me, I just wasn’t good enough to do the show. Once I was good enough, the booker was gone. Such is the biz of show. I never wrote for Letterman either, and that’s something I regret. I had an opening years ago, but the stuff i kept coming up with was more in the vein of his old Late Night show, and to be honest at the time I didn’t want to write for Late Show. I wanted to write for 1980s-era young snotty comedy punk David Letterman, because that’s where my head was at.
But you can’t go back. Which is good thing. Too many people get trapped by regrets, by the past, by what was and by what once might have been. Dave’s a pragmatic, Midwestern guy, which is why the final episode of The Late Show with David Letterman was such an affecting end to a long broadcast run that meant so much to so many people.
There was no schmaltz, no tears, although the closest he came to breaking was looking at his young son in the audience. Just some self-effacing humor, an acknowledgement of some of his best-loved bits, an acknowledgement of the work of his staff, and a brief overview of over three decades of broadcasting played over his favorite song by his favorite band.
It took me a long time to get into Johnny Carson, but Letterman, man, I was hooked as a young kid. When I was maybe 11, my mom let me stay up late with her one night during a particularly bad bout of sickness, and we watched late night TV together. I didn’t really get into The Tonight Show; Carson was all about Show Business, with the capital B and the capital S, and I’d been raised on TV shows like Saturday Night Live, SCTV, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which were all about deconstructing that world.
I remember Carson did Art Fern that night, and my mom tried to explain the context in which that kind of comedy existed. Even at that age, I was eschewing sincerity for irony, heartfelt emotion for sarcasm. I was already into Spy magazine at that age. And when Letterman came on, it was like a light switch went on. It was as if somebody had asked me and my friends to make a TV show (although, instead of being made by snotty preteens and teens, it was made by professional comedy writers and producers). The only other time I felt that personally connected to a TV show was when I was bored with Saturday Night Live a few years later and came across the old Howard Stern Channel 9 Show, which was so low-budget, goofy, insane, and poorly-produced, it literally could have been made by me and my buddies. The fact that my parents didn’t get, or really enjoy, either show was a huge bonus for me. But that’s a post for another time.
When A&E started airing Late Night reruns after school, I watched it religiously, every day, making sure to pretend I’d had my homework done in time to watch the show (I never did homework). My mom suggested I try to write for Letterman, and i got through some material, including half of a Top Ten List about OJ. It’s still in an old notebook somewhere, and if I unearth it I’ll scan it and post it here.
When Dave moved to CBS, I was older. I was busy dropping out of college and starting to work professionally as a stand up myself. Since I didn’t have a VCR, and since DVR wasn’t an invention yet (wild and woolly times indeed, children), and since i was out ’til all hours most nights performing, I lost touch with Dave. If I was home, or when I had cable with DVR later, I’d check in, especially when something big was happening. I still managed to catch the big events live, like John McCain getting caught blowing off Dave to do an interview with CBS News. And watching a humbled and penitent McCain coming back a few days later to kiss the ring and apologize just underscored what an important part of the culture Dave had become.
Watching the montage of greatest hits over the Foos last night brought me back through years of my own life. I wouldn’t say I teared up; I like to believe that Dave would be the first to agree with me saying that, in the end, it’s just a TV show. But I felt a swelling of nostalgia, a little bit of sorrow over the passing of time, and finally, a joy that this had been a part, however hugely and then tangentially, of my life.
If I ever got the chance to meet David Letterman, I’d thank him. Then I’d probably apologize for making him uncomfortable.