On June 16, 1983, me, my Dad and my brother-in-law Dave got in line in "beautiful downtown Burbank" and witnessed the maestro. It was "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson". His guest that night was Robin Williams. You cannot imagine. The comedy during the commercial breaks was unbelievable.
There it was, the stage, Doc, Ed, the orchestra, Johnny's famous desk. I saw the magic work before my very eyes. At just shy of my 16th birthday, it was nothing short of a phenomenon.
Late night television had a profound effect on me, my attempt at wit, my philosophy on humor (I'm a huge proponent. Jim Valvano was so right: laugh every day. A good laugh, too.) The summer before my trip to California, my weeknight viewing consisted of Benny Hill at 11pm, Johnny Carson at 11:30, then David Letterman at 12:30.
Ah, David Letterman.
Now, I can honestly count myself as among the few to loyally watch his ill-fated morning talk show in the summer of 1980. Our Richmond affiliate never aired it, opting for the "Good Morning Movie". So I'd have to run outside, twist the ground-based antenna to the north so I could pick up, with snowy success, WRC-TV Channel 4 in Washington, who did air the program.
Edwin Newman had news updates during the show. Let that sink in for a moment. Want to see one? CLICK HERE.
Alas, it didn't last long, but NBC realized what didn't work at 10am would do pretty well at 12:30am. And here came Dave.
I forget the pundit who said this recently, but as Carson was the quintessential talk show host, Letterman was the "anti-host". He literally turned a genre that had been dominated since its inception for decades by Allen, Paar, Carson, Griffin, Douglas, tore it apart, and rebuilt it from a different set of eyes. And, for me, watching comedy from this prism was mesmerizing.
Example: Out of nowhere, cue an idyllic scene that reminds you of "The Sound of Music", then start that song, but when you get to "Muuu---sssiicccc!", cut to a shot of a stick of butter and have long-time announcer Bill Wendell growl, "Buuuuttttteeeerrrrrrrrrr!".
Simple. Brilliant. Capable of inducing doubled-over laughter. I was 14 when Late Night premiered. Watching Letterman during my high school years was gold.
Chris Elliot screaming out of the studio. Asking the person at the laundry mat to overfill all the washers with detergent. Oh, and, back to the "The David Letterman Show" for a second, the wedding reception whose last scene was people using fire extinguishers to stop tons of petals that were released but caught fire due to some snafu, all as the credits rolled and the hired band played on.
David Letterman is the very definition of "surreal".
Which is why Dave didn't get "The Tonight Show", though he most certainly deserved it. NBC wanted safe. Traditional. Leno could give you a "Carson-like" performance. NBC wasn't ready for Dave, even after having him for over a decade. He also wasn't a "company guy" (right, GE? Like, you couldn't accept a lousy welcoming gift??).
So, for many people for whom Letterman was their cup of tea, there will always be the shots. Leno beat him, Letterman isn't funny, and, in later years, Letterman is old and bitter.
I'll agree with the latter. I've gone through long periods without a Dave fix. His final years at NBC were part of that "bitter" stage, but could you blame him? It was going to affect his comedy, that should have been a given.
I left Dave, very disappointed, again several years back when his political joking just became downright rude. He should have stuck with his mentor's stand on that issue. Johnny Carson dished it out evenly for decades. Letterman couldn't hide his far-left beliefs.
I figure if Dave and I ever met for lunch, we couldn't talk 20 seconds about politics, but we would likely spend 20 hours on life, comedy, and observing the human condition.
But there are things about me my own wife doesn't care for, yet, she's still beside me tonight as I write this, patiently waiting for me to scratch her back. :)
So, despite his flaws, and we all have them, I've chosen to look at all the comedy brilliance he's provided me for 35 years these past few weeks, and I've squeezed every moment out of his final broadcasts.
Man. What I'll remember from Late Night and The Late Show.....
---Jane Pauley on helium
---The rotating screen show
---Larry "Bud" Melman (especially his opening of the first CBS show, busting through the center of the "Eye" to proclaim, "This is CBS!")
---The suit of Alka-Seltzer
---The fastest grocery bagger
---Jay Thomas' Holiday Football Challenge
---Racing through the Rockefeller Plaza hallways
---The "water sprayer" along 53rd Street
---Rupert Jee (I ate at his deli. DELICIOUS!)
---Top 10 things that sound cool when sung by an opera singer
---Top 10 things that sound cool when sung by Barry White
---And pretty much every Top 10
---The two original members of the "World's Most Dangerous Band": Paul Shaffer and Will Lee
---Every word Paul ever uttered to add the punch to the monologue that Ed McMahon did for Johnny
---TV's and Watermelons thrown off the roof
---The revival of "Stump The Band"
---Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler
---Any trip to a drive-through
---"And DOWN the stretch they come!!"
---The Late Night Monkey Cam
---The 9/11 Monologue
---Having his doctors and nurses on his first show after heart bypass surgery
---Jamming the Jamba Juice across the street with superheroes
---Biff Henderson (especially reporting from any sporting event)
---Pies with Dave's Mom
---The Olympics with Dave's Mom
---Frankly, anything with Dave's Mom
and, of course, "Will It Float??" (based on the British game, "Is it Buoyant?")
There's so much more. Dave tapped a side of comedy not seen in 1980 on television, just as my generation was coming of age. The combination and timing couldn't have been more perfect.
I do hope he finally finds some peace in his "retirement", whatever that may consist of. I suspect he'll spend, and cherish, lots of time with his son Harry. He will find much more life value there than in any spat with a woman with just one name (Cher, Oprah, Madonna)...
And I'm just glad I got to experience that other television taping, when, on August 25, 2008, my wife and I entered the Ed Sullivan Theater for the Late Show. I had to be the most animated fan in the crowd that day.
So I don't need to be at another TV taping. Carson, then Letterman. What in the world could be better than that?
I leave you with my all-time favorite Top Ten list, from his first week on CBS. Again, simple, but brilliant, and Dave being Dave, willing to share in the comedy, as the master of the countdown, Casey Kasem, pays a call.