Why I think you should watch the last shows of David Letterman.
What could I possibly add to what is already being said about David Letterman? The answer is I probably have nothing original to add but I still feel a need to say something.
As I watch the stars line up to get on his final shows I’m particularly struck by the ones that seem genuinely moved and why. See I’m at an age where I fell into the sweet spot of Dave’s career arc. Old enough to have really appreciated Johnny and know why but young enough to have gotten caught up in the genius and originality of Dave when he came on the scene. Both of these things are important to understand why the standup comedians over 40 making their final appearances on Dave are so uncharacteristically moved and demonstrative. It is in this you will find the key to why the end of Dave is to be acknowledged and fully appreciated.
We all know Johnny was the true king of the late night talk show. He wasn’t the first but he was the best and proved it for 30 years. Back then it was just Johnny and no one else. Some tried to compete and they all failed. There were only 3 channels on tv as well. Actors had movies, tv stars had their own time slots and musicians had records and tours but if you were a standup comedian and you wanted to be seen by more than a vegas showroom you had to get on Johnny’s show. That was it. He was the gate keeper for comedians. Johnny launched Joan, Rodney, Dave, Jay, Jerry, Louie, Chris, and a million more household names that are standup legends. But then Dave came on the scene and was totally different. He is very modest about his standup chops but it’s because he was so unique. He didn’t fit into any known style of comedy. In fact he was more of an anti-comedian. He didn’t sound or look like he was telling jokes. He was a slacker ex weatherman making fun of stuff. The everyman. He found his voice in unadulterated snark. Was Bill Murray channeling Dave in Groundhog Day as a weatherman that hated being a weatherman and himself? We may never know but it’s and easy stretch to make knowing what we know now about Dave and Bill.
Johnny left when he knew the institution was in good hands. And I don’t mean the Tonight Show. I mean the institution of the late night talk show. Dave had created the Late Show after Johnny’s time slot and did it in a way that was so juxtaposed from the Tonight Show and Johnny. It was made in Dave’s image and voice. Snark and anti-convention. He redefined the genre and Johnny loved it. I loved it and my parents hated it. He took it in a whole new direction and when the time came Johnny knew it was ok to turn out the lights. Dave was given Johnny’s blessing to take over the tonight show. But it was not to be. NBC executives, later lambasted by Jerry Seinfeld on his own show on the same network for their unimaginative, inane wisdom made the decision to go with Jay instead of Dave. Bla bla bla, we all know that story. Turns out it doesn’t matter. After Johnny it didn’t matter what you called it or on what network.
Dave took it to CBS and the rest is history. His show always had an edge. If Dave wasn’t impressed with someone, we knew it. If someone said something Dave didn’t like, he got pissed and we saw it. But if he liked someone or someone made him laugh or even did the unthinkable and made Dave uncomfortable or embarrassed, it was brilliance. Either way it has always been pure entertainment. Jay always seemed vanilla. Our parents stuck with Jay after Johnny left. That’s about all you need to know about that.
But about those stand up comedians…
Dave had already been on the scene a long time by the time he started his CBS Late Night with David Letterman show. It was a time before anyone was watching Comedy Central or any other cable shows, before Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, Vines and all other social media. Comedians still had to go through the late night gate keeper to get to a national audience. Dave had long since put his snarky stamp on comedy and late night talk shows and in doing so launched a whole new brand of comedy.
These comics making their pilgrimage to NYC to pay final homage to Dave are thanking him not only for giving them their break on national TV, but for many, helping give them their voice.
Like Johnny before him, Dave isn’t being forced out by the new direction of the day. He appreciates it and he knows it’s in good hands now. He’s ready to let it go. So he’s bidding us all a “very heartfelt goodnight,” but in his own voice. I can’t wait to watch it but I’ll surely miss him when he’s gone. Thanks Dave.