There was a time when I was younger and people asked why I got into broadcasting and who my influences were. I would tell them about the Johnny Carson box set of VHS tapes my dad would play for me…I’d then rewind the hours of tape back and play them all over again. That was my idea of Late Night, what I thought was the most entertaining thing on the planet, and the laughs and emotions felt so genuine…Then a former friend ripped that answer off from me and started using it to promote himself. I haven’t kept tabs on him so I don’t know how that worked out, nor do I care.
As I got older, Late Night TV became a part of my daily routine. Some people have the 10 o’clock news; I have the Conan O’Brien string dance. Some people have SportsCenter; I had Craig Ferguson trading innuendos with a gay skeleton robot. And while many people my age enjoy Jimmy Fallon’s millennial-grabbing, trendy guest-dependent bits, I watched Letterman.
Carson loved David Letterman. Letterman was HIS choice to take over the Tonight Show, and NBC went with Jay Leno. Carson would actually fax jokes over to Letterman’s staff because he read the paper, thought up 5 jokes, and wanted to hear them in Dave’s monologue that night. He even made his last ever television appearance on Letterman’s show.
The Carson connection drew me to Letterman. Why did Johnny like Dave so much? Simple…He was funny.
I like Letterman because he really doesn’t care what you think of him or his show. He told some really bad jokes, and he would tell them over and over again until they were funny. He would call for a random ass clip in the middle of a segment, the Top 10, or even an interview with zero relevant content… and it was hilarious. And if the audience wasn’t sure about something he said, all it took was a lick of his teeth and pull of a bass guitar to roll with it.
I watched Letterman because his interviews had value to them. Celebrities use talk shows to promote their projects. They’ll maybe go by a script from their publicists or say/do something that will make them go viral. The conversations that Dave had with his guests felt way more honest than that. If he respected his guest, you knew it and he would have fun with them. If he wasn’t very familiar with his guest, he’d make it weird and get whoever it was out of their comfort zone for great TV. If the guest had a controversial or questionable reputation, Letterman wouldn’t take it easy on them. I’ll never forget his interview with Lindsay Lohan where he pulled zero punches…actually read jokes he had made about her.
The rehab questions like “How will this time be any different?” are what stuck out the most to me from what turned out to be 14 minutes of great television.
I loved Letterman for the music. It begins with his sidekick, Paul Schaffer and the CBS Orchestra. Is there nothing they can’t play? They are remarkably great individual musicians that form a group with a personality that comes to life each and every night. It’s cool when artists like John Mayer and Todd Rundgren sit in and jam for entire shows, and even cooler when the band plays behind a superstar…like Eddie Vedder.
The quality of the sound was always fantastic. You know how bands and artists ALWAYS sound awful on Saturday Night Live? Complete opposite on Letterman. While I enjoyed seeing established veteran performers do their thing, I was even more interested in the up-and-comers. Dave seemed to be especially intrigued by new artists as well and he provided a platform that could be regarded as groundbreaking….and on the same stage the Beatles were introduced to America on. Jack White and R.E.M. are some notable acts who made their network debuts on his show.
With some of the reasons I mentioned earlier, Letterman was punk rock to me. It was his show and he did what he wanted. So before I say goodbye to the man tonight with teary eyes, and sharing the experience with my father (like I have so many times before), I’ll now say goodbye to Paul and the CBS Orchestra, Director Jerry Foley, Executive Producer Jude Brennan, EP Barbara Gaines, EP Rob Burnett, Head Writer Matt Roberts, Writer Bill Scheft, Announcer Alan Kalter, Stage Manager Biff Henderson, and Todd the Intern…
And see ya later, Dave.