A Big Fat Stupid Love Letter To “Late Night w/ David Letterman”

“Good evening. Certain NBC executives feel it would be a little unkind to present this show without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold a show featuring David Letterman, a man of science who sought to create a show after his own image without reckoning upon God. It’s one of the strangest tales ever told. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So, if any of you feel you don’t care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to…well, we’ve warned you.”

Thus spoke a sotto voce Larry “Bud” Melman thirty years ago this evening at the top of the very first episode of “Late Night with David Letterman.” Initially, Larry’s grave prologue (cribbed from Frankenstein) seemed little more than a throwaway gag, but the ensuing years of “Late Night” would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that our bespectacled friend was right to warn us of forthcoming strangeness. Truth be told, the strange began just seconds after “Bud” concluded his monologue; the camera quickly disolved from Melman’s solemn expression to a cadre of peacock feathered showgirls who began a synchronized dance routine to a hypnotic salsa beat. The shift in tone from stark popcorn house horror to ritzy Vegas-style fanfare was a tad (if not completely) jarring. It was also just the tip of the gap-toothed iceberg.

It’s hard to impress upon anyone raised in the post-cable television world just how much of a game-changer “Late Night with David Letterman” was, a program that without question thrilled, shocked, and yes, sometimes even horrified its audience. Up to that point, a certain level of decorum was expected on talk shows. Johnny Carson may have made jokes about poop on “The Tonight Show,” but “Tonight” never booked rock bands (or anyone who even looked like Jerry Garcia, really) and the general dress code was East Hamptons wedding reception. Do you honestly think Ed McMahon was comfortable wrapped up in all that polyester for his entire life on Johnny’s couch? Probably not, but he couldn’t ever cop to it. That’s because he, like Johnny himself, was of the old school. They were putting on a show. They were entertaining the people.

Enter Letterman in ’82, a walking/smirking breach of conduct. Here was a shaggy haired guy who wore sneakers on his set and dressed like an unkempt college senior in remote pieces. More importantly, Dave didn’t kowtow to all that Hollywood ass-kissy bullshit. He’d make cutting remarks to his guests, poke fun at the audience, and be outright nasty to his own staff on air if things went awry—and it was all genuine. Going back to that first “Late Night” episode: Right after admonishing a producer for not being on his mark following a commercial break, Letterman welcomed a playful Bill Murray. Murray spent most of the appearance teasing Dave about the newly minted host’s alleged abuses of power. Dave refused to go along, and the results were hilarious.

MURRAY: Well, I wish that you would quit tryin’ to run my life, Dave. No, I mean this…you’ve got everyone here under your spell, it’s obvious…I don’t like to see it…you can’t play God with people. When are you gonna get off the high horse, smell the coffee brewin’?

LETTERMAN: [mock cheerful] So, do you miss “Saturday Night Live?”

David Letterman would have far more contentious confrontations—Cher would famously brand him an asshole during an interview, and the host’s tangles with Harvey Pekar and Crispin Glover are the stuff of legend—but the guy always came out the victor because of his ability to convey that powerful Midwestern “everyman” charm. Letterman smartly balanced endless minutes of celebrity ball-busting with bizarre, slack-jawed segments in which he’d gleefully crush household items in an industrial press, or whiz through the same McDonalds drive-thru window twenty-five times in a row (“Has the shake machine ever gone nuts and killed a guy?”). You couldn’t brand Letterman as some sneering Ivy League intellectual because so much of “Late Night” was dedicated to grassroots weirdness and his own flat-out stupidity.

Every kid in the world has an unhealthly obsession with staying up past their bedtime, and I’m sure I’m not the only child of the ’80s who had extra incentive because of “Late Night with David Letterman.” This show struck me as literally the craziest thing happening in the world at the time. What was more outlandish than this grinning Letterman character throwing guacamole off the twenty-fifth floor of some abandoned building in New Jersey, or forcing Larry “Bud” to recite lengthy diatribes when it was apparent the guy’d have difficulty spitting out his own address? My other favorite TV show that I wasn’t allowed to stay up for at that time, “Saturday Night Live,” was fun and exciting, but it offered basically the same thing every week: somebody famous dressing up and doing theater. “Late Night with David Letterman”—man, I really never knew what to expect. They did shows upside down, they did shows on airplanes, they even did a show from Dave’s house while he waited for his cable to be installed.

Alas, that kind of silliness is par for the course today in our six hundred channel “On Demand” world. Throwing guacamole off a roof is almost meaningless now because even the guys on ESPN want to be irreverent. Back in the Dark Ages, though, “Late Night” was like some sort of oasis. I definitely looked at Dave Letterman not only as my TV pal but as my cool, witty older brother who sometimes let me into his basement digs to witness the monkeyshines he engaged in with friends such as Larry Melman, Paul Shaffer, that preening jackass Chris Elliott, and eternally depressed Flunky the Late Night Clown. These days I of course know there was a massively talented and mostly anonymous writing staff behind all those monkeyshines (lead for the majority of “Late Night” by program co-creator Merrill Markoe, who is a remarkably funny person in her own right).

“Late Night with David Letterman” died a very public death in 1993. While I believe Dave retained the basic spirit of his NBC venture upon moving to CBS for “The Late Show with David Letterman,” it wasn’t really the same. “The Late Show” from its inception was Dave as conquering hero. He wasn’t in anyone’s shadow anymore. Rescued from his shoddy treatment at the hands of NBC, those first years of the CBS program were like one long (albeit funny) victory lap. The honeymoon only lasted so long, though, and at some point in the mid-nineties Dave started to phone it in. His show became an uncomfortable void, which lead to slaughter by younger, edgier comedians. It really stung the first time I saw Norm MacDonald doing his takedown of Dave on “SNL.” It was fair, though. Sometimes it felt like the only joke Dave ever made during the Clinton Administration was “Ya got any gum?”

Yet I come not to bury David Letterman, but to praise his genius between the years of 1982 and 1993! “Late Night” boasted such a unique comedic voice during a decade that generally appeared to be more interested in lazy, cookie cutter entertainment (case in point: six Police Academy movies were released while Letterman was on NBC). The show left a massive stamp on television and made a huge impression on yours truly in the sense that it suggested you could succeed in life without conforming. You didn’t necessarily have to “play the game.” You could be rude to Cher, and then go smash canned peas in a warehouse, and America would still embrace you.

Happy thirtieth anniversary, “Late Night with David Letterman.” You helped make this country what it is today.

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