This week’s question comes from The A.V. Club’s staff:
He’s not dying or anything, but what are you going to miss most about David Letterman now that his version of the Late Show is over?
When Letterman first invaded late night with his cheeky brand of irreverence in 1982, he was the only alternative to Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. When I was a kid, he was our Colbert before we had a Colbert (or even cable). In the midst of that heyday, my favorite bit was whenever Dave brought out Larry “Bud” Melman. The inscrutable character played by Calvert DeForest never failed to crack up me and my dorm-rat friends in college, when nightly Letterman viewing was mandatory. There was an uneasy line as to whether we (and Dave) were laughing with Melman or at him, but DeForest was so game for every scenario—from greeting New York arrivals at the bus station to examining restaurant etiquette—it almost didn’t matter. I guess I already miss this about the Late Show, as DeForest died in 2007, but not before leaving my generation and others with catchphrases that will live on forever, like “It’s so hot, it’s so hot, it’s so hot!’ and “What do you want, wicker?”
What I’ll miss most about David Letterman is the presence of a man who first taught me it was possible to be immersed in popular culture and not kowtow to it. Watching Letterman as a child showed me there was another way to approach American mainstream culture—namely, by not giving a fuck. His abrasive, unapologetic style was a thing of beauty, a rough gem among the polished stones of television hosts. Each time he would eat an unsuspecting guest alive, it made for thrilling TV, a sense of danger that was lacking in just about anything else on the dial back then. What made it special wasn’t just the ironic style, but the fact that he was getting away with it in such a public way. Nowadays, this kind of biting tone is readily available on dozens of channels, but all these shows will never possess the cultural ubiquity of the Late Show With David Letterman. He somehow convinced the entertainment industry that they had to submit to him, instead of the other way around—something that almost never happens, as is readily demonstrable by any cursory inspection of the lip sync battles and cute puppies that pass for late-night wackiness. Craig Ferguson came close to finding the anarchic spirit, but no one will match the idiosyncratic hostility that only Letterman can pull off. He’s a bomb-thrower, and there aren’t enough of those.
The Late Show has never been a staple of my television diet. I didn’t grow up on Letterman, nor did I ever entirely warm to his wry, on-air persona. (Conan O’Brien, in his post-midnight heyday, was much more my comedic speed.) In a way, I think Alex nailed what sometimes bugged me about Dave and his entire approach to the late-night business: He often didn’t give a fuck, and not just in that ballsy, irreverent way, but also in the sense that he sometimes seemed downright bored or (even worse) kind of contemptuous of his frivolous nightly responsibilities. What I’ll miss, then, was when Letterman did give a fuck. I’m talking mainly of the times when his dry wit aligned with his political viewpoints, and suddenly Dave wasn’t ambushing easy celebrity targets that annoyed him, but taking aim at right-wingers he genuinely felt were damaging the country. I’m probably just letting my own biases show here, but Letterman was never more thrilling to watch than when he was making short work of Bill O’Reilly, slamming Rush Limbaugh, or naming the “Stooge Of The Night.” In these moments, a real passion bubbled beneath the host’s signature dick-ish snark; he wasn’t just tearing through targets for sport, but venting half the nation’s frustrations. This is what makes Colbert such an ideal choice to take over, though I’m still having a hard time envisioning him going full Letterman and just saying, for example, that the president doesn’t care about America.
I’m going to miss one of my favorite holiday rituals: The last Late Show before Christmas, with special guests Jay Thomas, Darlene Love, a giant meatball, and the Lone Ranger. You can’t find a better example of Letterman’s balance of the reverent and the irreverent than these episodes, the set format of which made them feel as familiar as a Rankin/Bass special—even as their content made them look like holiday perennials from an alternate dimension. If so, they’re broadcast staples from a smarter, funnier version of our world, where kids count the days until Thomas tries to topple Letterman’s tree topper with a football, and “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is one of the best-selling singles of all time. Since I was a teenager, these episodes have been a welcome signpost in the calendar year, indications of a coming respite from work, school, and other responsibilities. This December, that signpost won’t be there. Maybe CBS will consider airing A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift Of All in its place?
I’ll admit I checked out of the Late Show a long time ago, but I’ve been watching recently as Letterman takes his victory lap and have been repeatedly reminded of just how funny I thought the show was when I was a regular viewer. And like then, I greatly admire how Letterman always found humor in the everyman, whether that was through Stupid Human Tricks, his interactions with stage manager Biff Henderson, or the stunts he used to run with Rupert Jee, his neighbor and the owner of the Hello Deli. For instance, on Tuesday Jee came on the show to talk about the old segments they did where Jee, wired to a walkie-talkie carrying Letterman, would harass McDonald’s customers, pretend to be a waiter, or just menace New York City. This was in the mid-’90s, and though it was an idea that had been done before, the blend of Letterman’s one-liners and Jee’s unassuming and deadpan personality made the stunts sit exactly right with me. I particularly like the one where Jee pulled a tablecloth off a patio table, claiming to be skilled in magic. A plastic ashtray goes flying and to this day, all these years later, I think it’s one of the funniest sight gags I’ve ever seen. I’ll see funny stuff again, and probably funny stuff made with the help of regular, everyday people, but the fact that Letterman seemed to seek that stuff out, that’s something I’ll miss for sure.
