Friday, June 5, 2015
Thoughts on Dave
David Letterman signed off for the final time last month. Hard to fathom, yet not. Perhaps you watched the final weeks as parades of stars offered their last quips to the late night prankster. Even Dylan made an appearance. The very last show was expectedly low key, filled with "thank you"s. We got to see Dave's wife and kid, who was squirimingly embarrassed when introduced. The Foo Fighters closed it out with "Everlong", accompanying a rapid fire of old clips. The most energetic moments were left to the Top Ten list, "Top Ten Things I've Always Wanted to Say to Dave", each one announced by a big star who'd sat across from Letterman many times over the years. Julia Louis-Dreyfus announced #4 and got the biggest laugh, thanking the host for allowing her to be part of "another disappointing series finale". Jerry Seinfeld, who'd already delivered #7, furrowed his brow and mouthed "Really?" to his old costar.
I wondered if that moment was scripted. You never knew with Dave. There were wild, sometimes tense moments over the past thirty something years. Crispin Glover's attempts at kickboxing. Drew Barrymore's birthday flashing. Cher's use of a derogatory term towards her interviewer. Joaquin Phoenix and his beard. Most infamous: the fracas between wrestler Jerry Lawler and comedian Andy Kaufman. That one certainly looked real, but as we learned, was entirely staged.
I first caught Letterman during his Late Night program on NBC in the '80s. As many longtime fans would call it, the "golden years." Some really creative stuff. It was the most daring, original comedy of its era. There were hilarious regulars like Larry "Bud" Melman and Chris Elliot (my favorite: his walk-on as Marlon Brando). Frequent potshots at General Electric, which had acquired NBC. Ridiculous stunts involving velcro walls and Alka-Seltzer suits. "Stupid Pet Tricks". I loved veteran TV director Hal Gurnee's choices. Dave surrounded himself with like minded snarks and created moments I still think on. Letterman's brand of humor had a huge effect on my own, though maybe that gene was already present and I just naturally gravitated towards it.
I got to attend a taping at Rockafeller Center in December 1992, months before Dave left for his new post at CBS. Yes, the studio was ice cold, just as reputed. Dave came out before the show and shook many hands. I returned a few years later when the show was in its new location, The Ed Sullivan Theater, which had been spruced up for its new resident. "The place was rat infested..." Letterman recalled on his final show. The theater is much smaller than it looks on TV. Billy Crystal and Tori Amos were on the shows I saw, though I'm not sure which venue or year. I do remember Amos doing a mini concert after taping concluded. Very cool.
The CBS program was markedly different, reflecting a less manic, more restrained brand of humor, though at times things were still blown up outside and local businesses were visited. Dave seemed a bit tired these last few decades, and my viewing became more and more sporadic. The monologues got worse - something Letterman usually acknowledged during them. Always the self deprecator. Then there were the scandals, but by then David Letterman had become more of a fixture than a must-see. Back in the day our cult would be worried we'd miss some bit of inspired lunacy. I taped most episodes as I was still in high school and the damned show started at 12:30 A.M.
So, farewell, Dave. It was (way past) time. Enjoy the silence. I'll be cuing up those old episodes. Maybe you will, too? You referred to the late Andy Kaufman as "dear Andy" on that last night. Hopefully you won't have a reunion with him anytime soon.