Wednesday, May 20, 2015

My Old Friend Dave

My first memory of Dave Letterman is from the summer before 6th grade. Instead of going to bed right after Johnny Carson, I kept watching. This goofy-looking guy was telling jokes and just being silly. He was funny. Johnny Carson was funny, too, but this new guy was funny in a different way. He was funny in a way that I had not seen funny before. I kept watching.

At least in the summer and during holidays. Back when Dave’s show was Late Night on NBC, he didn’t come on until 11:30 p.m. And for a long time, his show aired only on Monday-Thursday. So I didn’t get to watch him on school nights. But when summer came, I tuned in almost every night.

The ’80s were Dave’s glory days. Not that he hasn’t been funny since then, but back then, his humor was wackier and edgier. Those were the days of the Velcro wall, guacamole-filled balloons being dropped off ten-story buildings, and Thursday night Viewer Mail. There were Stupid Pet Tricks, Stupid Human Tricks, Larry “Bud” Melman, prank calls to the Russian Embassy (smack in the middle of the Cold War, for heaven’s sake) and the squeaky Sky-Cam. During his 5th anniversary special in 1987, Dave unveiled a dog farm during a “new products” segment. It was built like a giant ant farm and real, live dogs sat in it, panting and staring out at the audience. For his Tri-State Special, a quirky tribute to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, Dave borrowed a hydraulic press and took requests of what he should crush in it. My favorite was the hot dog wieners and a huge can of Pork ‘n’ Beans. I taped that show and I still have it on a deteriorating VHS.

Much of my time as an adolescent was not fun. Nothing spectacularly tragic happened; my parents didn’t get divorced, and I was never a child abuse victim. But there were some dark, dark days that never seemed to end. If I could get to a TV at 11:30, though, Dave always, always made me laugh. Many of those nights, Dave’s antics weren’t just entertainment for me. They were a means of survival.

Although I did get to go to New York City in 9th grade, I didn’t get to go to Dave’s show. Late Night tickets were very hard to come by during Dave’s heyday, so my friends and I settled for Phil Donahue instead. But Dave taped in the same building, and I did pick up a “Late Night with David Letterman” sweatshirt in the gift shop. I still have it.

I was in college when Dave moved to the Late Show on CBS (which moved him up an hour to 10:30 p.m.), and I kept watching as he sent 15 people dressed as Superman into a small, Manhattan Starbucks, and a guy in a bear suit into the Russian Tea Room. When I was turning 30 and Chad asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I asked for a TV for our bedroom “…so I could go to bed with David Letterman.” I got my TV, and Chad and I spent several more years ending many of our days laughing at Dave.

There’s always something disconcerting about the funny famous people we have grown up with leaving the public eye. We come to rely on these people to keep us grounded so we don’t get so lost and overwhelmed by everything that is not funny about this world.

In recent years, I have prioritized sleep over late-night laughs. If I watch Dave now, it’s usually the next day online while I get ready for work. But I’ll stay up and watch his last show tonight. I’ve been a David Letterman fan most of my life, and I’ve learned a lot from him. I’ve learned that it’s OK to be weird, and that it’s OK to find something hysterical that no one else gets. Most importantly, I’ve learned that sometimes the best—and most genuine—way to minister to someone is to crack a joke and make them smile. So I’ll stay up tonight and say goodbye. I at least owe him that.

Here's the hydraulic press clip. Also, enjoy John Mellencamp's performance after that.

And one last time, the Late Night Anthem.


Post a Comment

<< Home