Last night, I stayed up to watch The Late Show with David Letterman. It’s the first time I’ve been up that late on a weeknight in quite a while, but it was an important event for me to witness in real time. Today, I am tired, and I feel a little empty inside. David Letterman has been a lot of things to me over the years, and while I changed from a daily watcher into someone who only occasionally caught clips on the Internet, there was a certain comfort to knowing he was always there for me when I needed him. And that comfort is now gone. Most people probably have very little idea quite how important David Letterman was to me in my life. I’m going to take a few moments to attempt to rectify that.
Letterman was a staple of late night television for 33 years. He became a foundation of my life 29 years ago. Here’s the way I remember it… which, granted, may be less than accurate: My parents had company over, and I was watching television in their room upstairs. There were no particular shows I was interested in that particular night. Somehow, I ended up settling on a special presentation, Late Night with David Letterman‘s fourth anniversary special. It took place aboard a TWA flight to Miami and went on to win an Emmy award for writing.
From that night on, I devoured all things David Letterman. I watched the show as often as I could (frequently via VHS recording), bought books when they were released (many of them pictured here), and tried to catch what few personal interviews he did. Here was someone whose intelligence permeated his humor, even when he intentionally tried to come across as a backwoods rube (sometimes especially when he did that). Here was deep, biting sarcasm that rarely came across as meanly directed at individuals. Here was a wit that, when it was directed at individuals, absolutely tore them apart before they could even think of how to react—if they even knew they were being torn apart, that is. Early on, many celebrities were afraid to appear on his show for fear he’d outwit them, but I never felt he went on the attack without cause. He simply didn’t need to.
I was always an awkward kid. David Letterman made that not only acceptable for me, but even a bit cool. Goofy, intelligent, sarcastic wit was—and is—one of the few outfits I’m comfortable wearing. Before David Letterman, I did not see that in mainstream media. He became, to me, a role model.
But it didn’t really start with Letterman.
Years prior to Letterman, I discovered Johnny Carson—and there is no Letterman without Carson. I’ve always been something of a night person, and rarely fell asleep at my childhood bedtime. I never had a television in my bedroom growing up, but my parents did. And they often fell asleep with it on.
On several occasions, I’d hear their TV when I couldn’t sleep. I’d sneak over to their doorway, crouch hidden beside my father’s nightstand, and watch The Tonight Show, sneaking back to bed whenever my parents awoke and turned off their TV. I always enjoyed Carson, and still think he was a masterful comedian and host. But as masterful as he was, his comedy corners were rounded. Letterman had an edge.
Letterman took Carson’s shtick and made it his own. Injected chaos into order. With a knowing, intelligent wink, he took an established format and turned it on its head. While simultaneously honoring what came before him, Letterman appealed to a new generation—my generation—and changed the face of late night television forever.
You may think I’m being hyperbolic, but after Letterman’s move to CBS, late night television changed forever. It was The Tonight Show or nothing, for the most part, prior to that move. Once he was screwed over by NBC for that gig, Letterman pulled a Kobayashi Maru and reprogrammed the game. Leno may have taken over The Tonight Show, and may have (mostly) beaten Letterman in the ratings, but The Tonight Show was no longer The Tonight Show. It was damaged goods. What was The Tonight Show followed Letterman over to The Late Show—history, class, old-guard broadcasting.
With Letterman gone, there are precious few old-guard broadcasters left on television. None in the comedy game.
In high school, I used to write Late Night scripts during class. Yes, I know this was an unscripted show (save for the few comedy bits), but I’d write scripts of entire programs. It’s some of the first writing I ever did.
I also drew a caricature or two of David Letterman. It’s some of the first artwork I ever did.
Also in high school, I did a video project where I played David Letterman, interviewing various historical figures. It’s some of the first acting I ever did.
Among my coffee mugs is a large-ish plain, solid navy mug, bought because it matched the mug Letterman used to use on Late Night (similar to his Late Show mug, but logo-free). It’s the first mug I ever bought.
In the nascent days of the Internet, I used to be known as “Letterman.” It’s one of the first online nicknames I ever used.
I recall sitting in a computer lab in grad school (still in the early days of the Internet), finding clips of The Late Show online (we’re talking pre-YouTube here, folks). It’s some of the first online video I ever watched.
When Letterman switched to CBS, my sister and I were in the audience for his first show. Although (to my knowledge) that show was never aired, It’s the first TV show I ever attended in person.
I got the opportunity to act as host for a performance of an improv group I formed after I started doing theatre. One thing I insisted on: five-by-seven, blue index cards.
I grew up watching David Letterman. For two-thirds of my life, he influenced the man I became. And I’d really like to think that a lot of people would describe that man as a tall, goofy, somewhat curmudgeonly dude who nimbly dances between sarcasm, self deprecation, and intelligent wit. If he were to respond to that hope in public, I’ve no doubt he’d jokingly disparage the notion that anyone even remotely like him were walking around. Secretly, I kinda hope he’s proud.
And now, from the home office in Wahoo, Nebraska… the Top Ten Reasons I’ll Miss David Letterman:
10. I only had one spot left on my Late Show viewing punch card before I was eligible for a free sub.
9. Never found out who supplanted his old Late Night band as “world’s most dangerous.”
8. As my hair starts thinning, would’ve liked to have gotten the name of his wig guy.
7. Forced to turn to Internet for comedy in convenient list form.
6. Forgot to stock up on Big Ass Ham before it flew off the shelves in anticipation of Dave’s retirement.
5. No more Thursday night poker games with Dave, Paul, and the boys.
4. Finally forced to give up hope that he’s getting The Tonight Show.
3. Won’t be able to rely on #ThanksDave hashtag to boost my social media profile anymore.
2. Greater risk of him teaming up with Regis Philbin for a buddy cop movie.
And, the number one Top Ten Reason I’ll Miss David Letterman…
His absence will probably make me even more curmudgeonly, which ironically continues his influence on me even after his retirement.
Thank you, David Letterman. I sincerely hope you don’t drop out of the public eye entirely in your retirement years. An occasional appearance would undoubtedly bring a smile to my face, and remind me of the great influence you had on me in my formative years. I owe a part of who I am today to you.
Sorry about that, everyone.