March 6, 1987
Letterman’s Late Night humor
captures large audience
By William Harris
The theme song begins. The announcer, Bill Wendell, enters his typical spiel. “From New York… The city whose streets are paved with aluminum foil… It’s Late Night with David Letterman! Tonight: Michael J. Fox, comedian Jeff Altman, and Joni Mitchell, plus Stupid Pet Tricks, and Paul Shaffer and the band! And now, a man whose past is mere seconds away from catching up with him… Daa-vid Letterman!”
The lights go up in the studio. The camera focuses on the back wall, which is sliding open. David Letterman steps on the stage. The crowd emits thunderous applause, because the “king of the late night airwaves” has arrived.
Junior Rich Copeland gave his opinion on the title Letterman has been given. “He deserves it, because he is the funniest guy on network television. Better than Cosby.”
According to Newsweek, “some 3.3 million people tune in four nights a week at 12:30 a.m., Eastern time.” Many people have begun to question if Letterman’s popularity will continue. “Yes,” said senior Jon Amorese, “because in his five years so far, other late-night talk shows have started and ended.”
The majority of Letterman’s fans in Great Bridge seem to agree on the low point of the show. “Paul Shaffer,” said senior Michael McGuire. “I don’t like him. He is, to me, a geek.” Copeland echoed McGuire sentiments, adding that “every time he tries to make a joke, he practically ruins the show.”
Many people describe Letterman’s personality in a wide variety of ways. Mrs. Holly Morgan, English teacher, stated that he was “witty, satirical, amusing, clever, and down-to-earth,” while senior Tom Nuckols firmly declared that “David Letterman is the master of sarcasm.”
Letterman’s humor in part comes from the various segments he has on Late Night, some of which include Dumb Ads, Small Town News, and the Top 10 Lists. Amorese said that his favorite segment was Stupid Pet Tricks, “because he’ll bring off-the-wall stuff on and worry about the results later.”
Letterman has been called “too frank” by various critics. Morgan agreed, stating that “he embarrasses his guests. He ridicules them.” On the other hand, McGuire said that “people want Letterman to be frank, because it aids his honesty and helps add spontaneous comedy to the show.”
Many people believe that Letterman’s comedy will not affect the world much longer, but Amorese had a different opinion on the subject. “In five years, David Letterman hasn’t had a low point, and if he can last five years, then he can last twenty-five years.”
Given how many embarrassing clips have been rescued from aging VHS tapes in celebration of David Letterman’s retirement from the late-night arena, it seemed only appropriate to share one of my own. The above article from my high school newspaper may not indicate that I had a future in pop culture journalism – if anything, it may have been why my guidance counselor so pointedly asked me if I’d considered any alternate career options – but at the very least, it does give you some insight into how long I’ve worshiped at the altar of Dave.
It’s been so long, in fact, that I actually had to do a bit of Googling to confirm that I hadn’t created a false timeline in my deadline-addled brain as to when and how I first discovered Dave, but to my surprise, it turned out that for once my memory hadn’t failed me.
I have a long history of stumbling into an appreciation of genius in the stupidest of ways, but when it comes to David Letterman, I still can’t believe that I discovered one of television’s greatest comedians because of a book. And not just any book, mind you, but a book which is such a low-budget, done-on-the-cheap affair that it’s a wonder it doesn’t have the words “A Roger Corman Production” stamped somewhere on the cover. The majority of its contents are recycled sketches and segments from the show, many of them accompanied by photographs from their respective episodes which, based on their quality, may well be Polaroids that an intern took of their TV set while the show was on. If I’d known anything at all about Late Night with David Letterman before picking it up, I’m sure I would’ve flipped through it, yelled, “Are you kidding me?” and then thrown it across the room, at which point I would’ve been brusquely escorted out of WaldenBooks and informed that I was lucky that they didn’t call my parents.
Thankfully, I wasn’t familiar with Late Night with David Letterman. In fact, I wasn’t familiar with David Letterman at all. I was an awkward 15-year-old kid who was obsessed with trivia, who wanted to be more popular than he was but had no idea how to go about it, and who had a sense of humor that was…unique.
Okay, fine, it was weird.
