So Long, Dave

Ken AshfordPopular CultureLeave a Comment

It began one day with this announcement by Larry “Bud” Melman:

“Good evening. Certain NBC executives feel it would be a little unkind to present this show without a word of friendly warning,… We are about to unfold a show featuring David Letterman, a man of science who sought to create a show after his own image without reckoning upon God. It’s one of the strangest tales ever told. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So if any of you feel that you don’t care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now is your chance to . . . Well, we warned you.”

People under a certain age won’t know this, but there exists a clear “before Dave” and a clear “after Dave” to television history.  David Letterman was the first to come along and be anti-Hollywood — to show everyone the pomposity and silliness of celebrity and fad.  It was subversive — not in a way that Saturday Night Live was (then only a few years old) if only because he did dumb stuff and he knew he was doing dumb stuff and it was fun and unpolished.  Being unpolished and, well, real, is what separated David Letterman from, say, Johnny Carson and his written-by-a-team-of-writers monologues (Sure, Dave did monologues too, but he did them in a “here’s the dumb monologue part of the show because it’s what you’re supposed to do” kind of way.

Don’t kid yourself.  Leno got his demeanor from watching Letterman.  So did Conan, and the current crop of late night talk show hosts.  The “celebrities are real people” and “show business is actually pretty silly” thing was David’s, first and foremost.

But you never really realized how subversive Dave was because he had that midwestern look and demeanor — the gapped teeth and all.  Plus, he was disarmingly self-deprecating while being smug about pop culture. (To be fair, Letterman’s show came in a smog era — the early 80’s — a time of Reagan and Alex P. Keaton).  A lot of people didn’t get him at first — Cher notoriously thought he was an “asshole” and said so on live television — but she didn’t understand that Dave was parboiling self-obsession, the very thing that personified Cher (back then).  But even she has come to realize what Dave was and is about.

I love what the Rude Pundit has written:

For me, the moment I knew that Letterman was on my wavelength happened during Letterman’s brief stint as a morning talk show host. If I’m recalling it right, Letterman was sitting at his desk, talking, when a mannequin fell from above and onto the desk, like a dead man had just dropped from above. It was startling, hilarious, and completely out of place. I remember thinking, “Oh, the old people sitting at home watching this are gonna be confused.” And that was it.

The stunts on Late Night were Letterman’s way of calling “bullshit” on the old paradigms of television, of pop culture itself. “This is dumb, right?” he was saying (sometimes actually saying). “So let’s do dumb stuff.” But that dumb stuff was a specific critique of the way in which the older generation revered their rigid formats and identities. You couldn’t call Letterman’s stunts “stupid” because he already did. But, damn, wasn’t it funny? And wasn’t that reason enough to drop things off of 5-story building? That bit, which morphed into crushing things under a steamroller or in a hydraulic press, showed us that things don’t need a reason or logic. Against the divisive gender, racial, and class roles the Reagan administration presented, against the rising religious right, which was attacking music, film, and TV with a renewed vigor that hearkened to the 1950s, Letterman tossed two six-packs, light beer and regular beer, as a reenactment of Galileo’s experiments with gravity, off that building.

But the thing that I thought was most fascinating was Letterman’s celebration of not just the average American, but of the weirdness of America. “Stupid Pet Tricks” and “Stupid Human Tricks” were more than gimmicks. They were honestly, forthrightly celebratory of the things people do to occupy their time. Letterman’s devotion to the quotidian was always on display. He began hosting the annual champion grocery bagger for a showdown with him, since he had bagged groceries as a teenager. Of course, the first thing you thought was “There’s a grocery bagging championship?” And then you got into the competition. If you were weaned on Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, and Johnny Carson, that was an incredible thing for a TV host to do: to get in the trenches in a serious, not jokey, way with everyday people.

This extended even more to the guests he would bring on with regularity. The misanthropic comic book writer Harvey Pekar appeared numerous times just to be taunted by Letterman into poetic heights of rage. The bizarro stand-up comic Brother Theodore was also a regular, with Letterman pushing him to the edge with a nearly villainous antagonism. This isn’t even to get into Andy Kaufman; he and Letterman used each other to create media firestorms long before Jimmy Kimmel ever made a viral video that turned out to be fake. Regular Larry “Bud” Melman was like a character out of Glengarry Glen Ross forced to do pitches on a street corner.

Even more to the point, Letterman was not above screwing with his corporate masters. While you might know him for needling CBS and Les Moonves, watch Letterman try to deliver a fruit basket to GE headquarters when that company bought NBC. Imagine a good-natured Michael Moore nearly getting beaten by a pissed-off security guard. It said everything you could want about the soulless center of capitalism. (Pekar would make Letterman cringe in an appearance attacking GE shortly after.)

And it can’t go without saying that in those early years Letterman’s head writer was Merrill Markoe and that having a female head writer was an extraordinary, embarrassing rarity then (and it hasn’t changed a whole lot since then). Markoe helped invent Letterman’s schtick: “What we were also consciously aware of was a dislike for the standard kind of closed-club superficial show business demeanor that had dominated the entertainment of the generation before us,” she said recently about Late Night. “So what you might say we did was open the door and invite the rest of the world in.”

Writing this, I keep remembering things that I loved from early Letterman: “Small Town News,” Jay Leno’s appearances where Dave would start each sit-down with “What’s your beef?”, musical performances from bands like X to annual appearances by Darlene Love to sing, “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” cameras on monkeys and dogs, the 360 degree episode, the episode where Letterman broadcast from home because he was waiting for the cable company to show up, the times when Letterman honestly disliked a guest and didn’t care if they knew it.


In its absurdist way, Late Night showed us that we don’t need to abide by the old ways of doing things, that the act of dropping a beautifully decorated wedding cake off a building just to see what happens is its own kind of subversion. Letterman would become more specifically political later in his CBS show, but to those of us who were feeling broken by the cultural and social oppressiveness of the Reagan era and didn’t have access to the music scene in L.A. or the performance art scene in New York City, Letterman was sticking it to the man for us.

Dave gives his last broadcast tonight and like most of America, I’ll be watching.  We’ve forgotten all the silly scandals, and remember him as a classy dumb guy.  Here’s a “best of….”

And Letterman’s first post-9/11 broadcast:

Going door to door with Siskel and Ebert: