David Letterman: Good night and farewell

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On February 1, 1982, late night television got a shot in the arm, or more like a kick in the ass. Television networks didn’t know what to do with themselves after the Tonight Show ended every night. It has been a 90-minute show, but was cut to an hour for to please Johnny Carson.

In all of this I forgot to mention the CBS Orchestra, the best musical act on late night TV.  Paul Shaffer, Anton Fig (drums), Felicia Collins (guitars and vocals), Sid McGinnis (guitar and vocals), Will Lee (bass and vocals), Tom Malone (trombone), Aaron Heik (saxophone), Frank Greene (trumpet) - (YouTube)
In all of this I forgot to mention the CBS Orchestra, the best musical act on late night TV.
Paul Shaffer, Anton Fig (drums), Felicia Collins (guitars and vocals), Sid McGinnis (guitar and vocals), Will Lee (bass and vocals), Tom Malone (trombone), Aaron Heik (saxophone), Frank Greene (trumpet) – (YouTube)

For a while NBC had a late night talk show called Tomorrow with Tom Snyder. That was a great show, because there was no audience to pander to with the guests. Snyder was able to have an in depth conversation with the most interesting people: Ayn Rand, John Lennon, Harlan Ellison, Paul McCartney, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, the Clash, Ken Kesey, the Ramones and even Charles Manson.

In 1980 NBC turned Tomorrow into just another variety show and it lost its appeal.

It just so happened they had a great young comedian under contract and with the revamped and named Tomorrow Coast to Coast failing to attract a younger audience, NBC launched a talk show patterned after the Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. It was called Late Night With David Letterman.

Letterman was 35 years old, had boyish good looks and was incredibly funny. I really didn’t want to like this new show, preferring the original Tomorrow in that late night slot, but dammit! Letterman made me laugh. He said and did things we young people laughed at. And when the audience clapped instead of laughed, Letterman understood the joke wasn’t funny and joked about the bad joke, which was often funny.

David Letterman’s idol and mentor in the business of late night comedy was Johnny Carson. It was Carson who discovered Letterman and gave him a shot on the Tonight Show. He was such a hit as a comedian He soon became one of Carson’s guest hosts, filling in when Johnny was on vacation.

The big hats at NBC were so impressed they put Letterman under contract and tried him out on a morning talk show that went nowhere. With Tomorrow not turning a profit like they had hoped, they got the idea to have a Tonight Show styled program after the Johnny, but one geared towards a younger crowd and David Letterman looked and sounded like a younger crowd kind of guy. There were some restrictions: Letterman couldn’t do a monologue like Carson, nor could he have a sidekick or a band with a brass section. “Anything else, Pop?”

Tom Hanks taking a selfie with Dave. (YouTube)
Tom Hanks taking a selfie with Dave.

To be honest, before Letterman hit the air I wanted him to fail. I was a fan of Tomorrow and really wanted that to continue. But on February 1, 1982 I tuned in because, what the hell, when Letterman was on the Tonight Show he was funny.

Who was Letterman’s first guest? Bill Murray. Well, okay, he’s getting good guests. And what he proceeded to do for the next 33 years was treat celebrity and media like a bottomless well for jokes.

Letterman was so good at his thing people like me got over not seeing the Tomorrow program. He had on as guests Frank Zappa — with his kids. Jerry Garcia and Bobby Weir were guests. Not just musical guests, but sitting in the chairs, answering questions and having fun with Dave.

Dave did stupid pet tricks, stupid human tricks, the Top Ten, which eventually gave us some awesome television graphics. He did elevator races, did a show from an airplane, had a show at 4 a.m. (Why? No real reason).

For some reason he decided to make Rupert’s Hello Deli, which is next door to the Ed Sullivan Theater, the home of David Letterman since he move to CBS from NBC … Oh yeah, how cool is that? He wasn’t on a studio stage in a network studio, he was in an actual theater and a rather famous one that that. Roughly 30 years earlier the Beatles had performed on that same stage.

David Letterman with President Obama (YouTube)
David Letterman with President Obama

Anyway, the bemused Rupert let the Late Show With David Letterman use him in some skit, I don’t remember the first one and for the next 20-plus years we were treated to some gag involving the deli or Rupert or both. Rupert wearing a headset and a camera impersonating a waiter and taking direction from Letterman, it was priceless TV.

