I remember this one time when I couldn’t sleep.
I was probably in grade 2 or something. My brother and I shared a room and I got up and wandered into the living room where my Mom was on the couch watching some late-night TV. I don’t know where my Dad was. I’m sure he was around, but I only remember my Mom for the purposes of this story. Normally my Mom or Dad would lead me back to bed and tuck me in, but for some reason this night my Mom said, “Why don’t you climb up here and watch a bit of this funny man on TV?”
So I did.
It was this goofy looking guy sitting at a desk in front of a fake window, and he was carrying on a conversation with some “students” who were supposedly outside the fake window and down below on the street. It must have been September because the gist of the bit was that the kids didn’t have any school supplies, so the man kept throwing things out the window to them. It started out innocently enough with pencils and scribblers, but then soon evolved into absurdity when he was tossing sandwiches and stuff through the window. Every time something went through the window, there was a canned “smashing” noise as if the glass was breaking. I thought it was pretty dumb but also kind of funny. After the show went to commercial, my Mom took me back to bed and I went to sleep.
I didn’t know it then, but I just had my first exposure to David Letterman.
It was 1982, his first year on the air at NBC as the host of “Late Night with David Letterman” which aired after Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show”. None of this is news to you, obviously, but with Dave announcing his intention to retire “some time next year”, it got me thinking a little bit about my relationship to this man and his particular brand of humour.
After my introduction to Dave, I would catch him periodically at night from Mondays to Thursdays (he didn’t start Friday shows until 1987), but my love of Dave really came into its own in 1986 when my parents were the LAST PEOPLE IN THE COUNTRY to buy a VCR and I could finally tape Late Night and then watch it the next day after school, even fast-forwarding through the commercials. We were living in the future, baby! It even became a self-motivating factor in me getting my homework done. I would come home from school at 3:30 or 4 and I would do all my homework first before watching Dave. My wife was amazed to hear of this work ethic at such a young age, and I don’t know exactly why I started that routine. It certainly wasn’t something my parents made me do, so I guess I can thank Dave for building that aspect of my character.
I’m sure I can’t adequately express what it was about Late Night that spoke to this 12/13-year-old. I just liked his goofy brand of humour. I liked how he didn’t really have time for stupid or boring guests, and that he didn’t really seem to pander to stars. I never really knew why certain celebrities wouldn’t go on his show, but I enjoyed the jokes about it. The first celebrity feud that I personally remember was Dave v. Stevie Nicks in 1986. I didn’t even know who Stevie Nicks was back then. For whatever reason, the Fleetwood Mac singer wouldn’t go on his show and Dave launched a relentless campaign of jokes about it. Here is a compilation of some of the Stevie Nicks footage and a clip from a newspaper during that time.
In the following years, Dave engaged in a number of celebrity feuds, most notably with Oprah, but Stevie Nicks was the first.
Growing up, one of my best friends, Steve, had a very similar sense of humour to Dave and we both admired him. I remember talking the next day at school about funny things that happened on the show the night before (or I guess it was two nights before but you know what I mean). I’m not aware of anyone else in our class actually watching it regularly other than us, and it was kind of fun to have someone to relive some of the jokes with. In fact, much of my own personal humour sensibilities were forged and shaped by the stuff that Dave found funny, more so than any other person or thing. I discovered him at a real impressionable point in my life.
I remember our local mall had one of those “t-shirt iron on” kind of places where you can get images of rainbows and unicorns and whatnot pressed onto t-shirts, along with your name on the back or whatever. They were BIG DEALS back in the 1980s, but I wonder if any exist any more? I remember asking for and getting a “Late Night with David Letterman” shirt for my birthday in grade 7 and I wore it proudly all through jr high and most of high school until the damn thing just disintegrated. I don’t think it was made of the finest materials, to be honest.
And I may be hallucinating this, but do you remember back in the 80’s there was a real “Duck” craze? You know how the Cows ice cream company sticks Cows on everything and creates cute puns? Here’s an example.
Okay, so it was like this but with ducks. And I don’t think it was advertising for a product like ice cream or anything. I think it was just its own thing. Well, the reason I’m hesitating that this was even a thing is that I can’t find any evidence that such a thing happened on Google at all. (I mean, I’ve looked for about 3 seconds so maybe the fanbase will find something and we can all feel better about my possible senility). All of this is just leading up to me saying that I ALSO owned a “Late Night with David Letterduck” sweatshirt and wore that proudly, (but maybe NOT AS PROUDLY as the iron-on t-shirt) through jr and senior high. I had FEW girlfriends.
