Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Adios, Dave

David Letterman quitting Late Night and NBC in 1993 and moving his show to CBS was a risky thing. Starting at 10:30 (central time) he would be going up against the Tonight Show, the show that had ruled that time slot for almost 40 years. The Tonight Show was a comfy habit for people winding down before bed. Set in California, it also had easier access to celebrities than Letterman's Late Night show set in New York. Realizing the show's energy was more productive in New York, Letterman chose to operate the CBS show from that city.

To their credit, CBS took a chance also by giving him a lot of leeway. They even remodeled the theater for the show.

There'd be no more Late Night frat boy antics (well, at least not as many). Letterman was a decade older and he knew some of that wasn't going to fly in the earlier time slot.

The Late Show was going to be produced from the old Ed Sullivan Theater. Ed Sullivan had been a staple of TV variety shows from 1948-1971. Letterman was one of the 73 million people glued to the set the night the Beatles made their historic first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Many years later, Letterman would be able to watch one of the Beatles perform lie on the marquis of the Ed Sullivan Theater as Paul McCartney and his band gave a free mini concert to the people crowding the streets around the theater.

Letterman always featured some of the best most interesting music out there, but his proximity to Broadway enabled him to feature numbers from Broadway musicals, something frequently done on the Ed Sullivan show.

Letterman took less and less field trips as his time at CBS progressed and admittedly, I missed that a little. He was playing with a bigger toy now though, and the reality was he was much better known. The antics he pulled off during the Late Night years probably would be more difficult considering his notoriety. He didn't lose that love of stunts however, and the ability to cordon off Broadway to pull off an outside production helped immensely. In some respects, the frat boy matured just as did the party he was throwing. Broadway was great for Dave, and for the next 22 years, that street outside would be host to a number of fun and fabulous spectacles.

The Late Show was glitzier than its predecessor. The theater larger, the set more impressive. The World's Most Dangerous Band became the Late Show Orchestra with horns. And Letterman emerged triumphantly from the nastiness of the Tonight Show scandal hosting not a retread of a show that had been on since the mid-50s, but rather, hosting his very own show. A template created by him and his staff on a larger scale than the previous one. 

Those who thought he would fail without the strong lead-in that the Tonight Show provided were proven wrong. As were those who thought the show would tank competing against the Tonight Show. In fact, for the first two years, The Late Show dominated the Tonight Show in the ratings. While this didn't last, the ratings were never low enough to threaten the show's continuation on CBS.

In fact, Letterman would be on air long after both of his rival's Leno's retirements from the Tonight Show. Indeed, Jay Leno had signed a contract in 2004 that he would step down from the Tonight Show in 2009 handing the reins over to Conan O'Brien. A chronic workaholic, Jay couldn't stay away long and arranged with NBC to start The Jay Leno Show, which seemed like a truncated version of the Tonight Show. Shown before the nightly news, it served as a poor lead-in to the Tonight Show and O'Brien's ratings began to dip. Skiddish, NBC called Jay Leno back to take over the show again, and he was only too happy to oblige. Thus started the second Tonight Show scandal. 

Confident in his own standing now, Letterman watched from the sidelines, commenting on the whole affair as only someone who'd experience similar could. He knew the players and understood the dynamics.


When the smoke cleared, Leno lasted another four years at the Tonight Show before finally handing it over, for real this time, to Jimmy Fallon. 

So Letterman lasted longer than his idol, Johnny Carson, and longer than his one-time friend/one-time rival Jay Leno. But now it's time to say goodbye. Letterman is 68 years old. A year older than his idol Carson was when he retired. Perhaps, like Carson, he wants to go before the welcome wears out.

In some respects, like his idol, people began to question whether or not he had lost his edge. He was the irreverent wise-ass we knew starting out. 

I don't completely agree with this. I don't think he lost his edge as much as the perspective shifted. He could still goof around with his own exuberance, still slam some points home when he wanted to but he had decades of life experience to reshape his attitude. He grew up.

But then, I grew up too, so maybe my perspective has changed also. Maybe that's one more reason I'm going to miss him. 

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