David Letterman has left the building. His farewell to late night television, and perhaps, to the entertainment business, aired last night – one last glorious hour plus of laughs and good music. The network billboarded his final three shows for weeks, his 33 year run encompassing 6028 shows coming to a halt in the middle of a work-week. (Be sure to catch reruns of the comedy classic, The Mentalist in the same time slot until Stephen Colbert takes over.)
I had a long run with David Letterman. I saw his first appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I remember him from Mary Tyler Moore’s short-lived variety show. I was a regular viewer of his morning show on NBC, followed him to late night there, and then on to CBS when he bolted NBC because he’d been unfairly passed over to succeed Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in favor of Jay Leno. But I broke the late night TV habit when my wife brought a godless computer into the house, and it took possession of me for several years. I still watched Dave sometimes, and always checked the listings to see who was on the show, but I watched the show much less than I once had, and by the time I changed jobs in 2004 and began going to work in the middle of the night instead of in the middle of the day, I had gone off late night TV completely. I had to sleep sometime. I came back for David Letterman’s final shows because of what he had meant to me as an entertainer, and even an influence over the years.
I’d grown weary of late night talk shows in general. The genre had fallen victim to fatigue. Too much mediocrity had infiltrated those hours. There were sketches that fell flat, monologues that weren’t worth staying up for, and far too many B list actors promoting “projects” you would never pay to see in a million years. The musicians were often worth a look, but who could last to the end of the show to see them? Through it all, Letterman was still Letterman, but by 2004 I knew I’d seen the best the genre had to offer. I’d watched Carson for about 25 of his 30 years. I’d seen every incarnation of The Dick Cavett Show – in the morning, late night, and even after dinner on major networks and PBS alike. I even read all of his books. And Tom Snyder had gone to radio where I loyally followed him before retiring, and then dying. Those three men, Carson, Cavett and Snyder were giants to me, and I never imagined I’d ever see an heir worthy of my valuable time. But David Letterman was an anomaly. I became as attached to watching him work as I had to seeing Carson and Cavett and Snyder. His timing was just right, too.
Letterman had the capacity to surprise you at any minute. He was irreverent, and cynical, and found humor in the strangest places. He also possessed a familiarity I recognized. Like Carson, Cavett and Snyder, he was a Midwesterner (Snyder hailed from Wisconsin – close enough). I’m from the Midwest. I come from the same part of the country, and maybe that’s why I related to them. There are four people I credit for my sense of humor – my own father, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett and David Letterman. Growing up watching them, I most admired their uncanny ability to make people laugh and to do so in the most unexpected ways. They were masters at improvisation, and the off-the-cuff spontaneous remark that was often far funnier than the stuff their writers had given them in the office for that night’s show. That appealed to me far more than the sketches they did, or the guests they featured. I wondered if you could learn to be funny by watching those for whom funny seemed to come naturally. Being funny opened a lot of doors. People liked you if you were funny. So being funny seemed a good goal to have if you were shy and unsure of yourself.
It’s for those who know me to decide if I’m really as funny as I think I am, but I guarantee you that I’m much funnier now than I was when I was a kid. When you watch masters at their craft long enough, you’re going to pick up a few things along the way, and a slightly skewed way of looking at the world so that it seems funnier is what I gained. I probably got more of that from Letterman over the years because he was around for longer when I was an adult and knew more of the world and understood human nature a little better. All of those things are essential to being funny. And now that I’m at a time in my life where funny is really hard to come by, I’m grateful that after watching Letterman, and Carson and Cavett over the years that I’ve developed my sense of humor to the point where I can find a laugh in almost anything. That’s a valuable thing to have when you’re prone to bouts of depression and you see the world as one big giant cesspool of murderers, thieves, steroid users, ball deflators, greed mongers, and social media acolytes. When things are bleakest, David Letterman taught me that you could always throw a television out of a thirty-story building, or poke fun at politicians and the rich and famous. Even today, sometimes at home with the wife or with co-workers, I’ll throw out a line that gets such a big laugh that I can’t help but think to myself, “That one was worthy of Letterman.”
Thanks, Dave, for finishing what my dad and Johnny and Dick started. You finished my comedy education. At the age of 58, I can honestly say that I am almost always the funniest guy in the room (often I’m the only guy in the room, but that doesn’t make it any less true).
As for late night television, I’m not going back. They say you can never go home, and I think that’s true, too. I’m sure Stephen Colbert, a very funny man, will be wildly successful in Letterman’s old time slot. But even if my work schedule would allow it, I would not go back to late night television. It just isn’t the same now. I’ve been spoiled by the very best, and the last in a line of geniuses has just left the building. Turn off the lights, and don't forget to lock up on your way out.