It's 1980, I'm 8 years old and its summer in Houston. Both my parents worked so my grandmother took care of us during the day and she was a huge Today Show fan. She would watch the Today Show every morning and then she would go start getting ready for dinner. She was old school that way. She cooked all day; everything from scratch. She left the television on usually as background noise while she cooked and as a partial babysitter for us as myself, my 2 brothers and sister ran around like maniacs. This summer of 1980 was I remember so vividly because of 2 things. One was the burning desire to see Empire Strikes Back really, really bad and the other was this funny guy who came on after the Today Show. That guy was David Letterman.
Not a lot of people remember that show at all. I have asked a ton of folks to a reply of blank stares, but I remember it so well. I guess most kids were out playing or swimming or playing a $500 Atari or something cool like that, but I was in Houston, Texas where it is like 90 degrees and 99% humidity by 8 am and we were broke so we watched TV. Usually after the Today Show we would watch PBS or something, but for some reason we didn't change the channel one morning and thank the sweet Lord we didn't, because that is when we found The David Letterman Show.
Even then, it personified Letterman. It was cool and smart without knowing it. It wasn't stuffy like the Today Show which only interested me at the time because my parents told me that Willard Scott was the original Ronald McDonald and Gene Shallot was funny looking. It wasn't educational like Captain Kangaroo or Sesame Street. It was this wacky and funny almost satire of talk shows, but it was legit.
The morning David Letterman Show was like Saturday Night Live on weekday mornings. (A show I was allowed to watch as a kid because my parents rocked!) It was what Johnny Carson was after the first hour of the Tonight Show. (It used to be 90 minutes, I know that because I stayed up and watched it with my parents and grandmother... who rocked. By the time the first hour was up, the guests, and Ed, mostly Ed, were drunk and uninhibited so it made for fun TV.) This guy, Dave was goofy but competent in the way that both an 8 year old and a 28 year old could appreciate on the same level. He also had a gapped tooth smile as did I and was not ashamed of it like I was. (I have sense spent thousands on orthodontia to close up my gap, but not before many of my friends warning me against it as I may lose some of my personality. I didn't, I think. I hope.) This was the show, along with a few others, helped cement my undying love for all things (except Rudy Giuliani) New York.
We watched the show all summer long and while a critical success, it was not long for this world. By Thanksgiving Break, my hopes of watching a week of The David Letterman Show were dashed.
Then, in 1982, Tom Snyder, who was an NBC stable after the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, was cancelled and David Letterman was back with Late Night. The show was great. It was funny, irreverent and edgy. It was what I imagined a New York public access show to be but on a nationwide scale. Quirky guests. Odd bits. Great comedy.
Through Late Night with David Letterman we were introduced us to Larry "Bud" Melman, Chris Eliott, Harvey Picar, Jack Hanna, Stupid Pet Tricks, Viewer Mail (a Friday night family tradition) dropping stuff of a 5 story building and the list goes on. He did remotes and man on the street interviews. Disrupted Today Show tapings. He gave away Late Night collapsable cups and sponges. It was just well, random.
I would stay up and watch every night (even school nights), even if that meant watching Love Connection with Chuck Woolery first. (In Houston, they delayed Letterman half an hour to garner more ad revenue. Why so greedy KPRC? Freakn' "back in 2 and 2." Woolery was a bit of a tool, huh?) And then we got a VCR and it was game on! I taped every episode and then watch them when I got home with my siblings. I was obsessed.
I roamed the mall looking for wrestling sneakers like Dave wore with his suits. I would go to school and quote lines like, "Beauty is my bidness," "You kids like the rock and roll?", "hep me please, I be hypnotized" and "remember, this is only an exhibition, not a competition; please, no wagering" and get funny/disgusted looks. And if that didn't make me geek enough imagine it coming from a gap toothed black kid from Houston with a high top. Doesn't matter, because I loved Late Night with David Letterman.
By the time Dave moved to CBS and The Late Show, I was in college. Dave should have gotten Johnny spot upon Carson's retirement, but nice guy later to be revealed foil, Jay Leno wedged his way in to the seat by undercutting Dave's salary demands and ingratiating himself to NBC brass. (Ironically enough, Leno was his best on Letterman's show. He was never funny on The Tonight Show and will go down in the annals of comedy history as a 2 faced hack... Just ask Conan O'Brien, Joan Rivers, Sharon Osborn, Howard Stern, Jimmy Kimmel,George Lopez, Patton Oswald, and the list goes on...) After much ballyhoo, Dave moved over to CBS and The Late Show was born. The new time slot and network took some of the edge off of the shows, but Dave was still hilarious and has remained the gold standard in late night. The Difference between the 2 talk show titans was that Jay wanted to be everyones friend regardless of his convictions, Dave didn't care if they liked him. Dave was Dave and that is what makes him funnier and more relevant.
Dave is such a hero of mine that I remember much of my first visit as an adult to New York was spent with me and my then girlfriend, now wife stalking the Ed Sullivan Theater for just a glimpse of Dave, Paul or the World's Most Dangerous Band. Luckily we did see Biff Henderson getting a cab... and took sweet mid 90's pictures under the marquee.
Dave pretty much deconstructed the traditional late night talk show and parodied it for its grandiosity all while doing a proper talk show. He was the smart ass we all wanted to be but didn't quite have the guts to. Or just weren't smart enough to pull it off. He could do it through a smart ass comment or just a look, and all with unassuming, aw shucks, midwestern charm.
Below is an iconic interview with Paris Hilton. "How'd ya like being in jail?" he asked Paris Hilton then he goes into asking her about the daily jail regimen to comic perfection. With Letterman either you got the joke and played along or you looked the fool quickly. Dave does not seem to suffer fools lightly.
So tonight, when I watch Dave Letterman's final Late Show I will be a bit sad, but mainly I will be grateful. Grateful to a guy I never met and just watched on TV for giving us nerds, geeks, outcasts and closet smart-asses something to laugh at and someone to look up to for over 33 years. David Letterman helped to shape my personal humor and what I find funny to this day as he has done for a generation. Take my (and several million others including both Jimmy Fallon and Kimmel) word for it, tonight when he says, "Good Night Ladies and Gentleman!" late night will be a hell of a lot less funny.