I suppose if I were clever I could do a ‘Top Ten List of my favourite Letterman Moments” or some damn thing, but the truth of the matter is, as much as I enjoyed the “big” events: the “fight” between Jerry Lawlor and Andy Kaufmann, the Harvey Pekar appearances, Cher calling Dave an “asshole”, the velcro suit stunts, the Joaquin Phoenix interview and so on, it was the little moments, the daily little jokes and asides that I cherish the most. It was the small, daily goofiness that I loved more than any of the “big milestones”. I began to just love to hear the cadence of his voice, his laugh, his banter with Paul. It just became a part of my life, simple as that. Like baseball, Dave was a daily thing, something that you could come home from school or work and know there was another show waiting for you. Even better than baseball, it didn’t stop during the winter. No matter what happened during the day, I was almost always guaranteed a chuckle or at least a smile when I rewound that VHS tape to the beginning after my homework was done.
You can tell a lot about a person when you see how they react to things not going right, and sometimes Dave was at his funniest when a joke bombed, or a bit didn’t work, or a guest didn’t deliver. I still remember this one bit where he went to visit a woman who won a contest or something, and she wasn’t home to receive the prize, so the whole bit changed it’s tone and it was all about the crew waiting around until she came home. Dave eventually cut her lawn and some sketchy crew member sat on her bed while Dave went through some of her stuff. I couldn’t find a clip of this segment anywhere on Youtube, but it’s a good example of them taking risks and rolling with whatever happens.
And so it went for many years, and it was hard not to see that as much as the show changed, so did I. 1993 was a huge upset year for us both, Dave and me. The year that Dave didn’t get picked to replace Johnny Carson, forcing him to change networks from NBC to CBS was also the year I fell into a deep clinical Depression which ended up costing me four months in hospital and nearly my life. I’m not at all suggesting that the two things are connected, obviously, but it’s a bit uncanny that one calendar year would see us through two crises, his professional and mine private. In 2003, I was married and Dave’s son was born. In 2009, it was Dave’s turn to get married, and my turn to welcome our daughter into the world. See what I mean? When I read an interview recently with Dave where he talks about his battle with Depression over the years and how he is now on antidepressants and what a WORLD of difference it has made in his life, I wasn’t surprised. I just thought: “Huh. They’ve made a WORLD of difference to me too.” And when the news broke of the scandal in 2009 where Dave admitted to having an affair with one of his staffers, I was surprised, shocked and a bit grossed out by the whole thing. But as you do with someone you love and admire, you try to see the good in the person, and realize that he, like all of us, is just a human who will fall short of the ideal 10 times before breakfast most days, and that it’s what we do afterwards that counts. I was impressed with the way he took ownership of the bad behaviour and was able to somehow manage and frame the whole thing so that he took his fair share of the blame, but that the blame was also rightfully directed at the blackmailer. It seemed to me that Dave’s actions were the right ones to do to protect those who he hurt the most: his wife, his son and the woman(women) with whom he cheated. He himself said had a lot of work to do to make amends, and I’m sure that was true. It’s so easy to put people you love and admire on pedestals, but what good does that ever do?
