It Was Weird, and It Was Wonderful: A Farewell to David Letterman

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May 18, 2015 by billysparrow

I do not remember when I first saw “Late Night with David Letterman,” but, as I do with “Saturday Night Live,” I remember the first thing I saw (for “SNL,” it was the assassination of Buckwheat, which, not having a firm grasp on the nuances of comedy at the time, I thought was an actual news story). It was the famous “Just Bulbs/Just Shades” remote that you can see a little of in this compilation from “Late Night”‘s 3rd anniversary show.

I thought it was funny, but I wasn’t quite sure why I thought it was funny. It was weird, though, and that was good enough for me. I was starting to realize that weird stuff was where it was at, that weird stuff was what really made me laugh hard.

I’d love to tell you that after seeing “Just Bulbs/Just Shades” that I would sneak out of my bed every night and tiptoe to the living room to watch “Late Night” with the volume really low so as not to wake my parents. But I was not that cool. I spent most of the prime Letterman era believing cartoons were the only comedy really worth watching on a regular basis, eventually expanding that to include things involving John Candy as the decade progressed.

There was, however, one episode of “Late Night” I would watch repeatedly as I got older. Back in ye olden times, before YouTube put thousands of Letterman clips right at your fingertips, the only way to see old episodes of “Late Night” was when E! aired repeats or, if you were in New York City, on a trip to the Museum of Television and Radio.

The museum had a library of all sorts of television programs that you could watch in a special room in the museum, where you’d get your own console, put a pair of headphones on, and watch the episode you ordered. They had thousands and thousands of hours of TV available, but every time I went (usually every few months) I always ordered the same episode of “Late Night”–the one where professional wrestler Jerry Lawler slapped comedian Andy Kaufman.

Whether it was staged or not (I think it’s widely accepted at this point that it was), I still think it is one of the most entertaining talk-show segments ever, and if it weren’t readily available on YouTube, I’d be going to the Museum of Television and Radio (now the Paley Center) several times a year to watch it.

As I got older, stayed up later, and began to realize that things other than cartoons and John Candy were funny, and that this thing called “sarcasm” seemed pretty cool, I began to pay more attention to Letterman. But just as I was getting into him, “Late Night with David Letterman” came to an end. I warmed up to Conan pretty quickly, but Dave was clearly my 11:30 choice over Jay, and I soon started watching Letterman pretty regularly. Though “Late Show with David Letterman” was certainly more polished than his show on NBC, there was still enough weirdness to keep me entertained.

And it was also around the time that the “Late Show” debuted that I started collecting autographs in New York City. So, while people my age were honing their social skills and becoming well-rounded, normal human beings, I was spending my afternoons behind a barricade outside the “Late Show” stage door alongside autograph collectors (a whole different kind of weird), imploring famous people to sign things for me. Some days it worked out (getting autographs from Hunter S. Thompson, Warren Zevon, and Johnny Cash) and some days it was a gigantic waste of time (having Van Morrison and Paul Simon refuse to even look in our direction), but I got autographs from and took pictures with some cool people because David Letterman had a TV show at the Ed Sullivan Theater. So, thanks for that, Dave.

Me and Steve Earle

Me and Steve Earle

Bruce Hornsby

Bruce Hornsby (and a really annoying autograph collector)

Me and Willie Nelson

Me and Willie Nelson

Guy Clark

Guy Clark

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks

Warren Zevon, signed before his last appearance.

Warren Zevon, signed before his last appearance.

And one day in, I think, early 1995, I got an autograph from the man himself. That was a good day.

DSCN2857 20150518_222703But I don’t think David Letterman is the greatest because I got a bunch of autographs as a result of him having a TV show. I think he’s the greatest because he seemed to love being weird and different. And you could find evidence of that nearly every night in the segments that preceded or came in between the interviews.

There was the completely random Will It Float? and Is This Anything?, the latter of which I still ask myself whenever I see something that everybody else seems to enjoy but I just don’t get.

Another rarely mentioned gem was “The Strong Guy, The Fat Guy, The Genius,” with one of the best themes in TV history (bassist Will Lee on vocals, I think).

And there were the segments where Dave visited with his Ed Sullivan Theater neighbors, including the much-missed Mujibur and Sirajul. I bought a Bob Dylan shirt at K&L’s Rock America just so I could say I bought something from them.

Plus, there was Dave and Hello Deli owner Rupert Jee annoying people.

And though Dave did sometimes seem to check out of interviews with people he clearly found uninteresting, when he did have a guest on that he enjoyed being with, it was a guaranteed good time. Here are probably my three favorite guests:

Bev Tanner

Richard Simmons

(My favorite segment with Richard is actually this one, but embedding is disabled.)

Jack Hanna

I could keep on posting clips for days (I didn’t even get into all the great musical performances), but, well, I’ve gotta stop somewhere. And you can use YouTube just as well as I can. So do yourself a favor and just take a few hours someday to go down a Letterman rabbit hole. It’ll make your day better.

There are certain public figures you sort of assume will always be doing what they do. And so it was, I assumed, with David Letterman. Surely, he’d just keep doing it forever, right? Well, I guess not, because we are about to enter into a world where it will be 11:35 and you won’t be able to see Dave anymore. And in the last few months, as people have said their goodbyes to Dave, it feels like something very special and wonderful is ending, and that television will be forever altered by Dave’s departure.

But it was a helluva run, a run that changed late-night television, that changed comedy, and that made millions of people realize that life is weird and if you figure out how to embrace that, everything will work out just fine.

And so I’ll wrap this up with my all-time favorite Letterman clip, featuring the gloriously odd Larry “Bud” Melman, handing out hot towels to people at the Port Authority Bus Terminal while trying to figure out how to use a microphone. It is funny. It is weird. And it is undeniably great. Thanks, Dave, for making moments like this happen for all these years. Take a hot towel and enjoy your retirement.



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