MOCKING FOR MILLIONS
David Letterman retired last night after a run of 33 years behind talk show desks at NBC and CBS. In hosting the last of his 6028 shows, Dave and his World Wide Pants team proved their mettle once again. What we got was exactly the Dave we had come to know and love these last three-plus decades. But, man, doesn’t it seem like just yesterday we were wishing Johnny well as he signed off after 30 years hosting the Tonight Show? Time can rip like that, except when we race. Then, the clock seems to stall out for a bit.
Anyway, I haven’t stayed up to watch late night TV in years, having become a morning person after moving west from Boston to San Diego in 1999. But I still felt a real pang of loss watching Dave sign off. From my earliest TV watching, I have always been a comedy fan. As I saw it, there were two main types: those who told well-crafted jokes with a watchmaker’s timing, and the quick wits who took their comedy from the world around them on the fly.
The first type, the old vaudevillians, were real technicians. Jay Leno was a modern-day version, a joke craftsman who honed his material to a sharp edge over time in comedy clubs across the nation. Before getting Tonight Show gig, Jay was the hardest working comic in the business. Sharp as a heart attack, and often making guest appearances on Dave’s NBC Late Night Show where he was always irritated about something, and always an absolute riot.
And though he would eventually eat Dave’s lunch in the ratings game after getting the Tonight Show chair following Johnny’s retirement, for my money Dave was always the more quick witted one, much like Carson, his mentor, though Johnny was far less dangerous.
Guests on the Letterman show made something of a Faustian bargain. Yes, they would get to plug their latest show biz offering, but they’d gave to go into the lion’s den without a chair or whip to fend off Dave’s mocking tone. They had no idea what they were getting into once on stage.
See, Dave never played by the same no-hard-fouls rules most chat show hosts adhered to. The Wizard of Oz protocols and sensibilities of TV and showbiz in general were completely deconstructed by Dave’s Midwestern warp. He made a mockery of conventions. And since many of his guests were relatively shallow showbiz types without a great field of study behind them, they could easily be tipped over like a cow in the pasture if the conversation strayed from their narrow path of self interest.
That danger gave Dave’s show a frisson that was unique. It also made Dave a particular taste. Maybe that’s why the suits at NBC gave the Tonight Show to Jay who had become the gooey nougat center of the American comedy confection, rather than the tart, brittle, hard-edged candy that Dave represented.
In any case, the uber smart-ass from Indianapolis, Indiana called it quits last night in New York City going out the way he came in, self-deprecating, snarky, and quintessentially without pretense.
“Our long national nightmare is over,” intoned four living ex-presidents at the top of the show, echoing Gerald Ford’s sigh of relief after Richard Nixon’s resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
We got our final Top 10 list from a lineup of Dave’s favorite guests — Julia Louis Dreyfus had the best “Things I’ve Always Wanted To Say To David Letterman”. “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing finale.” We saw highlights from some of Dave’s most memorable remote walkabouts amongst the common folk, and a genuine thanks to all who helped reconstitute the form along the way.
Anyone whose job puts them in the public eye is hopeful, anxious even, for acceptance and approval. But Dave didn’t seem to care about that. He was just doing what he did, calling ’em as he saw them, and if you found that funny or pleasing, fine. If you didn’t, there were other shows to sample elsewhere.
When Cher called him an “asshole” one night, Dave seem to revel in what he knew was a great TV moment, even if it came at his own expense. Yet he also became our national emotional barometer — maybe a holdover from his days as a weatherman in Indianapolis. It was Dave who ushered us back to life when he returned to the air following the attacks on 9/11.
Like many viewers, I felt like I knew Dave personally. We were both Midwestern-born members of the post-World War II baby boom generation, both thin, both mouthy.
Because my high school, St. Louis University High School, sat us alphabetically, in each of my four years I sat at the far left end of the first row, directly in front of the lectern that our Jesuit priests and scholastics stood behind to instruct us. My position at the foot of the master, so to speak, caused me to act as the “teacher translator” for the class, most often using a sarcastic, under the breath mutter. After the laughter died down, the following conversation always ensued.
“Please come up and bring your demerit card.”
Anyone else have demerit cards? Wallet-sized cards that every student at our school carried like Soviet era identification papers. After any transgression — whether being late for class or sardonically translating his wisdom — the teacher would take our demerit card and X over one, two, three, or even five demerits, based on the offense. After five demerits you would have to go to an after school detention called “jug” (justice under God — or, in our case, justice under Father Bailey).
Jug consisted of sitting in the vice principal’s office, or at an adjoining room if the crowd got too big, and working out a lengthy, but banal math problem that required a series of 200 additions and subtractions beginning with a seven-figure number and ending at zero. Something like subtracting 723 from 1,356,719, then adding 459, then subtracting 723, etc. until you hit zero. But if you got any step was wrong, you wouldn’t end up at zero. So you would have to hunt for the error until you got it right. The whole Jug process was mind numbingly time-consuming, which, I guess was the whole point.
We were issued three such demerit cards per year with a total of 40 per card. If you got all the way to 40 on any card, you would be suspended from school. My freshman year I piled up 39, 39 and 38. I was in jug so often that a couple of other guys and I discovered an every-10th-step formula that allowed us to go through the whole 200 step math process with breathtaking speed, making sure that every 10th number was right, because we knew darn well that Father Bailey wasn’t going to go over all 200 steps for every Jughead.
Dave Letterman, I would like to believe, would’ve been a welcomed collaborator in that jug room formula hunt if he had grown-up two states west and had Catholic parents.
Thanks for all the comedy, Dave, and for pricking all that pretense. Time to turn in your CBS demerit card.
Favorite Top 10 list item:
- “You want turnips with that?”