My TV Buddy Dave
I guess there was a part of me that really wanted to believe that David Letterman would always be on television.
My TV Buddy Dave has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Born in 1977, I was unquestionably a child of the 1980’s, and was immersed in everything that would imply. I grew up with the holy trinity of Michael, Madonna and Prince on Top 40 radio, I witnessed the MTV revolution firsthand, and while a big chunk of my sense of humor was formed by early exposure to Monty Python (thanks to the older brothers of my grade school best friend), the rest of it was filled in by the dry, Midwestern absurdism of David Letterman.
I can no longer recall the first time I saw the show, but I can certainly conjure the scene. On school nights, naturally, I had a strictly enforced bedtime. But on Friday nights (and summer vacation!) I could more or less stay up as late as I liked. And on Friday nights, if you stayed up past Carson, you could watch Friday Night Videos, an hour-long music video program. And 1980’s Brent loved music videos.
When it launched in 1982, Late Night with David Letterman ran Monday through Thursday nights, which meant I would only ever catch it during a vacation or school break. Eventually, when I was around 10 years old, NBC expanded Late Night with David Letterman to Fridays (pushing Friday Night Videos back to around 1:30 or so). And it was around that time that I developed a new obsession.
I started taping the Monday through Thursday shows so I could watch them on the weekends. I was especially fond of reruns of the earlier shows. And during summer vacation, I was up late every night, watching the show. I was hooked. Late Night wasn’t just absurdly funny in a way that a tween could enjoy, it also seemed provocative, even dangerous.
There was simply nothing else like it at the time. The man on the street segments. The tweaking of talk show conventions. The knowing apathy of a host who seemed to openly hold contempt for many of the showbiz phonies he had to parlay with.
But more important was Dave’s GAMENESS, his willingness to wade neck-deep into oddness, acting as instigator as well as observer.
The guests! Andy Kaufman. Harvey Pekar. “Jungle” Jack Hanna. Marv Albert. Howard Stern. Regis Philbin. CHRIS ELLIOTT.
The bits! Top Ten Lists. Larry “Bud” Melman”. Viewer Mail. Small Town News. Stupid Pet Tricks. Stupid Human Tricks. Piedmont Bird Callers. The pencils through the window. Dropping things from the roof. Suit of Velcro. Crushing things in a press. Visiting GE Headquarters. The contentious relationship with NBC brass. Big Ass Ham. Late Night Monkey Cam. I wouldn’t give his troubles to a monkey on a ROCK. Crispin Glover. Will It Float? Is This Anything? Elevator Races. Mujibur and Sirajul. Rupert Jee. Teri Garr in the shower. Darlene Love singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”.
And that’s just the stuff I can recall from the top of my head.
The MUSIC. No one else was booking acts like Paul Shaffer did as music director of Late Night/Late Show. Regardless of whether you think The World’s Most Dangerous Band/The CBS Orchestra is COOL, there’s no question that Paul Shaffer has always had his finger on the pulse of what is happening in music, and the quality and breadth of the roster of bands and artists that the show has booked over 33 years is unparalleled in television history. Better than SNL, better than anyone else, hands down, no contest.
It’s unquestionably the first place I saw R.E.M. and Elvis Costello, just to name two of my biggest influences, and countless other acts that impacted me throughout my life. It mattered to me. It made me.
And what about Dave the Broadcaster? The last of a generation, no doubt. As Dave has gotten older and is less inclined to do the random Man on the Street bits, the greatest pleasure to be found on the show comes after the monologue and before the first guest, when oftentimes Dave will tell a free-form story from his life. Two huge events in his life, his life-saving quadruple bypass surgery, and the birth of his son Harry, lead to a Dave who was more contemplative, and I’ve found that those times are actually my favorite part of the show these days. Just Dave talking about stuff. The younger Dave would have always gone for the laugh. The older Dave was more given to extemporized reflection. It has been fascinating to observe, and though he is around 30 years my senior, in a way it feels like we “grew up” together.
The watershed moment was, of course, his reflections when the show returned following the attacks of 9/11. The gravitas and simplicity of his reaction set a tone that I have returned to time and again.
And all of that is how Dave became my TV buddy. I was about 15 or 16 years old when Dave made the transition to CBS and The Late Show, and by then, the cast and crew felt like family. It wasn’t just Dave, and Paul. It was Biff, too, and Gerard Mulligan, Bill Wendall, Robert “Morty” Morton and Hal Gurnee. These were my pals who, on a nightly basis, seemed to be making this wonderful, brilliant, stupid show just for me and my sensibilities.
I owned all of the books of Top Ten Lists. I followed Chris Elliott’s career in earnest. I wrote to the show and got some autographs (still nothing from Paul or Dave yet, gentlemen. It’s not too late!) and felt ownership in MY show with my TV Buddy Dave.
I always assumed that at some point, I’d make it onto the show, as a writer, as a director, as a musician, as SOMETHING. I rehearsed my answers to questions that would ultimately never be posed.
And so the end of the show is also the end of a dream for me, and yet another signifier of my increasing age. As I approach 40, and continue to lose family and friends, each loss is that much more keenly felt. And now the loss of a near-daily presence in my life, a voice of biting intelligence and humor, only confirms my continual aging, and robs me of one more piece of comfort and stability.
But that’s my trip, and I can’t hold it against Dave. He changed the world of comedy forever, and gave us so much entertainment. He’s earned his retirement. I suspect
But I still want that autograph, Dave.