Unless you've been recently sentenced to cryo-prison or are one of those people who doesn't watch TV (please tell me more about your brave and wholly original stance), you probably know tonight is the last episode of the Late Show with David Letterman. Ever.
The weeks leading up to this have seen no shortage of retrospectives and stories offering highlights from Letterman's 33 years as a late night host (1982 to 1993 on NBC's Late Night with David Letterman). The majority of my Dave memories are of Late Night, because — as with my near-obsessive Saturday Night Live viewing over the same era — I was too young to have anything resembling a social life in the 1980s. Hell, even when I was well into my 20s I often found an excuse to stay home and watch.
Because, well, why wouldn't I? Viewer Mail (he never read the letter *I* sent him, by the way) and Dropping Stuff Off a Five-Story Tower provided more entertainment than most of the crap my friends and I could scare up by ourselves in our largely rural town. And then there was the truly inspired/deranged: the Alka-Seltzer and Velcro suits (no generic products here), Stupid Pet/Human Tricks, Larry "Bud" Melman. I still have a dog-eared copy of the first book of Top Ten lists, where Dave evidently thought the McDLT was comedy gold.
And there was an edge to those early interviews as well. I remember the "fight" between Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler, the confrontations with Oliver Reed and Crispin Glover (Reed honestly scared the shit out of me), and how Harvey Pekar's prickly 1987 appearance prompted me to go pick up my first copy of American Splendor. I didn't become a big fan of AS, but that's not the point. Horizons were being expanded, people.
It's been a bittersweet time for those of us who grew up watching him, because Dave didn't just create weirdly innovative programming and prolong the career of Richard Simmons. He also provided a counterpoint to the forced optimism of the Reagan years, giving budding young cynics something to latch on to in a storm of "Morning in America" bullshit.
After a long day of being told "winners don't use drugs" by people in Choose Life t-shirts, it was nice to see a guy on national TV (on one of the three networks we had in the Mesozoic Era) who thumbed his nose at so-called polite society. Hey, I thought as I watched him using a bullhorn to needle Bryant Gumbel, this guy's a real smart ass. *I'm* a smart ass! Maybe my teachers and parents are wrong about my inevitable professional and romantic failures!
Sure, he could be cringeworthy — it gave me no pleasure to watch him confess to screwing around with female staffers — and awkward. Sometimes he phoned it in, and he may have been a bad influence (I'm sure I'm not the only person to get in trouble for attempting to re-create fire extringuisher races). But try to imagine Jay Leno or Jimmy Fallon going after John McCain or Bill O'Reilly, or devoting an entire episode to a dying friend. Hell, for the Zevon episode alone Letterman will have my eternal respect.
So read the articles and tributes, even if most of them regurgitate the same clips while reminding us what close personal friends Dave and Julia Roberts are. While you do, understand that Letterman's retirement really is the end of an era in late night. Fallon can host lip sync battles from now until the ice caps melt (so, 2017), but his shtick, like that of Jimmy Kimmel and even Conan O'Brien, wouldn't exist without Letterman.
And more importantly, they'll never have his influence. In the era of YouTube and a thousand websites featuring Michelle Obama doing the Dougie, no single TV host will ever resonate so universally or have the impact Letterman did. As Winston Churchill said of T.E. Lawrence, "I fear whatever our need we shall never see his like again."
Once again: thanks, Dave.
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