Thursday, May 21, 2015

David Letterman Did It His Way

   When I was a young man, my viewing relationship with Johnny Carson and David Letterman was akin to a jazz fan dutifully acknowledging Bird, but having Coltrane in the car stereo.  I watched Carson, occasionally; he was an icon of my parents' generation, really.  Letterman — a product of the 1960s, a guy roughly my father's age — nevertheless spoke to my generation, Generation X.  If Carson was the king of late night, Letterman was the reluctant, eternally self-deprecating prince.  A rightful heir who, like Johnny, was magnetic as hell... but remained a bit of a distance-keeping enigma until the last curtain closed.

I'm sorry that I have not kept up with Letterman as much since the mid 90s... I don't know what happened, but that gap in time makes Dave's departure yet another painful memory-jolt to youthful salad days that are getting smaller in the rear-view mirror. 

During my senior year of high school, I took a first-period class, Business Law, that was essentially a slot-filling, rubber-stamp no-brainer.  The teacher, a most memorable character, acknowledged his role in the affair; his class was full of sleepy and/or hung-over kids waiting to graduate.  Some mornings, he allowed us to watch a bit of Late Night, taped by a fellow student.  One of my most vivid memories of the class, and of the show.  Up until that year - when my family got its first VCR - Letterman had been a maybe once-a-week experience; it was on at 12:30, after all.

Ironically, some now claim that technology — social media, the Internet — played a role in diminishing Letterman's once-overwhelming late-night power.  I'm not sure to what degree that's true, but everyone who was around at that era before 500 cable channels and iPhones will remember how influential that man was.  So hip.  So uniquely cool.  Such impeccable taste in music.  For pete's sakes, R.E.M. made their TV debut on Letterman's show.  Foo Fighters just played one of Dave's favorite songs - "Everlong" - to close out his last night on the air.  Holey moley, how cool was that?

Despite my spotty history with the show, I saw Crispin Glover's impromptu kung-fu freakout — and Drew Barrymore's "Happy Birthday" desktop flashing — the night (or day, rather) that they happened.  Several of Dave's dalliances with Madonna; various near-disasters with Rupert G and the Hello Deli.  Larry "Bud" Melman's surreal pop-ups; Chris Elliott's bizarre appearances. This was the stuff, together with SNL sketches, that you laughed about the next day with friends at school, at work.  In person.  Now, at 46, I trade a few words about boss-man Norm MacDonald's jaw-dropping, tearful goodbye to Dave with friends on Facebook.  Not quite the same.

Dave's departure means that half of my reason for ever wanting to visit NYC — being in his audience for an afternoon — is now gone.  Attending an SNL taping — the other half — well, that motivation has lessened in recent years.  

A couple of weeks ago, as it became more alarmingly close to Dave's sendoff, my wife turned to me and said, "What about Jack Hanna?  There will be no more animals, with Dave gone."  Perhaps Jack will return, with Stephen Colbert... one of two acceptable successors to that throne.  But it won't be the same.  Letterman-indebted Colbert is a singular talent, just as Dave — who owed everything to inimitable Johnny — was and is as unique as they come. 

Goodbye, Dave, and thank you.  Take a cue from your hero and pop in once in a while.  I'm sure Stephen would appreciate it. 

- Steve Stav