I’ve never religiously watched any late-night talk show, and my knowledge of Letterman stops at the staples, like the Top 10, and the most viral clips, like Joaquin Phoenix’s spaced-out interview or when a young Jaden Smith behaved as always acutely aware that Will Smith is his father. I’ve also watched many clips of the Late Show’s musical guests, and the thing I’ll miss most about Letterman is his genuine enthusiasm for up-and-coming bands. Many late-night hosts have a tell, such that when they’re not actually into a musical guest, it’s obvious when their praise and gratitude are merely dutiful. Letterman’s most tepid response to a little-known musical guest was one of warmth and curiosity, but when an artist really got him jazzed, he made no attempt to hide it. The best recent example came when Future Islands appeared in March 2014, making their network television debut. The band performed its single “Seasons (Waiting On You),” with frontman Samuel T. Herring doing a confusing, undulating dance move throughout. It was the kind of performance that would throw off most people of Letterman’s age, but he didn’t give the band a perfunctory thanks before wrapping up; he totally flipped out. It’s the kind of reaction that’s hard to fake, and late-night talk will be worse off without Letterman as a champion for burgeoning bands.
David Letterman was never better than when he was with someone he really liked—his eyes would light up, he’d lean back, and that “Yeah? And then what?” grin would sneak onto his face. And nobody could bring that grin more reliably than Chris Elliott, whose 30-year history of appearances on Letterman’s shows is rightly legendary. It would be folly to try to pick out just one clip from Elliott’s tenure, given that his back catalog includes such beautiful nonsense as an animal-loathing zookeeper or his gleefully juvenile Marlon Brando impression. So instead, I’ll submit my favorite David Letterman clip of all time, from Elliott’s cult classic Cabin Boy. Given how reticent Letterman has always been to act, it’s a strong testament to his affection for Elliott—who he once declared “the funniest man I’ve ever worked with”—that he showed up in the movie at all. But his part, as a filthy monkey salesman hurling grinning insults at Elliott’s “fancy lad,” is really a thing of beauty, lobbing madness like “Don’t let ’em give you any of that flank steak bullshit. You know what I’m saying? Try… the London broil,” while Elliott finally gets to be the straight man for once.
I loved watching Letterman fall in love with a guest. So much was made about him being rude to celebrities, but when he found one he liked it was so magic. Take when Billy Eichner came on Letterman last September. At first, Letterman seems a bit weary of Eichner’s Billy On The Street shtick (itself heavily influenced by Letterman). But as they play “Celebrity baby name or Kentucky Derby winner,” Letterman begins to soften. He’s so tickled by Eichner’s screaming that when the minute time limit is up on the game, he insists on playing more. “I wish this was my show!” Letterman says. “I want to do that to people!” The point isn’t that Letterman already made a career of doing such absurd things, but that he’s so tickled by what’s going on in front of him. There was no better stamp of approval.
For me, what was so formative about the early Letterman experience was seeing someone be so defiantly goddamn weird. I admit that the teenage me took pride in appreciating this seemingly straight-laced Midwesterner presiding over a nightly carnival of conceptual comedy that the traditional late night audience of Carson fans (like my parents) found utterly baffling, if not infuriating. He often had the same guests as Carson, but, more often than not, traditional talk show schmoozing gave way to odd tangents, often greeted with bewildered or annoyed stares. He strapped a camera to a monkey, suspended an audience member from the ceiling for the duration of the show, invented the velcro suit, and dropped things off the building just to amuse himself and watch them go smash. And the way he’d get inexplicably tickled by a phrase or a bit and run it into the ground was my first real exposure to the comedy of having the patience for a joke to come around—from silly to dull to excruciating and then all the way back to hilarious. (I’m sure Dave laughed his ass off at Sideshow Bob and those rakes.) The example that sticks in my mind is an early bit where Dave got entranced by a gizmo where jets of water seemingly shot from one place to another, a silly visual gag that he dubbed “Dave’s Dancing Waters” and kept trotting out again and again, eventually inspiring Paul to debut “Paul’s Prancing Fluids,” his own decidedly low-rent version. (He also filled it with things like ink, wine, and soap, as I recall.) Current shows like Comedy Bang! Bang! successfully parody talk-show conventions, but there’s really no way to satirize the pure, loopy comic inventiveness of those first NBC seasons.
What I’ll miss most about Dave when he’s left the late night arena is his mere presence. I was 15 when I discovered Late Night With David Letterman through the show’s cheap but brilliant tie-in book. Unfortunately, I was in high school, so I couldn’t stay up till 12:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday (this was when Friday Night Videos held Friday’s 12:30 slot), and I hadn’t yet figured out how to program our VCR, so I didn’t actually see the show until February 1, 1986, when NBC set aside Saturday Night Live to air The Late Night With David Letterman 4th Anniversary Special. That night, not only were my comedic sensibilities cemented forever, but—honest to God—that’s when I began my journey to becoming the man I am today. I started coming out of my shell, I developed an appreciation for sarcasm and determined how best to use it, and I began to understand the importance of comic timing, realizing that the curse of being the quiet kid can be lifted if you spend your time listening to what the people around you are saying and make sure that your silences are only interrupted with legitimate questions or well-considered one-liners. Letterman might seem like a smug, perpetually prickly bastard to some, but for me, knowing that I could turn on the TV and see my unwitting mentor on any given weeknight was an incredible source of comfort, and I’m going to miss that more than I can adequately express.