When David Letterman first announced his plans to retire from The Late Show a few months ago, I was somewhat surprised but not initially devastated. In the back of my mind, I knew that he was in his late 60s, that he had outlasted Jay Leno as the final member of his generation still hosting a late-night talk show, and that he’d be hanging it up sooner rather than later. But I still wasn’t ready. Now that he has officially wrapped up his show with his Wednesday, 20 May broadcast, I, like the other fans who grew up watching him every night, am bracing for life without Dave.
In fact, I’m dog-dying sad over this one. As much as I love Stephen Colbert, I don’t want another talk-show host to take Letterman’s place. I want Letterman back. I wish I hadn’t taken him for granted or acted like he would always be around. I wish I had it all to watch again in real time. I’m sure I’ll move to anger and depression at some point; right now, I’m still firmly in denial: Seriously? No more Dave? No more banter with Paul Shaffer? No more monologues, Top Ten Lists, Stupid Pet Tricks, visits with Jack Hanna, sparring sessions with Regis, shenanigans with the audience, irreverent meta-show drollery? I’m a long way from acceptance on this one.
Letterman’s short-lived daytime talk show (The David Letterman Show) debuted in the summer of 1980 when I was about to turn 10. I was already a television junkie and Johnny Carson fan, and I was well acquainted with Letterman by that time for his appearances and guest-host stints on Carson. I watched the morning show every day that summer, so by the time Late Night debuted in 1982, when I was 11, I was a fan, staying up late on school nights to watch him. I grew up in a house that revered Carson, so staying up after the news through Carson’s monologue and first guest was considered educational enough to risk sleep deprivation.
So throughout my middle-school years in small-town Missouri, I watched The Tonight Show on a 9” black-and-white desktop TV, and then lay in bed in the wee-hours glow of Letterman, which didn’t end until 12:30 AM CST (four nights a week only—remember, Letterman was only on Monday through Thursday in those days). I kept up this dedication through high school, by which time I had bonded with a couple of other Lettermaniacs, wore my Late Night t-shirt to school, and started adopting Letterman’s patterns of speech, pet phrases, and nervy sense of humor. I used to record Letterman on my family’s first VCR and rewatch favorite episodes—especially those special shows, like his 1987 week in Las Vegas, which I watched over and over.
Carson was cool; he and Ed McMahon taught me a thing or two about old-school machismo and unflappable charm. But by the ‘80s, Carson was a bastion for the fading golden-age of Hollywood and swing music—classy and classic country-club showbiz. Then along came Letterman, a young smartass with uncombable hair who wore wrestling shoes with his chinos, made fun of his guests, traded big-band jazz for rock ‘n’ roll, and threw bowling balls off the top of the building. I was sold.
As much as I loved Carson, Letterman made him seem stiff in comparison. Remember when Letterman appeared on Carson with Judge Wapner from The People Court to settle a dispute after Carson had Letterman’s truck towed? It may have been Carson’s show, but Letterman was a quick-witted gunslinger that Carson had no chance of keeping up with.
For teenage boys in the ‘80s, Letterman was a singularly cool role model. Carson liked tennis, bebop, and sailing. Letterman liked baseball, rock music, and fast cars. Carson’s show was in sunny Burbank; Letterman was in seedy old early-‘80s New York City. Growing up watching these two shows back to back, there was a world of difference between gleaming California at 10:30 PM and the dark urban inferno of Manhattan at 11:30 PM.
Mostly, Letterman was a paradox. He was at once dweeby (gangly, gap-toothed, oft-bespectacled, goobery) and studly (deceptively athletic, graceful, hilarious, urbane, girl-crazy). He was a farm-fed Midwesterner transplanted into the cosmopolitan scrimmage of New York. He was private and reclusive, yet he opened his life up every night to millions of strangers. He could be at turns sardonically rude and elegantly polite. He exuded both a cocky brashness and self-effacing anxiety. He was tough on his guests, but cute with kids, and good with dogs. He honed an effectively fake laugh when talking to guests, surely one of the peskiest requirements of the job, but his genuine laugh, when it came, was the most infectious on television.
Yes, Letterman changed television comedy. He threw stuff at the audience, pranked people in the streets, put on wacky suits of Velcro or Alka-Seltzer, and invented the Monkey-Cam. He wasn’t the first to read fan mail on TV, but he made it funnier, edgier, and weirder. Similarly, “Stump the Band” was a classic bit nicked from The Tonight Show, but Letterman—up in the aisles with the audience—was always masterful at improvisation and speed interviews with the tourists in the crowd.
Letterman took these segments—”NBC Bookmobile”, “Know Your Current Events”, “New Halloween Costumes”—and simultaneously nailed punchlines with quarter-note precision and deliberately derailed the scripts with his own sardonic left turns. He was often best when something wasn’t working right: failed props, lame jokes, audience groans, uncooperative guests. Carson was an expert at acting pained when a joke bombed; Letterman openly delighted in it. Suddenly, the worst joke in the monologue (which contained plenty of nightly stinkers) became the funniest bit of them all, perhaps resulting in a recurring comedy-as-repetition motif throughout the show, a Letterman hallmark.
None of which would have worked half as well without Paul Shaffer, who may be the most underrated comedic presence in television history. Night after night, Shaffer’s nonword chortles and punctuations (with a true musician’s timing) and post-monologue exchanges with Letterman showcased an intuitive repartee, chemistry, and rhythm that will never been replicated on another talk show. During segments like “Is This Anything?” and “Will It Float?”, Shaffer often supplied the sharpest contributions. In fact, with all the focus on Letterman, Shaffer deserves his own send-off tribute as one of the greatest sidekicks in history, and for his double role as comic cohort and as a musical director of incredible imagination, skill, and wit. Just as I’ll miss Letterman, I’m sad to see Shaffer go.
And what about Will Lee? Sid McGinnis? Anton Zip, er, Fig? These guys have been bringing it every night for 30-plus years, going back to the World’s Most Dangerous Band days. Altogether, Shaffer curated a nightly musical event—the band, sit-in instrumentalists, the evening’s musical act—that has provided over three decades of rock ‘n’ roll edification. Gauging Letterman’s enthusiasm for the musical guest was the last thing many of us did each night before hitting the pillow.
But for all the focus on the segments, the remote stunts, and the music, it’s easy to forget that Letterman facilitated the best conversations in the game. Any glance at watching celebrities labor through chats with Leno or Fallon reveals how skilled Letterman is at making his guests look good. Sure, he was a genius at pole-axing guests who got on his nerves, but his very fast modulation of the guest’s and the audience’s moods is unparalleled. He let his favorite guests be the star, and he took insolent guests down a peg or two. He hated when people on the street tried to be funny and moved on quickly to people who didn’t know they were funny, like Rupert Jee, Mujibur Rahman, and Sirajul Islam. Moreover, he got deeper—more political, emotional, and spiritual—than he’s often given credit for, going places in conversations that Carson or Leno never went.
I could go on and on, mostly because I want Letterman to. Part of my reluctance to let him go is that he’s still as sharp, cool, and funny as ever. The show has, admittedly, lost some edge (and solid writing), but Letterman himself is still aces. And with the way he’s embraced 68, with a lean swagger and keen intellect, he continues to be a role model and inspiration, here 35 years after I started looking to him every night for perspective. But no more? This is it? Ouch. See you, Dave. One more “Goodnight, everybody!” and the television snaps off—and the nights will never be the same.