Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Wave To Dave

I've written about David Letterman so many times I don't have much to add, but I suppose I should note tonight will mark the end of his show.

It's been a long, wild ride.  After a short-lived morning show, the relatively unheralded Letterman was give an NBC late night talk show in 1982. His timeslot followed Johnny Carson--the king of late night--but he changed the form.  Certainly he owed plenty to precursors like Carson, Steve Allen and Jack Paar, but Letterman had his own take, one that was more attuned to the attitudes of a new generation.  To pick one example, his band played rock and roll. It may not seem like much, but after Carson kept big band music going for decades beyond its time, this was something that made you take notice.

Of course, he did so much more. He went out on the streets and looked at the world with an ironic, yet engaged, eye. He played pranks.  He'd crush things just to see what would happen.  He had odd guests (probably couldn't get the top guests in the early days) like Harvey Pekar, Brother Theodore and Kamarr the Discount Magician, and he'd explore their full potential weirdness. And he didn't play the game--he expected guests to be entertaining, and if they were stuffy or pretentious, he'd go on the attack.

He also did weird comedy bits with his staff--Paul Shaffer, Chris Elliott--as well as with finds, like Larry "Bud" Melman (okay, he was on staff, but not professional show biz) and Arnie Barnes, a slacker he met in a bit and kept using. And we got Top Ten Lists (started as a gag, but they became his longest-running bit), Stupid Pet Tricks (one of his most popular bits, though I actually never liked it that much), Small Town News, Brush With Greatness (I attended an early taping with a friend who was interviewed for the segment--too bad we didn't have a VCR then), Viewer Mail and countless other routines, including attaching a camera to anything that moved.

Further, while Letterman took his show seriously, he didn't take himself too seriously, and was always willing to mock what he was doing.  And he had legendary run-ins with certain guests who seemed a bit off--Crispin Glover, Sam Phillips, Nastassja Kinski, to name some notable examples.

All in all, his original late night show was a revelation. And then, after Jay Leno was given The Tonight Show when Carson retired, he jumped ship for CBS in 1993.  Many feared he'd lose his edge, but though he opened up a bit for a larger crowd at an earlier hour--bigger names, more gentle interviews, larger band--he was as great as ever. Some of his remotes, such as driving around in Los Angeles (on a trip out West--Dave was a New York boy) or taking over a Taco Bell, were classics. He also used locals just outside his street-level studio, such as Sirajul and Mujibur, or Rupert Jee, who became regulars.

The viewers responded, and he beat Jay Leno's flailing Tonight Show for a couple years.  But the tireless Jay did everything he could to give the audience what it wanted (part of which included imitating Dave rather than Johnny) and wormed his way into their hearts, while some tired of Letterman's crankiness. Which, if anything, made him more cranky, and perhaps more entertaining.

Overall, Dave, popular or not, was flying high for almost two decades. Sadly, I find something lacking in his final decade.  He was still entertaining, but no longer essential. He just got a bit tired, and other things weighed him down (or maybe freed him from caring so much about the show): he had heart bypass surgery, was involved in a love affair scandal, had a son, and--let's face it--got older.  At some point, he stopped doing remotes himself--I've always considered that the turning point.  Some liked, even preferred, this later Letterman.  He was more open and honest, and more explicitly political, but that wasn't why I had ever watched him.

Regardless, Letterman was one of the most imaginative broadcasters of our day, and I think he changed the face of late night more than anyone else, even Carson.  Of course, no one will ever rule the roost as Carson did, but that's another change Letterman wrought--when he moved to CBS, he busted it all wide open.


Blogger New England Guy said...

The best of Rupert Jee last night was one of the best segments I've seen on his show in a long time (I know it was a recap of old stuff).

Pointedly and scowlingly removing Bill Murray's vodka while he rambled about Dave's virgin wife also reminded me a little of the old Dave.

Do you remember a Viewer Mail bit from back in the 80s where someone asked what would Late Night be like in 2020 (or some other future date) and they cut to a segment of Paul Shaffer in a gray wig and some sort of futuristic white outfit talking to group of young kids, asking them if they know the name of the show's first host and show's Dave's photo and the kids exclaim "President Letterman!" I hope they show that tonight.

7:57 AM, May 20, 2015  
Blogger LAGuy said...

There's way too much to show tonight that any particular bit, particularly from the 80s, is likely to make it. But if I had to put together a ten-hour compilation, I bet more than half would be from that decade.

10:23 AM, May 20, 2015  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about Bill Wendell. Have we forgotten him?

5:41 PM, May 21, 2015  
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