Wednesday, May 20, 2015

David Letterman, talk show host, Bryant Gumbel nemesis, retires tonight

Tonight is David Letterman's final show after 33 years in late night. Being barely older than Letterman's earliest show myself, I can't claim to be one of those who had his comedy mind completely blown by Dave. For comedians and viewers a half-generation older than me, Dave was a revelation. He was the guy who reinvented the sensibilities of late night TV, making it younger and hipper than what Carson was doing at the time.

I was a relative late-comer to Dave, with him landing on my radar during the whole "late night wars" saga in the early 90s. The first Letterman show I ever saw was his final NBC show in June 1993. By the time I came to Letterman, he'd already changed television. His comedic edge had already been adopted, imitated, refined and progressed by later comedians and TV shows. So it would be a little disingenuous for me to prostrate before the altar of David Letterman and give him direct credit for my own strange sense of humor.

Which is not to say I didn't consume a great deal of Dave in the mid-90s. I remember watching his first show in August 1993, which featured Bill Murray spray-painting Dave's desk with a giant "DAVE!" My favorite artist Billy Joel played "No Man's Land," then joked about turning down a chance to jam with Bill Clinton during the President's vacation to Martha's Vineyard. "It was nothing political. I just didn't think it'd be a good jam."

Oh, and after a "seance," Dave had old footage of Ed Sullivan introduce Paul Newman in the audience. With mock-bewilderment, Newman queried Dave, "Where the hell are the singing cats?"

I'd love it if tonight's finale somehow paid off that gag.

There was at least two years that followed when I recorded Letterman every night and watched it the next day after school. Since I was in a market that delayed Dave by a half-hour, I actually got to watch both Jay and Dave. Jay tended to have the more solid monologue, so it was ideal for watching that and then jumping over to CBS as Jay started bringing on guests. In those days, Letterman's comedy bits were classic. My favorite recurring routine involved Dave rigging up Rupert Jee, the owner of the deli next door, with a hidden ear-piece. Watching via hidden camera footage in a remote van ("resting comfortably, I might add," Dave often said), Dave would feed Rupert strange things to say and do while bystanders had no idea they were part of a hidden camera gag.

It was goofy stuff, but fun to watch. Who else would send his mom to cover the Lilyhammer Olympics and then make her ask Hilary Clinton if she could have her husband do something about the speed limits that were vexing Dave so badly in Connecticut?

Or the time he had Mayor Rudy Giuliani on and presented him with five possible new slogans for New York, with the agreement that they'd plaster the Mayor's face on the Times Square Jumbotron to read it live. I don't recall the more dignified ones that were rejected, but I do recall what Rudy gleefully chose, saying it reflected the spirit of the city: "New York: We Can Kick Your City's Ass!"

It's not lost on me that most of the bits I'm citing are nearly 20 years old. Dave isn't the same Dave anymore and he hasn't been for sometime. He's mellowed. He leaves the studio less and while he's still often a good interviewer, the comedy bits felt less and less unpredictable.

And then I think about the shows and movies that shaped my sense of humor from middle school up through college. The Simpsons began as a simple cartoon that appealed to me because of the rebellious spirit of Bart Simpson, but quickly evolved into something so dense, layered and incredibly funny that it blew my mind week to week what those writers would come up with. I was 10 when that show started and my sense of humor was still in the TGIF school of comedy. For something to be so ironic, smart and funny - something where esoteric references rewarded the viewer's intelligence and deep pop culture knowledge - it blew my mind. And at least some of The Simpsons's edge can trace its lineage to David Letterman's sensibility. He created a place in the culture where that tone could thrive. Arguably, only Saturday Night Live was as influential as that.

And if we never had Dave, it's likely that we might not have had Jon Stewart. Jon is to me what Dave is to so many of those paying homage to the gap-toothed comedian this week. He took a silly Comedy Central late night show and honed it into one of the longest-running and most biting political commentary out there. When I was in high school, political humor meant joking about how much the President liked Big Macs, or his predilection for affairs with trashy blondes and White House interns. The idea you could make political comedy out of substantive issues seemed unlikely until Stewart became the guy pointing a finger at the political theatre and essentially said, "You're all seeing this too, right?"

I don't have the hatred of Jay Leno that seems to be a prerequisite for enjoying Dave, but I also don't see Leno making the same sort of impact on the comedy landscape that Dave did. Probably most of the people you find funny on TV today decided they wanted to make people laugh after watching something Dave did. As much it feels like Dave handed off the baton in this relay race years ago, he still is the guy who carried it for all those laps and passed it intact to the current torchbearers.

But ultimately, you put aside talk of legacies and if this era of his show was better than another era and you realize there's really only one question in comedy that matters: "Did he make you laugh?"

Yes. Yes, he did. A lot.

Enjoy retirement, Dave, and thanks for the inspiration.

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