Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Repaying the Debt #4: David Letterman

So tomorrow is David Letterman’s last show. It’s a remarkable thing. Some call it the end of an era. For me, the era of which Dave was part has been over for awhile now. But then again, I don’t even feel like I’m a part of the era in which I find myself.

I first met Dave sometime in 1984. I was fifteen or so, and I had recently talked my parents into letting me have a TV in my room under the pretext that I needed one for my TI-994A (if you don’t know what that is, google it). The TV was a little 13” black and white job. Offbrand, of course. Paid for it with my paper route money, or maybe I had started working at Lionel Playworld by then. The thing was, I was only supposed to use the TV as a monitor. And for the most part, I abided by my parents’ wishes. But late one night, I dared to turn it on. In the course of flipping through the six or seven available channels, I suddenly found myself confronted by the image of a pudgy, bespectacled man. His odd, distorted face completely filled the screen. I don’t remember what he was doing, or why he was so close to the camera. It didn’t matter. All I knew was that on my television was a man who looked like a Gary Larson cartoon come to life. It’s all I needed to see. I was hooked.

The man, of course, was Larry “Bud” Melman. The show was Late Night with David Letterman.

It was love at first sight. I know it was love because I would stay up till midnight every weeknight. The show would end at 1 a.m., and I would get five hours of sleep at most before having to get up and head off for school. But I didn’t care. I could sleep in Trig class, for God’s sake. I didn’t know what I’d do if I missed Letterman.

Like I said, love at first sight.

In those early days, Dave was cocky, and funny, and sarcastic, sometimes to the point of being caustic. He was clever, and sharp, and above all, a royal smart-ass. He had an underdeveloped sense of propriety, and respect for authority. As a kid in high school these were all qualities I valued highly. It was as though the television gods had granted me a mentor, a co-conspirator, possibly even a savior. Maybe that’s going a little far.

No, I’ve thought about it, and I don’t think so.

Okay, well, maybe a little.

I feel bad for people who missed the early years of Dave’s NBC show. It’s hard to describe just how entertaining it could be. It’s frustrating, too, because I’m a writer, and I’m supposed to be able to describe these things. Here’s how I sum it up: Dave took the talk show format and systematically dismantled it, tearing down every element and twisting it into something new and ridiculous. The results could range from the merely wacky to the sublimely weird. Some things didn’t work, but that was okay, because he was experimenting right before our eyes. Look, scientists who only conduct experiments that they know will work never discover anything new, right? And in those early days, Dave had the definite air of a mad scientist. In his maniacal hands, the rigid talk show format was just so much Silly Putty. It was television projected through the lens of a funhouse mirror. At least that was my experience; I can only imagine what the drunk and/or stoned people out there made of it. The point is, when you hear people talk about how groundbreaking Dave was, don’t judge him by the version you’ve been seeing for the last twenty years. You have go way back, to those first five years or so, to see exactly what they mean. It was, at times, barely controlled chaos. At its best, it was inspired and wonderful.

Dave mellowed out after a while, incrementally became something approaching mainstream. That happened well before his move to CBS and The Late Show. This probably took some of the luster off for those of us who liked to revel in his unique form of smart-assery. I know it did for me. The truth is, he became a little less relevant in my life. I gradually noticed that I no longer felt the same compulsion to stay up until midnight to tune in. But he always remained my favorite, and over the many years since, I would always check in with him from time to time, to see how he’s doing, maybe reassure myself my world was still intact.

I’ll be honest, it’s going to be a little harder now to maintain that façade.

Here are some things I remember fondly about the early days. I’m going back as far as my memory permits for these, and intentionally not mentioning the most obvious ones (Stupid Pet/Stupid Human tricks, the Top Ten list, any Jack Hanna appearance, Dropping Stuff off the Building, etc.):

Chris Elliot (most vividly, his unnerving portrayal of The Man Under the Stairs. Alternate: The Fugitive Guy )

Steve Jordan on drums (and his new replacement at the time, Anton Fig)

Director Hal Gurnee (or, as Dave liked to call him, Hal Gertner). I loved Hal. Hal played the part of the longsuffering director, but his choice of takes alone could elicit laughs, or provide ironic commentary on whatever topic the Dave and his guest were discussing. I think Hal was brilliant.

I didn’t get to see Andy Kaufman’s legendary appearance on Late Night, but I was there for Crispin Glover’s kung-fu freak-out moment.

The Alka-Seltzer suit 

Larry Bud Melman


Barbara Gaines’ voice coming from somewhere far away

Interrupting the local NBC news show, among others

Canned ham

Tierra Del Fuego

Dave talking to his mom on the phone

Paul Shaffer as The Flash

Speaking of Paul, how could I leave out his imitation of Cher singing ‘O Holy Night’?

"I've been hyp-mo-tized!"

Charles Grodin

The Pyramid of Comedy (building blocks of comedy)


Talking to the woman in the next building (What was her name?)

Teri Garr

Connie Chung

Jay Leno ("pound for pound, the hardest working man in show business")

the voluminous viewer mail

Sadly, this only scratches the surface. I know there are so many more, but they’re all buried under six inches of dust somewhere in my brain.

One last thing:


Like The Kinks, and Star Wars, and Huck Finn, and WKRP in Cincinnati, you are something very special to me. My memories of watching you are something I will always treasure. Thanks, Dave, for everything.

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