I’m well aware that David Letterman did his final show the other night, thereby rending this entry useless to most anybody whose opinion I don’t care about. Did that make sense to you? Whether or not it did, feel free to read on.
The comedy community on the internet has been celebrating the career of one of the greatest television personalities of our era this week, and for all valid reasons. Letterman revolutionized the late night TV format for all of the reasons that your Facebook friends have been listing. It blows my mind that there was even ever a debate about who was funnier: Dave or Jay Leno. The latter was undoubtedly funny and innovative outside of the late night format (and continues to be, to a degree), but always seemed like an amateur TV host propped up with Hollywood magic. Even to 15-year-old me, there was always something intangibly REAL about David Letterman. He was a goofy looking Midwesterner who wasn’t afraid to change with the times, call out bullshit on both his guests (see Joaquin Phoenix in particular) and corporate atrocities in the face of a conglomerate that signed his checks (especially after his heart surgery).
Honestly, Letterman wasn’t always hilarious. Actually, when he went into his audience to play a generally unfunny game like “Know your Current Events” or “Know Your Cuts of Meat,” I would often change the channel. The Top Ten list, his show’s cornerstone segment, also sucked pretty often. But it wasn’t his consistency that made Letterman a true legend; it was his consideration.
As strange as this may seem in 2015, as recently as the late 1990s, the idea of making millions laugh seemed like a superhuman luxury reserved for an elite crust of entertainers. Strangely, most of the biggest laughs that Letterman ever gave me weren’t from things he said, but from secret weapons he pulled in the form of an amazingly talented substitute for Paul Schaeffer, a coterie of real-life characters from the neighborhood around the Ed Sullivan Theater, and the funniest fucking announcer in Television history.
I don’t know anybody who thinks that Paul Schaeffer was ever funny, but whenever Warren Zevon filled in, holy shit was I glued to my television. Before Schaeffer took time off to go film that abortion cash-in of a movie “Blues Brothers 2000,” I only knew Zevon from listening to my Dad play “Werewolves of London” in the family car. So, imagine my confusion when that guy is understatedly upstaging the host and introducing me to a whole new dimension of subtle comedy. This was somebody who fucked himself up so badly on drugs that it seemed like, even with national TV cameras on him, he kept tuning in and out. Eventually, cancer would consume him, but not without a balls-to-the-wall fight. Zevon always had that type of tenacity, even making stone-faced comments toward Letterman. I’ll never forget one viewer mail segment where a fan wrote in lamenting Paul not being around to do dumb things at random, to which Zevon interrupted, “Dave, I’m your man,” putting on a motorcycle helmet, and running out of the studio to jump off of the goddamn building, running back in and re-assuming his stoic position behind the keyboards.
Letterman and his staff had this supernatural ability to find comedic talent in places one would never expect. Continuing a time-honored tradition (dating back well to proto-Vaudeville theater) of extracting humor from immigrants, Letterman actively confronted this paradigm by laughing with the immigrants, not at them. I remember being incredibly star-struck when I met Sirajul and Mujibur, a pair of Bangladeshis who ran the souvenir shop next door to the Ed Sullivan theater. It wasn’t completely because they had merely appeared on the Late Show, but because they were amazing comic personalities and I actually admired them. Biff Henderson, a stage director, nearly became a household name due to Letterman extending his responsibilities to out-of-studio segments. Two stage hands, Pat Farmer and Kenny Sheehan, would monotonally read transcripts of Oprah Winfrey episodes, the latter with a cigarette unceremoniously dangling from his mouth. Another moment I’ll never forget was seeing Letterman mention Kenny in passing, the camera cutting to him, and the crowd just impulsively laughing for no reason. Kenny cracked a smile, too, appreciating his inability to tame the comedic monster that Letterman had made out of his presence.
Announcer Alan Kalter’s involvement in Letterman’s viewer mail segments were, and still are, among the funniest fucking things I’ve ever seen on television. My personal favorite may be one time when Letterman got a piece of mail asking Dave his thoughts on the electoral process in the wake of the 2000 Presidential election. Dave admitted that there were faults, but democracy was still a good system. Quickly, Kalter interrupted Dave. The cameras cut to him: full Red Army uniform, Mao’s Red Book in hand, saying that Chairman Mao’s system was the only true way, in the worst Mandarin ever broadcast, obviously (and even more hilarious for being so) read off of transliterated cue cards. This goes on for a solid minute. Dave asks him, “Alan, what are you talking about?” to which Kalter replies, “I’m drunk, Dave. Don’t worry about me.” The more I think about it, this may be my favorite late-night television moment of all time, accompanied by a Letterman sketch from earlier that year where Dave gets shot to death by a Chicklets delivery man for plugging Juicy Fruit on the air (“Chew on that, ya bastid”) and the entirety of that time Conan O’Brien visited an 1864 baseball game (God save us for the day when Conan retires).
If none of these people were comedians, then why were they some of the funniest people on television? Because Letterman knew, more than anyone on television, that humor wasn’t something that operated strictly from the top down. He was the star, but that didn’t mean he had to be the one getting all the laughs. He was a master at picking out people’s latent ability to add to the party, and nobody, not even his mother Jennie, was safe from comedic legend status. Conan would later develop a similar approach, though with talented writers and actors rather than unassuming figures who never expected to be on television in the first place. Jimmy Fallon, though still relatively new to the circuit, has been doing well with some hybrid approach. David Letterman is the reason we’re still having this conversation. I’ll miss him and everybody he brought to the top with him.
Yes, I just wrote that all from memory, and at 2:29 AM. Kurtis Blow said it better, but these are the breaks.