When he had his quintuple bypass heart surgery the show business community in New York rallied to fill in, the guest hosts sitting on the guest chairs rather than taking Dave’s chair. It was touching — and funny.

Dave with First Lady Michelle Obama and the President’s Own Marine Band. (YouTube)
Dave with First Lady Michelle Obama and the President’s Own Marine Band.

After Dave was shafted by NBC when the Tonight Show chair went to Jay Leno, he left NBC and went to CBS, creating a show that competed with Leno directly. I’ll never forget the moment in that first episode at CBS. Letterman announced famed NBC newsman Tom Brokaw as a guest. Brokaw came out, looked at the cue cards and grabbed one or two, telling Dave the joke was the intellectual property of NBC. And then walked off. It was the funniest thing we had seen on TV.

The Tonight Show consistently did better than the Late Show, with few exceptions. But when people talked about late night television, we talked about what we saw on Letterman the night before. We still do, in all fairness to Jimmy Fallon.

Occasionally I would tune into the Tonight Show, let’s be honest: Jay Leno is funny. I even tuned in to watch Conan O’Brien a few times, but I’ve never been a fan of Conan.

For many years my late night TV routine was: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Colbert Report and then catch the last 35 minutes of Letterman. Sometimes I would eschew Colbert so I could catch Dave’s monologue and the Top Ten. Comedy Central replays the Daily Show and now the Nightly Show at one a.m. and before the Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, the Colbert Report.

Jerry Seinfeld with David Letterman (YouTube)
Jerry Seinfeld with David Letterman

But after Letterman we got the Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson and that was always a funny show as well.

Really, the best time to watch television was Monday through Thursday, from 11 p.m. to 1:35 a.m.

Last year Colbert left his Comedy Central chair to take the stage that Letterman will be vacating after tonight. Then Craig Ferguson left his show. Later this year Jon Stewart will turn the reins of the Daily Show over to Trevor Noah — everything I loved about late night television has, in the space of about 15 months, been flipped on its head.

The top of that mountain of great comedy is David Letterman.

Ever since Letterman announced his retirement I’ve been watching his show closely, as guest after guest paid homage to the man, as musical guests played the first songs they every performed for a Letterman audience.

Except for Bob Dylan Tuesday Night, the last announced musical guest for the Late Show With David Letterman. He finished the show with “The Night We Called it a Day.” Not so coincidentally, Bill Murray was the last announced guest on the program, Dave’s first guest as a late night host.

While finishing up this homage to David Letterman I had the Last Waltz playing on the TV in the other room. It’s the movie and album of The Band’s last concert, recorded at Bill Graham’s Winterland Theater in San Francisco — one more reminder that all good things come to an end. It brought a tear to my eye.

Bill Murray, from Tuesday’s show, the last scheduled guest on “The Late Show With David Letterman.” (YouTube)
Bill Murray, from Tuesday’s show, the last scheduled guest on “The Late Show With David Letterman.”

Roughly one percent of the U.S. population tuned into the Late Show With David Letterman, give or take a few hundred thousand over the years. In the grand scheme of things that doesn’t sound like much, but for the one percenters out there who tuned in five nights a week and caught his every special (he had a few) it was the greatest 33 years of television entertainment. Better than Carson.

When Colbert takes over the Late Show he’ll probably do well. He’s a funny guy, but the truth is, David Letterman created that show. No matter how original and funny Colbert will be, he will be compared to the man who started it.

We can’t sum up a 33-year career in a few short words, or even a long tome. David Letterman was and is bigger than any of us trying to write about the man and his show, those of us who spent our lives watching him entertain us all those years. No, I didn’t mention Dave getting caught with his infidelities, something he still talks about and says was the worst moment of his life. Nor did I mention the really bad joke he told about Sarah Palin’s daughter, which he has apologized for, years ago. Other people have spent electronic ink on those topics.

For me, those things don’t blemish the entire 33 years he’s entertained us in the late, late hour.

We are going to miss David Letterman.

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One bright spot in all this: We are in the age of the internet and YouTube and the Late Show With David Letterman has a YouTube channel. You can go watch all the best moments from Dave’s years as our late night Master of Ceremonies.