In 2007, I had the great privilege to get tickets to see a taping of The Late Show with my Mom and wife. It was appropriate that I was there with my Mom, the woman whose lap I crawled up into when I couldn’t sleep all those years ago when I first saw Dave. Full Circle. It was quite a process to get in. I tried to email CBS and reserve seats ahead of time, but they said that they were all spoken for on the nights we’d be in New York. So on one of the days of our trip we thought we’d just go by the theatre and snap some pictures and pay our respects when we went inside the lobby and were told that we could attend that very night if we agreed to be interviewed/screened first. They asked us some questions about the show, I guess to gauge if we were actual fans or not. I think the thing that made us memorable to them was that my wife said she was born in Thunder Bay, ON, the same place as Paul Schaffer. She even whipped out her passport to prove it and the intern who was handling us seemed impressed. We had to report back to the theatre around 4:30 that day to actually pick up our tickets and line up to get in, so we spent the day doing sight-seeing things and were back in good time. We even visited the Hello Deli around the corner and guess what? Rupert Jee was working and agreed to pose for a photo with me. I use a mug from his Deli almost every morning at breakfast. When we were lined up, a sudden rainstorm burst from the skies and within seconds we were drenched. The Late Show staff appeared with umbrellas for some of us, but there wasn’t nearly enough. Classic New York entrepenuership: five minutes later a couple of vans pulled up and started selling cheap umbrellas to the line for $5 each and they sold out immediately. These guys were probably selling cheap Statue of Liberty souvenirs a minute before and just took the opportunity. Before long, our line started to move and we were led into the theatre. Now we were all soaked and the theatre is notoriously cold, but someone we didn’t feel the damp. The adrenaline trumped anything else we were feeling. I was so surprised to see that familiar set “in the flesh” and it looked EXACTLY the way it does on TV. We had really great seats and settled in for an experience of a lifetime. The show actually tapes in real-time (60 minutes) so we would be there for about 90 minutes total. We were prepped by the Late Show staff as to how to laugh and react to things. “Laugh even if you don’t think it’s all that funny. Tonight, EVERYTHING is funny, right?” and “If they mention your hometown, don’t scream. It’s just dumb.” The warm-up comedian told a few jokes and then he introduced the band as they came out one by one. They played 3 or 4 songs just to get the crowd worked up, and then before I knew it, without any ceremony. Dave Letterman was standing in front of us with a microphone. It turned out our taping almost didn’t happen that day, because he was playing around with his son (who would have been 4 at the time) and he got kicked in the face and broke his nose! He spent the day at the hospital but decided to come in for the taping anyway. Despite his obvious pain, he seemed game for the show and took some questions from the audience. He sounded extra nasally that night, but you can hardly hear it on the finished product. I don’t even remember if he makes mention of it during the show. Maybe he just mentioned it to us? One audience member asked Dave if we could get a puppet show and Dave doubled over with laughter and said something like, “I’ve just spent all day in the God-damned hospital and this guy wants a puppet show. Can we accomodate him?” he asked his producers. After a few minutes, he went backstage and the band started the famous theme and the show started properly. When the show went to commercial, the band would just play a song or two, and a number of writers would crowd Dave at his desk, maybe feeding him lines or telling what worked or didn’t work. It all seemed so fast. We saw Kyra Sedgewick (from “The Closer”), Sir Richard Branson (from outer space or wherever) and Maroon 5. Towards the end of the show, announcer Alan Kalter made good on the audience member’s request for a puppet show and did a little bit with a couple of hastily made sock-puppets before going to commercial! Before we knew it, the taping was over and we were ushered out back onto 53rd street. Before we filed out, Alan Kalter tossed the sock-puppets into the audience, giving that one audience member a souviner of a lifetime. Luckily the rain had stopped by then. We couldn’t believe we had just witnessed a live taping of “The Late Show with David Letterman”. It was truly a highlight among many highlights from that trip to New York, the greatest city in the world, (right, Alan?)
More recently, I’ve learned that some of my friends call him “Uncle Dave” because he seems like that kind of goofy uncle that you love to hang out with a family gatherings. I get that. And now, it feels like that favourite uncle has just told us that he’s going to move away to a different city and we won’t get a chance to see him anymore.
It was odd, because just this past week, on Tuesday (knitknight), we had Dave on just to see who the guests were and we were musing aloud as to when he might retire. One of us said that he mentioned to Howard Stern that he might have “a couple of years left” and that was at least a year ago. It was inevitable, but still something I wasn’t ready to really face quite yet. Truth be told, I’m not sure if I’d ever be really ready for this news, but I’m glad it seems like it is something that Dave came to on his own, without overt coercion from the network. It’s not like they just didn’t renew his contract or anything, and he’ll now have a year or so to ease us into it. In fact, I almost feel like that announcement was meant for us, the hardcore fans, more than anyone else. It was like he took us aside before the show and said, “Look, I just want you to know that I am thinking of retiring next year, and I wanted you to hear it first from me” and that’s how I am sort of processing this news. The story he told about his son, Harry and him fishing and getting excited about seeing a potentially rare bird and then spending most of the next work day trying to identify that bird was classic Dave, and it made sense to me. I get it. I get it, but I still think it stinks.
Dave Letterman has been a constant presence in my life for almost 30 years and the thought of not being able to tune in to see him every week night is about as hard to swallow as the thought of not being able to check baseball scores between April and October.
Thank you Dave for everything. To answer your question from one of your recurring bits, “Is this Anything?” Yeah.
Yeah it is.