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. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

They're Not Booing. They're Chanting, "Dave! Dave! Dave!"

David Letterman has but a few shows left before he ends an illustrious career as a TV talk show host. I'm finding these last shows particularly bitter-sweet especially when he has on guests that have appeared on the show for decades.

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.