Saturday, May 23, 2015

Saying goodbye to three-fourths of my life

I could not say what David Letterman meant to the rest of the world.  I can only try and articulate what he meant to me.

In the early days, he (and the Beastie Boys) seemed to speak directly to my teenaged soul.  I can remember Axl and I discussing the previous night's Top Ten List the next day at school, when we weren't busy writing down color-coded lyrics to "Paul Revere" and "No Sleep Till Brooklyn." 

Sardonic, absurd, non-conforming, self-deprecating, and more than a bit of a goofball -- wait, are we talking about Dave or 17-year-old me?  Even so, he somehow managed to come across as hip and cool.  (OK, yes, we're definitely talking about Dave.)

In the NBC days particularly, the surprise element of the show was off the charts.  One article I read put forth the idea of how enormous Letterman would have been on the internet and Twitter has such things been around/popular then.  I cringe at using such a cliche, but you literally never knew what was going to happen.  It made for must-see late night TV.

One of my favorite parts was when Letterman took the show to the streets of Manhattan and somehow magically made you feel as if you were there, a part of New York, the center of the world.  The show lost something as those escapades became rarer, eventually all but stopping.

It's easy to forget how the late night landscape looked when Letterman, having been passed over to succeed Carson, made the jump to CBS.  ABC was airing "Nightline."  Prior to 1993, I think CBS had a late night movie offering in that slot.  Arsenio was around in syndication.  But for the most part, no other talk show had been able to sustain for any considerable length of time opposite "The Tonight Show."  (Remember "Into the Night Starring Rick Dees?"  Me either.)

I would argue that Letterman's move and success spurred a significant shift in late night programming, for better or worse.  Pretty soon every Tom (Snyder), Dick (Dietrick), and Chevy (Chase) around were joining the party. 

All this is not to say Dave and I didn't have our issues, or that I was always a faithful viewer.  I hadn't been for awhile.  Heck, I fell asleep during the finale and had to watch the rest of it the next day on DVR.  Staying up until midnight and waking up at 7:00 when you're seventeen is slightly more exhilarating than staying up until midnight and waking up at 5:00 when you're forty-two.

And I think we all remember the Bone/Letterman online Top Ten Contest feud.  (Top Ten Little Known Facts About Santa Claus? My entry: Doesn't believe in HIMSELF.)  Unfortunately, it was overshadowed by the far-less-criminal Oprah/Letterman feud.

In recent years, the surprise element was not nearly what it once was.  The show became less funny to me.  But at the same time, Letterman became more real, more human.  (This is something Leno never quite managed, in my opinion, and I suppose maybe never wanted to.)

Letterman made very public mistakes, he had serious health problems, he became a father.  He cared and talked about world events and politics.  And I always thought his interview skills to be excellent, far and above any of his late night contemporaries.

As he sort of became the elder statesman, it seemed like he appealed to a wider audience.  At least within my test group.  Because while I didn't watch nearly as often, my Mom became one of his biggest fans.  I know she would not have even considered watching him in 1989.

"That David is so silly, isn't he?" she would say with much affection.  Rupert Jee and Jack Hanna were two of her favorites.  And anytime Regis and Letterman were on together, it was the highlight of her month.

I wonder what she'll do now, what she'll watch, as she doesn't seem to care for or get any of "those kids on there now."

I can hardly remember a time when there wasn't a David Letterman on television.  For thirty-three of my forty-two years, there has been.  And then it hits me, I'm not writing about what his show meant to me.  Instead, in all selfishness, it's about what his retirement signifies:  The inescapable passing of time.

And all you can do is remember, and say goodbye.  To the gap-toothed smile, the tossing of pens at cameras, and those years of your life.

"And I wonder when I sing along with you / If everything could ever feel this real forever / If anything could ever be this good again..."


  1. Letterman came on about the time I stopped being interested in late night TV--that gives away my age. I occasionally watched Letterman and kept up with his top-10 lists, but was generally asleep by the time he came on.

    1. I think your last phrase, "generally asleep by the time he came on," describes why I haven't been much of a faithful viewer in recent years.

  2. Almost like when Seinfeld ended.

    1. Almost.

      Did you see Letterman's final Top Ten? Julia Louis-Dreyfus was on there. Hers was: "Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale." Hilarious.

  3. Darrell used to watch the top ten when we were first married, completely blowing the last few minutes of the Golden Girls reruns for me.
    And then Darrell got mad at him
    Lifetime stopped showing the girls
    we had kids
    and have up cable tv.

    1. Many nights if I was busy or needing to go to bed, I would watch just until the Top Ten list.

  4. Can't begin to tell u how much your passing of time realization is resonating w me. I've bee actually so blue about it lately. ( I just heard that song " only have 100 yrs. to live on radio and began balling in my backyard like a mental patient)
    I too found Dave less funny lately but as you brilliantly wrote I loved when he took you to the ny streets years ago and to his neighbors store! What was his name?? Watched it through my child rearing years as I was up with sniffling little noses or tummy aches. I love the way you tell a story bone! Always have humor always tug on. Y heartstrings.
    Are u watching jimmy Fallon? I adore him. AND YOU TOO! 😊

  5. I remember the first time I heard of Letterman as a kid over at my older cousin's house. We used to stay glued to the television because back then if it was on a satellite feed and there were no commercials, you got to listen to Dave, the guests and the audience joke around until they were back "on air."

    But I grew up with a television so I wouldn't see him again until college and then like most college kids, we watched him pretty regularly and even taped him on the VCR if we had to miss the show.

    Somehow like you, I grew apart from Dave, started a family of my own and hadn't watched him for probably a decade until I heard his finale would be on so I watched it. I loved the Seinfeld finale reference though I was the only one in my family who understood it. I knew if you were watching you would too.

  6. Ok I take issue with the fact that you neglected to give Rick Dees his props! If only because he's the only host of Solid Gold that I can remember....

    I used to write my own top ten lists, mine were pretty political in nature so I won't share them, knowing that you eschew all things political...

    I'll miss Dave...back when I was in the 7th grade, I remember reading an "Unauthorized Biography" of him that I took out of our school library. To this day, I've never forgotten the line he used to say to open his show, "Hey Boys and Girls, close all the windows and turn on the gas, it's the Uncle Gimpy show! And for me, that says it all about Letterman....

  7. I have never found Dave that funny, but I understand the passing of time, thing. I had a 'moment' (and by a moment, I mean like a week) when I heard last year about the 10th anniversary of the Friends series finale. I didn't love Friends. And I never saw the finale, but what hit me was that if it had been 10 years since the end of Friends, it had been 10 years since I lived in Spain. Big milestones like this make us think of our own.

  8. What great thoughts. Letterman was good at his job, had a great run too!