NEW YORK — Taking the stage for the pre-show warm-up, he ran out like a champion fighter with surprising speed and grace. And then he leaned over in anguish, feigning lower back pain.
He coolly grabbed the microphone like a rapper about to spout off the dopest lyrics. And then he lifted his dorky penny loafers up on one of the TV monitors.
He revved up the crowd with a fun riff on allergies but hit a pothole pontificating their scientific origins. And that’s when it became very funny.
“You’re probably thinking you came to the wrong program,” he deadpanned.
Nope. We all knew exactly what to expect when we went through the hassle of getting into the Ed Sullivan Theater last Monday.
Landing a ticket to “The Late Show With David Letterman” — I called the standby list that morning, akin to winning a radio contest — was the perfect wrap on a stellar trek to New York that weekend, one that started with a trip uptown to the historic Apollo Theater for a show by Brooklyn’s powerhouse soul band Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings.
I honestly couldn’t think of two more quintessential-NYC shows to see right now. We also contemplated the Broadway adaptation of Green Day’s “American Idiot,” but something about paying $100 to hear show-tuney dance versions of punk-rock songs makes me upchuck just a little.
I also couldn’t think of a better time to see Letterman in action. It was the day after Conan O’Brien appeared on “60 Minutes” and brought back one of the year’s most over-reported stories. And it was two days after Jay Leno made a widely panned appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner, where President Obama reportedly drew bigger laughs.
Hey, Jay: You know you’re a putz when even the president is poking fun at you for fallen ratings and questionable backroom deals.
Just as New York has 10 times the soul of Los Angeles, my first Letterman taping was way more electrifying than the time I saw Leno live.
I witnessed the mother of all Leno shows, too, his Battle of Midway. It was the one with Hugh Grant after his bust with a hooker in 1995, which famously turned the late-night war in Jay’s favor.
I was an intern at the Los Angeles Times that year, and like all good interns I turned a patsy assignment — interview audience members at the “Tonight Show” taping — into a much better gig. I paid a guy a wad of cash to get into the taping myself (which turned into another valuable journalism lesson in creatively wording expense reports).
Like everyone else, the thing I remember most was Leno’s opening question to Grant: “What the hell were you thinking?” I bet Jay spent the entire day thinking that up. The rest of the interview was forgettable, though, as is just about everything Leno does that’s not carefully scripted.
The Letterman taping I saw Monday was far more ordinary, yet way more memorable. It was actually the Friday show that would air four nights later. That’s how good Dave is: He can tape a show four days in advance and keep it fresh. But then, you don’t have to be a genius to know that Arizona’s new immigration law will still merit spoofing a week later.
As viewed from the crowd, the best parts weren’t the edgy moments, but the ones when Dave turned into a total softie, which came compliments of Mother’s Day. Let’s face it, Dave’s stature among women took a big hit this past year. Whether or not it was the intent, this show went a long way in turning things around.
Amanda Peet was officially the lead guest, making up for her cancellation just two weeks earlier upon the birth of her second daughter. The show’s biggest guest star, though, was Dave’s mom.
If Dorothy Letterman, 89, of Indianapolis, isn’t the most likable woman in America, I don’t know who is. Via satellite, she delivered the night’s Top 10 List: her advice on parenting (i.e., “If your child won’t stop crying, tell him, ‘Stop it, David, you’re 63 years old!’”).
I’ve always admired Dave’s mastery of self-deprecation, which I attribute to his Midwestern roots. What really impressed me in person was watching him at work behind the scenes. It wasn’t so much that he’s a total pro, who — after 28 years of putting on a show — effortlessly pulls it off. It was that he actually seemed to still work his tail off.
He spent the commercial breaks talking offstage with staffers and going over cue cards. He and the great pre-show warm-up comic, Eddie Brill, went off in the corner several times, probably going over material. Being funny is hard work, and I believe it’s Letterman’s work ethic that makes him the best. And I’m not just saying that because we were both paperboys.
Even Dave’s pre-show bit on allergies was probably something he’s working on for a future monologue. One gets the feeling that Leno tests his material only in front of NBC affiliate presidents, if at all.
Leno is back on top, though, so who gets the last laugh? His ratings aren’t what they were before he weaseled Conan out of a job, but Jay can still boast of once again being the most popular late-night TV host in America. My reaction to that is the same as seeing all the tourists eating at Applebee’s and other chain restaurants down the street from the Ed Sullivan Theater near Times Square.