As you know, I dig series finales. I love it when a show that has been on for years, and has built a loyal audience and deep back-story, closes everything out with one last episode and goodbye.
But when it’s a person who is leaving air rather than a show, and 33 years of history rather than just a solid 5–7 year sit-com/drama run, it’s a little different. It’s tougher to draw a straight line and connect all the dots between the first episode and last when you’re dealing with over three decades and two different networks. And when you’re dealing with one man and his idea of humor and entertainment as opposed to a cast of fictional characters.
Letterman was never appointment television for me. His NBC show was on too late for me to watch live, except in the summer. When he moved to CBS, and up an hour, I did watch more often than I ever had before. But still it was not an every-night event for me. When his fastball got wonky and his audiences more adoring than critical, much of the magic of the first 15 years of his show(s) was gone. Some nights were still great, but others lacked the energy and spark that made Letterman such a comedic genius.
Fortunately, he got that fastball back. He may not have been able to throw 95 at the knees, but he could still bring it when he needed it. For people my age, who grew up idolizing him, it was fantastic to tune in occasionally and be greeted by that wacky, odd personality who helped to form our comedic preferences when we were kids.
Here’s my favorite random Dave moment: This is from an early 1980s episode that I saw about 10 years ago when some minor cable network briefly re-aired shows from the early Late Night years. Billy Crystal was a guest, but this was before he had been on Saturday Night Live or starred in movies or hosted the Oscars or done all the other things that made him one of the biggest stars of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. He was just a guy who had been on that weird Soap show a few years back.
Anyway, Billy tells this story about something that happened on a recent airline flight. The audience was absolutely not getting the jokes. Sweat and worry appeared on Crystal’s forehead as he frantically worked to make the bit work. He delivered lines that he clearly expected to get laughter, only to be greeted by awkward silence. He nervously looked from the crowd to Dave and back.
And Dave LOVED this! He roared, not just because he got what Billy was trying to say and it amused him, but also because he loved seeing Billy suffer. He was the only one enjoying the interview, and it was obviously the highlight of his day.
That discomfort was the key to Letterman’s specific brand of comedy.
In his best years, the crowd was always a little on edge. Dave would tell jokes that fell flat, or do rehearsed bits that did not quite work. And while some in the crowd got the joke immediately, other in those early crowds would squirm in their seats or chuckle nervously, uncertain of how to respond. He was always pushing forward and forcing the audience to go new places. It didn’t always work in the moment, but Dave always knew that the payoff would come. Perhaps years later, but it would come.
Which brings me to the biggest reason I stopped watching Dave. The young people who adopted his show in its early years began reaching middle age. Going to see Dave was no longer a chance to see cutting-edge comedy, but rather a chance to worship at the altar of a comedy legend. To be part of an Event. Where awkward reactions were once the norm, the audiences showed wild enthusiasm for even the least well-crafted jokes. The applause was often way out of proportion with the effort put into delivery.
That wasn’t Dave’s fault. That was the fault of his audience, and also an influence from Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, where the audience was encouraged to behave in that manner. Where once there was a risk in late night comedy, now the studio audience had become Pavlovian, laughing and applauding on cue rather than because of genuine emotional response.
I think that took a little away from Dave, and contributed to the loss of his heater.
As I said, fortunately he got it back. But the audience was still annoying and made me cringe when I watched on nights Dave wasn’t locked in. In recent years I pretty much only set the DVR to record when I band I liked was on, and for Darlene Love’s annual December appearance. Luckily, the show and CBS embraced YouTube and have been putting the best performances and clips from interviews online, so I’ve probably watched more Letterman in the past three years, in that format, than I had watched since we moved to Indiana and I had to live with the Eastern time zone TV schedule.
Last night I set the DVR and as soon as I got back from dropping the girls off at school this morning, landed on the couch and hit play. It was a rather excellent final episode. The Top Ten was fantastic. The “Kids Love Me” highlight package was great. And then, in the midst of Dave thanking the staff that has worked for him over the years, the DVR cut off. So I did not get to hear his final words, nor see the Foo Fighters send him off.
Given my periodic viewing of the show over the years, that was somehow appropriate. Were I a devoted fan, I would have been apoplectic. But Dave entertained me one last time and his closing words really weren’t that important.
So long, Dave. And thanks.
I found it interesting to look back on how late night television has changed. For so long it was just Johnny Carson. Letterman backed him up, appealing to a younger, hipper, more cynical generation. When Carson retired we were left with Leno vs. Letterman. Choice, but still a binary one. You either got Dave and watched The Late Show, or you didn’t and watched Leno’s more middle-of-the-road show. A decade later Jon Stewart added a third voice to the mix, and cracked things open so when Leno (first) retired, things quickly disintegrated. Until yesterday we had Stewart (for now), Fallon, Kimmel, Conan, and Dave.
Like so many other aspects of our society, that singular voice that guides our nation discussions is long gone. Now you have at least five choices if you want humor, interviews, and music after your late local news. If you make the wrong choice, or just go to bed, and hear about something amazing happening on another show when you go into work the next morning, you simply fire up your browser and watch the clip of what you missed.
As with everything that’s changed because of technology in recent years, I can’t say if that is good or bad. I do know that no one will influence people the way David Letterman influenced all of us who were growing up and coming of age in the 1980s.
- Although, of course, there were many fictional and quasi-fictional characters in Dave’s world over the years. ↩
- As an aside, I am trying not to write 1500 words about how Julia Louis-Dreyfus has aged better than any woman in TV history. ↩
- I also probably would have stayed up to watch live and thus not had this problem. ↩