The truth of the matter is that I was a weird kid, and I thought weird things were funny. I was constantly falling in love with mid-season sitcoms that were canceled in half a season or less. In the spring of 1978, when the kids at school were playing Star Wars on the playground, I wanted to play Quark. In the spring of 1982, I was calling my buddy Chris Johnson after episodes of Police Squad! to ask him what his favorite parts were to see if they were the same as mine. But everything I thought was funny seemed to be transitory, and in the pre-VCR era, when a show was canceled, it was gone, and if it had only lasted for a handful of episodes, then you could forget about ever seeing it again. By the end of 1985, I had fallen so far in my attempts to find something that would make me laugh that I was legitimately excited about the impending release of Police Academy 3: Back in Training…and, oh, how I wish I could say that was a joke.
But then I bought Late Night with David Letterman: The Book, most likely with money I’d gotten for Christmas, and the sea change was afoot.
Not that I read the book and immediately said, “Why am I wasting my time with the printed page when I could actually be watching the show?” I was 15, the show aired weeknights at 12:30 AM, and there was no show on Fridays because you know how the kids all loved their Friday Night Videos. But I damned sure studied that book, reading it from cover to cover until the binding disintegrated and the pages began to fall out, first absorbing the material from the show and then becoming fascinated with the original essays penned by Letterman and his writers.
And then on February 1, 1986, it happened: in celebration of his show somehow managing to survive for four years, NBC decided to do something special for their favorite gap-toothed monkey boy and set Saturday Night Live aside for the week in favor of a little something called The Late Night with David Letterman 4th Anniversary Special. I was watching…and it changed my life.
This is not an exaggeration. Despite the seeming evidence to the contrary in the above paragraphs, I don’t even have the words to express what an effect David Letterman had on making me, well, me. I’m never not going to be more of a listener than a talker, because that’s just my natural state, but after I started watching Late Night, which I’m pretty sure was directly responsible for me learning how to set the timer on a VCR, I started to come out of my shell through a combination of learning to appreciate the fine art of sarcasm and discovering the importance of comedic timing and how to utilize it efficiently. These things are dangerous tools to place in the hands of a teenager, but I’m not sure where I’d be today if they hadn’t been handed to me.
As you might guess from the article that kicked off these reminiscences, it was no secret among my classmates that I had become a diehard David Letterman fan. It was also common knowledge that I’d sent off a request for tickets to a Late Night taping during my senior year of high school, one which netted me a postcard to thank me for my request, to inform me that it had been duly noted, and to be sure that I was aware that I had quite a wait in store. They did not exaggerate: by the time I got my pair of tickets, I was over a year out of high school, and even though I was going to community college and still living at home, I was definitely not what you’d call flush with cash. But my dad, God bless him, paid for our train ride to New York City and our lodgings, and on October 11, 1988, he and were sitting in the audience of Late Night with David Letterman, watching Dave chat with his former Ball State classmate Jane Pauley and actor Bruno Kirby, may he rest in peace, and in between the two interviews, Dave pitted a podiatrist and a shoe salesman against each other in an epic round of Shoe Removal Races, a.k.a. the Late Night Shoe-Off.
In fact, if you look closely at the above clip, you can see my father and I in the audience, to the left of the shoe salesman: I’m the dork in the burgundy jacket, the one who’s unabashedly grinning and – based on what I’m doing with my foot – apparently enjoying himself so much that he’s unable to tell the difference between left and right.
But who cares? I look at that clip now, and I can still remember how happy I was. If I didn’t actually say, “It doesn’t get any better than this,” I could have, and even with as many experiences as I’ve got under my belt at this point, I’d still hold that experience as being worthy of that description. I later attended a pair of tapings of The Late Show with David Letterman, both of which were wonderful in their own right, but neither of them can match the excitement of that first time. Seriously, it really was just the best thing ever.
Is Dave as funny as he used to be? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I just know that he still makes me laugh, and I know that I’ll probably watch Wednesday night’s episode by myself in my office because I don’t want to put my wife through the horror of having to watch her husband bawl like a baby because Letterman is leaving. But how can I not be sad about that? David Letterman made me the man I am today.
Yes, I know that if I told Dave that, he’d probably say, “Well, I’m sorry, but I think the statute of limitation on prosecution has already come and gone.” That’s why I love him. And that’s why I’m going to miss him.
Good night, Dave. Drive safely.