I’ve put off posting something here of my thoughts and feelings on the end of the Letterman Era. Maybe I’ve been hoping against hope that Dave would change his mind. But he can’t change his mind now. Nor should he. It’s time. He knows it. We know it. That doesn’t change the fact that it feels like a kick in the gut.
I imagine sometime in the last couple of years, David Letterman sat in front of a TV or some newfangled device watching clips of Fallon and Kimmel. In my mind I hear Letterman saying, “God bless them. I used to be that fearless and dangerous on TV.” And it’s true, he surely was fearless, dangerous — and just so damn funny. You might not know it to look at him or his show now but there a was a time 30 years ago — and for about 20 years that followed — that Letterman crackled with the energy and sting of static electricity on a cold winter’s day. He creaks more than crackles these days. That’s ok. It’s the natural order of things. He’s an elder statesman in a medium that has changed dramatically. But watch 10 minutes of any episode of the original NBC Late Show with David Letterman and you’ll instantly recognize that Conan, Kimmel, and Fallon are standing on Dave’s shoulders.
I was a sophomore in high school when Late Night with David Letterman premiered on NBC. My friends and I had been fans of his short lived daytime show on which we’d all gotten hooked during the summer of 1980. When Late Night started up in the winter of ’82 it was a revelation. There were only 3 major networks. We had the radio but no Internet. Yet even in that extremely finite world of entertainment choices there was nothing else like David Letterman or his show. He looked like a guy who might try to sell you a car. He acted like the cool substitute teacher you hoped to get at school. He presided over a 3 ring circus of cutting edge music acts, edgy stand up comics, insane comedy bits, and unpredictable interviews. The Thrill Cam, Viewer Mail, Stupid Pet Tricks, Stupid Human Tricks, Larry Bud Melman, The Guy Who Lives Under the Seats, Brother Theodore, Jerry Lawler & Andy Kaufman, Dr. Ruth, Museum of the Hard to Belive, “Bermuda! It’s a cuckoo place…” “Wake the kids! Call the neighbors!” “New York, New York – the town so nice they named it twice!”
The show grew up a bit when he moved to CBS — but it still felt like alternative programming to what became of the The Tonight Show post Carson. (And I’m not a Leno hater.) Following 911, Dave’s heart attack, the birth of his son and the public humiliation of a scandal, we got the kinder, gentler Dave and a kinder, gentler show. That’s ok too. Things are not supposed to stay the same forever. Change works its way into everything and then the end comes. I’ve stuck with Letterman for 35 years and I’ll be in front of the TV with him until it’s over tomorrow night.
I’ve watched the last few weeks as guests have teared up, and I’ve teared up with them. Letterman has been looser and appears to have enjoyed himself more in the last 20 shows than all the previous shows combined. So, yeah — it’s probably time to call it a day but it looks like he’s going to soak up every last second. I’m glad he’s going out this way. But it still feels like a kick in the gut.