In my youth I was a big fan of the Tonight Show, and watched Carson most nights. Then one day something strange happened – a new show appeared after Carson, with a new guy doing a new kind of show. The show was raw and unpolished compared to Johnny’s show, as was the host, a laconic smart-ass from Indiana called David Letterman.
But the show was funny. Laugh-out-loud funny, back in the day before LOL was a tingling on anyone’s typing fingertips. So my routine changed – whereas I used to stay up to at least see Johnny’s monologue, I started making sure I stayed up to see yours, which in many (if not most) cases led to me watching a good portion of the rest of your show.
And your show struck a chord with me. I mean, hit the nail right on the head. I love absurd humor. I don’t hold celebrities in reverence, and prefer to see jerks and idiots treated as such, as long as they are willing participants. Your show became the double-edged sword of entertainment – anybody who was anybody needed to go on your show, because it was good business. But, they got no guarantees that they would be treated to softball questions or fawning segments, but instead got pulled off-script and into who knows what.
And it was great television. One segment that was particularly memorable for me, and which I think illustrates the kind of thing I loved most about your show, is your visit to the GE headquarters with a fruit basket to say ‘hello’ after they purchased your employer, NBC:
It was kind of a dick move on your part to show up in the GE lobby unannounced with cameras and a fruit basket, but it was also genius. And the message it sent to everyone (stars, agents, guests, executives) was that the show was first and foremost about being entertaining, and that everyone involved with or participating in the show needed to understand that the guy in the host chair had no hesitation to publicly piss off his new bosses, who sign his paycheck, so imagine how little he’s going to care about fluffing your ego when you’re in the guest chair.
Interestingly, over the years I derived a certain set of manners that you exhibited on the show, that belied your reputation:
- You were unfailingly nice to children and did your best to make them feel successful and comfortable
- You were unfailingly acerbic to jerks and idiots and did your best to make them feel ill at ease and unsuccessful
- A guest’s reputation as a human being, not as a ‘star’, dictated your treatment of the guest
- You treated your audience as if they were intelligent beings, and did not pander to a least-common-denominator that might improve ratings at the cost of toning down the show
- Sometimes…well, sometimes you were just a jerk, but aren’t we all, sometimes?
In short, the ethos embodied by your show aligned quite comfortably with my image of myself. It felt, to me, that you represented me in the larger world of entertainment in a way that nobody had done before, or since. As much as I loved Johnny, I couldn’t relate to his suavity. You, on the other hand, retained just enough of your Indiana goofball roots to be recognizable to me.
So I became a loyal viewer. I’d estimate that I watched at least half of your shows at NBC – and this was in the age before TiVo so that meant I stayed up and watched it when it aired. I saw Top Ten lists, a guy under the stairs, Larry ‘Bud’ Melman, small town news, a suit of suet (and of velcro, and of Alka-Seltzer), stupid tricks (both pet and human), flirting with Meg across the street, and the NBC Bookmobile.
I saw you interrupt the Today show from your office window using a bullhorn, I saw you give Darlene Love a career rebirth, I saw Carson walk on your show just after announcing his retirement, I saw Sonny and Cher reunite. I saw a lot of things that made me laugh.
Then, instead of inheriting the Tonight Show crown that was rightfully yours, the pinheads at GE went with someone else. Although I still think that was a boneheaded decision, it seems that things worked out okay for you, and the truth is it had little impact on my day-to-day life, other than sympathetic outrage at the injustice of it all.
So, you moved to CBS, and brought most of the staff and sensibilities along with your. The show was different – more polished and glamorous, yet, but still retaining that goofball essence.
I followed you to CBS, and there I saw More with Les (Moonves), I saw Mujibur and Sirajul, I saw Rupert Jee, I saw a box that contained either potatoes or Gavin MacLeod, I saw you determine if things would float, I learned the definition of ‘Variety Meats’, I saw your mom make pies and travel the world, and I saw you determine if something was…anything. I saw you face your mortality with a quadruple bypass. I saw you embrace fatherhood. I saw you help start the healing after 9/11.
Over the years I saw you do nothing more or less than to single-handedly transform the entertainment industry. Your shows pulled back the curtains and let us see the sausage of entertainment being made. Sophia Loren won’t be on your show? Send a remote camera to ambush her in her Live at Five dressing room across the hall, then argue with her mother who blocks the door as you chastise Sophia for smoking in the background.
The network forces you to have the most recently voted-off Survivor cast member on your show? You do the minimum – they are always a remote guest (never in the studio), you refer to them as the ‘latest loser’, and you have your staff hit them with inane questions like, ‘Did you see or touch any monkeys?’ So, you fulfilled the letter of the law while simultaneously thumbing your noses at the network by marginalizing their precious tie-in marketing ploy.
Politician John McCain cancels on you at the last minute, saying he had to rush back to DC for an important vote? Well, you catch him on the internal CBS feed still in town getting mic’ed up for an appearance on a news show, and call him out on his lie publicly that night (and cause him to come back, take his medicine, and apologize).
In short, you were meta before meta was cool. Every single current late night show is based on your format and sensibilities. Hand-held, hall-walking cameras are now ubiquitous (30 Rock, The Office, every Aaron Sorkin show, etc), but that’s a shtick that was perfected on your shows.
Today all of those things seem like standard procedure for any cutting-edge show, but you were the ice breaker and the game changer, and set the standard for iconoclastic entertainment that persists to this day.
Outside of my blood relatives, my relationship with you is the longest I’ve had in my life. Yes, it was mostly one-way, with you entertaining me, and the only impact going the other way would have been my membership in your viewership demographics, and since we were never a Nielsen household even that impact was by inference only. But you were still a constant in my life, and I could always watch your show and feel a little better about things.
But no longer. Wednesday is your last show. I’ll be tuning in, as I have been for most of the ‘farewell’ shows over the last few weeks. Watching this parade of notables express their heartfelt feelings about what you have meant to them has made me feel better about you leaving, because I know that you’re hearing from them the things that I (and millions of other fans) would like to say to you.
Dave, you were the funniest asshole on television, and you had a heart of gold underneath your curmudgeonly exterior. Thanks for all the laughs (and tears) over the years. I’m going to miss you.
Scott (a random fan)