Decades. It's hard to believe but since 1982, he's been sitting behind a desk interviewing people. And he is to many of those guests what Johnny Carson, host of the Tonight Show decades, was to him: An idol. No matter how many shows were out there and there were and are a ton, his was the show to be on.
I was born in 1964. I grew up with the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and enjoyed it enough. But the Carson I grew up with had by the 70s and 80s become a bit played out. I began looking forward to the guest hosts.
One of those guest hosts was David Letterman. Letterman made his debut on the Tonight Show in 1978. Carson and Letterman would begin a close friendship that would last until Carson's death in 2005.
The two had a lot in common. A Midwestern upbringing, a particular shyness off camera as well as a need to guard their personal lives. A quick, acerbic wit that belied their nice-guy looks. Letterman grew up idolizing Carson so you can just imagine his joy that first night on the Tonight Show when Carson called him over to the couch after Letterman was done with his stand up routine. If Carson called them over after a set, most comics knew their career was on the rise.
Eventually, with NBC looking to fill the time slot after the Tonight Show, Late Night with David Letterman was born. The David Letterman Show was a morning show that he had in 1980 but it failed to garner an audience. Letterman's edgy, quirky brand of humor didn't work in the mornings.
At night though...nighttime was the perfect time for the odd, free-style sort of humor that he and his staff excelled at. It was the perfect time. When Mom and Dad went to bed after the Tonight Show, the kids stayed up to watch Late Night.
Late Night was technically a talk show but it was really less about the guest and more about the latest stunts Letterman and his staff would dream up for the show. Monkey-cam, dropping things from tall buildings, Stupid Pet Tricks, Stupid Human Tricks, Chris Elliot's many incarnations on the show, the Top Ten List. People were tuning in more for these things than for the celebrities. The set was minimal, there was no "orchestra" but rather a four man ensemble known as The World's Most Dangerous Band led by Paul Shaffer.
Shaffer had been a member of the house band for Saturday Night Live from 1975-80 and along with a clever talent for music, he was a perfect comedic compliment for Letterman.
The show debuted in 1982, the year I graduated high school. I was already a bit smitten with this tall, gangly, gap-toothed guy but my crush only deepened with a nightly fix. I wrote many letters to the show hoping they'd be read during the "Viewer Mail" segment. They never were, possibly because they were usually about two pages long and written in an attempt to impress the staff with my own comedy skills. I used to dream of becoming a writer on Late Night.
That never came to pass either.
I have VHS tapes filled with what I considered some of the show's best bits. Usually it involved some sort of field trip away from the studio for Dave or Dave and Paul. I think this is where Letterman truly shined. He was at his best in situations where he dealt with the average person on the street making off the cuff, wise-ass, often absurdist comments that could be funnier than the written material (and sometimes the bit was funnier when the written material fell completely flat and he was left floundering).
There was an accessibility you got with Late Night that you didn't get with its more glitzier relative The Tonight Show. You got the feeling, unlikely as it was, that you might bump into Dave on the street. Carson seemed like he palled around with the big celebrities he interviewed (I don't think he did), while Letterman seemed intimidated by them. He was one of the guys. Carson might feature interviews with average folk like the "potato chip lady" (she collected potato chips that looked like people) from behind his desk, Letterman went out into the world to track down the characters.
Initially, as an interviewer, he seemed a bit awkward interviewing big name guests. He'd hone his skills over time but the audience found a particular pleasure in watching Dave squirm during an awkward interview. Especially when they knew that at some point during the interview, Dave would drop the pretense and take back his territory with a well-timed and often well-deserved slam. Still, those awkward moments, where he seemed to be floundering, could be golden.
Most times, Letterman was prepared for the unusual in a guest and gladly had them on. Avant garde comedians, surly artists, obscure actors; these were people you didn't see a lot on other shows but he was willing to take a chance on them and their careers benefited from this support.
This simply wasn't being done on other shows.
The Late Show also featured new and often times unknown musicians. A variety of genres as well. One musician that didn't get a lot of play here was Elvis Costello who would end up appearing on Letterman's shows 27 times over the years including a stint as a guest host when Letterman was recuperating from open heart surgery.
Letterman started out as a stand up so it's not unusual that he would be willing to feature stand up comedians, just like his idol, Johnny Carson did on the Tonight Show. And like his idol, often Letterman could often help spur a comedian's career to greater heights. A lot of these comedians were people he played the clubs with when he was starting out. One such comedian was Jay Leno. The battle for the Tonight Show is legendary but it's interesting to note that Jay may not have been given the chance to host the Tonight Show had he not been featured so often on The Late Show and become such a household name. The Leno on the Late Show was edgy, cocky, with an act that he would eventually be watered down when he hosted the Tonight Show. Dave had been in the clubs with Jay and the two seemed to have a great rapport when he came on as a guest on the show.
When Carson retired and the Tonight Show scandal blew, Dave's upset might not have been only due to NBC's passing him over for the host but also to Leno's accepting the job knowing how dear it was to Dave's heart.
I think it worked out for the best. When Dave moved to CBS in 1993, the earlier time slot led him to lose a little of that more bizarre edge that Late Night had, but he retained a level of unpredictability so beloved by the audience that followed him to CBS. It was just on a grander scale.
Ultimately he got the last laugh.