So it has all come down to this. After 33 years of stupid pet tricks, Top 10 lists and flying pencils, David Letterman will host his very last Late Show tonight. In all ways, a television era – perhaps the last of its kind – will end when the program signs off around 12:35 tomorrow morning.
As someone who watches very little TV (the local news, Modern Family reruns, that’s about it), The Late Show with David Letterman was a broadcast oasis presided over by an Olympian smart ass. He took shots at everyone, especially himself, and seemed to love nothing more than when a guest he had previously skewered (Bill O’Reilly, Martha Stewart, Dr. Phil) took the humor as exactly that.
He could be merciless when he sensed a guest was being opportunistic. Ages ago, when Jane Seymour was promoting a coffee table book designed as “a guide to romantic living,” he asked how the actress would encourage the romantic side of a garbage collector. The interviewed nosedived from there.
But when he was in the presence of greatness, he recognized it. One of the very few times Letterman was obviously star struck came during his NBC years when he interviewed a frail but feisty Bette Davis. His sentiments were similarly humble whenever he spoke of mentoring figures like Johnny Carson.
Then there was the humor. Sometimes the jokes were deliciously off center (my favorite Top 10 list remains “The Top 10 Amish Spring Break Pranks”). Sometimes it was unapologetically juvenile, like the dropping of everything from paint cans to pumpkins from the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theatre, Letterman’s Broadway home during his CBS years. Best of all, though, was the way he turned stage hands, interns, costume designers, carpenters, the deli owner next door and, for a time, his own mother into comics just by having them act like themselves.
To this date, nothing cracked me up more than a recurring bit where a pair of deadpan New York stage hands would read transcripts from Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show. On the other hand, nothing he aired was more unsentimentally touching than a program-long interview/performance with an ailing Warren Zevon done shortly before his death from lung cancer and the singer’s reciprocal comment that Letterman was “the best friend my music ever had.”
All of this came together over the past six weeks or so as Letterman neared retirement. A bit as recently as last week where he interviewed Tom Waits while being handcuffed to George Clooney deserves placement in Letterman’s personal hall of fame.
I got to see Letterman tape his programs a half-dozen times in New York over the years. I got to witness a skateboarding dog, exasperated offstage staffers recoiling as Joan Rivers spewed obscenities, The Pretenders in glorious performance and some sharp verbal jousting with Robert Downey, Jr. But it all came down to Dave doing what he did in his historic theatre, ending his pre-show greeting to the audience each time with the promise that “we’ll have you out of here in time for happy hour.”
So cheers, Dave. Thanks for the laughs, the music and the company. Broadway and television simply won’t be the same without you.