There was no bloat to the final episode of Late Show with David Letterman Wednesday. Retrospectives were limited to Letterman in 1996 donning a sea foam green Taco Bell uniform and messing around with big-haired drive through customers (all ordering various versions of the restaurant’s forgotten beef melt) and outtakes of small children attempting to show him their Christmas lists and science projects—similarly frustrated by his interruptions. He almost cracked in a tribute to his mother and beamed when he called to his wife and young son embedded in the audience. Letterman shed no tears when he bid the audience farewell, “For the last time on a television program, thank you and good night.” But I did.
If you drew a Venn diagram of the intersection of my sense of humor with my father’s you’d have one very tiny speck in the almost invisible intersected middle named David Letterman. My father was the pie fight scene in The Great Race and I am the Tequila dance in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. He was Lemmon in The Odd Couple and I am Sandler in Billy Madison. He was Jackie Gleason and I am Louis C.K.
In reality, maybe we were just a few steps apart on the comedy continuum. But like any generation looking at the next, his were the originals and mine are the imitators.
My first recollection of Letterman was with my father. For most of my childhood I was a rashy, wheezy mess and that meant lots of late night visits to the living room couch propped up with pillows waiting for a steroid to open up my lungs and turn my lips from a shade of cobalt back to pink.
My mother was usually the one trying not to fall asleep next to me on the couch till I drifted. Still, I remember my father, sitting in this awful floral print recliner hacking up laughs and beaming back at a man who looked awful lot like him: White guy, brown wavy hair, glasses, kind of square, early/mid-30s, something of a cocksure overbite with a hint of mischief in his blue eyes.
From what I could tell, Letterman had long segments with comedians and dogs and explosions, not bad. If Carson was the apotheosis of late-night television hosts; the slick Midwestern transplant who discovered California, bronzed his exterior and could handshake you into buying a new Cadillac and picking up the breakfast tab, Letterman was the guy schlepping Johnny’s irons around the back nine—a substitute science teacher who took a wrong turn and stumbled into a television studio.
Letterman’s bits often didn’t end up being funny the way they were intended. His guests lingered too long and never quite got to the point and the cuffs of his pants were hemmed high enough to make a viewer question whether the last time he wore those slacks was at his junior prom.
As I grew a little older, the music that informed my formative years—The Ramones, Talking Heads, R.E.M., X and Sonic Youth—was popping up with regularity on Letterman. Nowhere else on TV or in my small corner of the suburbs were these bands accessible. And if you missed it, it was gone forever. Snippets of these performances still rattle in my memory with such profundity that when I watch them again on YouTube the actualness of it seems to sharply pale by comparison.
R.E.M.’s performance of the then-unnamed “So. Central Rain” on Letterman was a pivotal moment. Muppet-haired frontman Michael Stipe, who then looked like a guy who should be snapping gum and fitting my sister and I for a pair of Buster Brown’s, was so soulful and agitated—a leaf torn from its branch hoping to cling to something—that I knew, just as millions of kids waking up to the same moment knew, that there were people out there like me. On stage. Grown up and OK.
Letterman’s audience grew old with him, and that is also true for me and my father. In the ‘80s, the king curmudgeon’s demographic was in its 30s. In the 2010s, their late-60s. In college, he was required viewing over pizza in the name of some kind of study break where the studying hadn’t actually yet begun. For a decade, he was ubiquitous on campus. There was a time when every clique, step groups to glee club, Campus Pride to Campus Crusade, the frattiest of frat guys to the dirtiest of the dirt twirlers, all defined themselves by their own knock-off version of his Top 10 List on bootleg T-shirts. His appeal went a step beyond universal and became unifying.
As Letterman transitioned from the basement game room buried in the belly of 30 Rockefeller known as Studio 6A, he swam up the mainstream into the biggest contract for any single television personality ever. He landed center stage in the still comfortable yet impressively refurbished Ed Sullivan Theater. Letterman delivered on the promise of becoming the late-night champ for CBS and beat down Jay Leno’s mechanized version of The Tonight Show somewhere in the riot-infested, freeway-clogged and smog-blanketed hinterlands of Los Angeles.
It was Letterman who started bringing eyes back to gritty pre-gentrified, pre-Giuliani New York in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. And it was Letterman, through his genuine shock, dismay and tears, who helped the nation understand and start to laugh again after Sept. 11, 2001.
I remember on visits home from school and later on weekends and holidays, my father and I would tune in to Letterman together. It wasn’t a sanctioned event or a planned moment. In fact, my being there—still breathing heavily, most likely unshowered from the gym or the pool, bangs obscuring my eyes and still zitty from the chin up—was something more of an annoyance. He sometimes would glance at me sideways during the commercial as if I were a stray he’d dropped off at the pound who found his way back.
But then we would both laugh, together.
I always thought the key to Letterman’s appeal was whatever riffs he was working could be interpreted different ways. His jokes were quick and subversive and the comedy not always apparent or accessible. Sometimes I’d start my chortle a second or two before my father and sometimes he’d be doubled over by the time I began to embrace the bit.
Unlike his successors, O’Brien, Kimmel, Fallon and Meyers, Letterman was slow to develop a joke but quick to bury it, dig it up, reanimate it and bury it again. The double-eraser pencil throw wasn’t crafted for the current generation of viewer who expects the funny come correct and compact within the first easily sharable 20 seconds. To really get laughs from a Letterman show was to stick with him the duration. A misstep in the monologue could be referenced again during the Top 10, then again during the first guest, then again on the last break and finally one more time before introducing the band.
Letterman, like his idol Steve Allen, let it simmer. That was the joint. The job was to keep the viewer distracted and tuned in, to wipe away the thoughts of the task(s) at hand: the midnight feedings; the awake-in-the-night with job/life/money/marriage woes; the worrying about where the kids were and why haven’t they called.
Letterman was the host to join you at the time of day when the clock finally stops and you can exhale, in silence, just for a moment.
In last night’s final Top 10 list, ten Late Show veterans and the elite of showbiz rolled out to deliver one each for “Things I’ve Always Wanted to Say to Dave.” Self-deprecating, Seinfeld alum Julia Louis-Dreyfus, had the zinger most suited to the evening, “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale” (eliciting a sincere chuckle from former co-star and show creator Jerry Seinfeld, who was also on stage). But it was the lone sports figure on the stage, Peyton Manning, whose, “Dave, you are to comedy what I am…to comedy” that became Letterman’s reference point for the evening.
After the Top 10, Letterman thanked personally with varying degrees of space violation the who’s who of pop culture icons lined up on stage. He saved perhaps the warmest embrace of his 6,000-plus episode career for Bill Murray who appeared on the first episodes of NBC’s Late Night, and the first and final episodes of CBS’ Late Show.
Before signing off, Letterman referenced the brass at CBS and his personal struggles through his two-plus decades there. It evoked the moment he invited his doctors who brought him back to life after a 2000 quintuple bypass, as well as his sincere and stripped-down apology for philandering in 2009.
For all that was, as the Foo Fighters played Letterman off with a bellowing “Everlong” (Letterman’s favorite song and one that helped him rehab after heart surgery), the exit was quiet and unassuming; a little bit nerd and a little bit punk rock.
Same as his arrival.
Postscript: As I switched the TV off just after 1 a.m., I thought of my father. Two months before he passed away in early 2014, he was sitting in his chair, nodding off. We were finishing up the Giants game which had gone late and he was stirring. He wanted to go to bed. “But you don’t want to miss Dave,” I said.
Half-asleep, he mumbled, “Yes, I’ll miss Dave when he goes,” as he shuffled out of the room.