By R. David
This was intended to be a mere brief Facebook status. One, as you’ll immediately see, I wasn’t even going to bother posting to begin with. I should have known I could never sum up everything David Letterman has meant to me in a few token sentences. I quickly found myself on a role and a legitimate appreciation column spewed out As always, David Letterman has inspired me to do better.
I wasn’t going to bother with this because there has been plenty of media saturation – both today and over the last few weeks – but I would be remiss if David Letterman signed off tonight and I didn’t say something about the man I grew up watching every night as a night-owl kid in the late 80s, then steadily throughout high school, my 20s and to this day.
As much as any of my heroes, Letterman has been my barometer for quality, integrity, originality, and individuality. He was never particularly concerned with popularity, amongst audiences or celebrity guests. He did his show his way, ratings be damned. He was always candid and honest, peoples’ opinions of him be damned. And he never let his guests get off with easy with schmoozing, softball interviews like most of his counterparts (you should all YouTube his post-scandal Paris Hilton & Janet Jackson interviews immediately).
But more than Stupid Pet/Human Tricks, Top Ten Lists, the simple, giddy thrill of throwing things off high-rise buildings, or his surreal man-on-the-street bits (Dave Works the McDonald’s Drive-Thru, Mujibur and Sirijul, Chris Elliot “living” under the stage, Dave’s mom live from the Winter Olympics), it was always Letterman’s serious side that made for captivating, cathartic, and unforgettable television. His first show after 9/11 is one the greatest TV moments in any genre, late night or otherwise. His candid, on-air addressing of his workplace sexual exploits – rather than allow himself to be blackmailed in order to keep it quiet – is surely one of the bravest, most compelling moments in late-night talk show history. And his appreciation of the doctors who performed his quintuple bypass surgery, tearfully bringing them all on the show, speaks to the kind of classy, uncorrupted-by-celebrity guy Dave is and has managed to remain after all these years.
David Letterman is our last link to Johnny Carson and ‘classic’ Late Night television, even though he also single handedly transformed Late Night from the Carson model into a more brazen, exciting, and anything-goes affair. Letterman is the bridge between classic Late Night and the Conans and Kimmels of today. He has been a constant for an entire generation of TV viewers. Our Johnny Carson. When Letterman waves his last giddy, gap-toothed goodbye from behind his desk tonight, he will take with him everything that Late Night TV once was. It is now a much more fragmented and viral-based beast. Flavors may one day circle back to the appeal of a slightly dorky, but absurdly unpredictable, often edgy and surprisingly honest comedian that people almost unwittingly turn to in our nation’s most profound moments.
But don’t bet on it.
Cocky, yet genial. Sarcastic, yet heartfelt. Dave is a true original. The format will never be the same again. Fitting, since it hasn’t been the same since he debuted 33 years ago. My 10-year-old self and my 36-year-old self will miss him dearly.