David Letterman and me

In the latest episode of The Incomparable, Jason Snell talks Letterman with Aaron Barnhart, Andy Ihnatko, John Gruber, Tim Goodman, and Philip Michaels. In a departure from his usual panel format, Jason interviewed each of his guests separately and edited them together topic by topic. It’s a nice piece of work, and you should give it a listen if you haven’t already. If your thirst for Lettermania is as unquenchable as mine, you’ll also want to listen to the full interviews in the 3½ hour bonus track episode. You might even want to read on for my disjointed reminiscences. I’ll try not to pile on with things that Jason and his guests already said, but will fill in around the edges.

I’m 10–15 years older than Jason and most of his guests (Aaron, I suspect, is closer to my age). When Late Night premiered on NBC, I wasn’t a little kid who needed permission to stay up late.1 I was a 21-year-old college student—pretty much the show’s target audience. And it hit the target. I loved it from the start, as did all of my friends.

Our love was, unfortunately, not shared by the management of WICD, the local NBC affiliate that served Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. They apparently thought it was too weird to appeal to what they considered their core audience of farmers and small-town shopkeepers, so they soon replaced Late Night with Thicke of the Night, starring the unbelievably bland Alan Thicke (pre-Growing Pains) and his soap opera star wife, Gloria Loring. This left me with a huge grudge against all things Thicke. This year’s $7 million judgement against their horrible son for “Blurred Lines” has only partially balanced the karma scales.

At some point, though, the geniuses at WICD realized that farmers and county extension agents don’t watch TV after 11:30, but college students do, so they brought Dave back.2 And there was much rejoicing among fans of toast on a stick.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. All proper David Letterman retrospectives must start with a discussion of Johnny Carson, and it just so happens that I watched a lot of Carson when I was in junior high school. I’m not sure what was up with my parents, but I spent three years watching Johnny almost every night. And this was back in the early-to-mid-70s, when The Tonight Show still ran for 90 minutes.

By this time, Johnny was about a decade into his run and had cleared out what little competition there had been. Wikipedia says there was some limited version of Dick Cavett’s show still running on ABC, but it was effectively dead. Carson was the king of late night TV, and the rituals of the show were well-established, especially show opening, with “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” followed by Carson coming through the curtain, a cut to Ed McMahon doing his little namaste bow, and then another cut to Doc Severinsen doing his bigger bow with that elaborate hand-rolling motion. The monologue was a set of topical jokes—in those days, mostly about Nixon and Watergate—with a very specific rhythm that impersonators were just starting to pick up on.

At this time, despite there being nothing of note on ABC or CBS, Carson was still, I think, basically an NBC employee. He had not yet won the contracts that shortened both his day and his week and gave him control of the time slot that later became Late Night’s. In fact, as I recall, Johnny was doing a lot moonlighting during this time, using his days off from The Tonight Show to book short but very lucrative runs in Las Vegas. I thought of this while listening to Jason and his guests speculate on what Letterman may do after The Late Show. They mentioned that while Carson talked about doing other projects after The Tonight Show, he never did. That’s true, but they either forgot or never knew about the non-Late Night side projects Johnny had when he was younger. Remember his clothing line?

One of the most interesting things about Carson’s run is that there was almost never a time when people weren’t talking about when he would be replaced and by whom. This seems odd now, but you have to realize that his predecessors, Steve Allen and Jack Paar, had hosted the show for only three and five years, respectively. In the 60s, the thought was that he’d be unseated by someone on another network. During the 70s, as The Tonight Show maintained and extended its dominance, speculation shifted to who would be his successor.

After his success in the first year of Saturday Night Live, Chevy Chase assumed that successor would be Chevy Chase. Johnny had other ideas. He was widely, albeit unofficially, quoted as saying Chase “couldn’t ad lib a fart after a baked bean dinner.”3 As Johnny’s contract improved, he knew he needed someone to sit in on his increasing number of days off, and he knew that person had to be quick and at least appear to be self-deprecating. Eventually, he knew that had to be Dave.

There is a great episode of The Tonight Show that unfortunately I can’t find on YouTube. Carson is the host, and his first two guests are Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd, promoting a movie. This is some years after “couldn’t ad lib a fart,” and everyone knows about it. But the Chase/Aykroyd segment goes well enough, and they move down the couch for the next guest. It’s Dave, and he’s reached the level where he doesn’t have to do a stand-up bit anymore—he goes straight to the chair next to Johnny’s desk.4 And he kills. Chevy has to sit there knowing full well that Dave is the heir apparent to the throne he had assumed was his. And it seemed clear at the time that Johnny had orchestrated this show just to rub Chevy’s nose in it.

Irony is the much-used word to describe Late Night, and I’m afraid I can’t think of a better one. The show appealed to people who’d grown up watching television in general and talk shows in particular, people who’d consumed a lot of what Paul Shaffer called “this business of show.” You knew the conventions of the format, Dave knew the conventions of the format, and you both knew that each other knew the conventions. That was the starting point, and that was why Late Night was able to flip or even ignore those conventions.

It wasn’t sarcastic or mean, at least not usually and not when it wasn’t warranted. Mostly it was gentle and silly, with bits like Stupid Pet Tricks that harmed no one. But Dave could be mean when the occasion called for it. One of my favorite interviews was with Andrew Greeley, a priest who wrote bestselling novels in a Jacqueline Susann style with a Roman Catholic twist. He was kind of an asshole, and had spent a lot of time on talk shows acting clever. One of Dave’s questions was how a celibate man could write so much about sex. This was the kind of softball question that Greeley could have answered in many ways. He chose to answer by saying “That’s my affair,” expecting a laugh for his great wit.

Dave pretended not to understand the double entendre and slowly, painfully extracted from Greeley an explanation of the answer. When Greeley was done, Dave said, “Oh, I see. It’s kind of like a joke.”

In The Incomparable, Jason said he thought Late Night was the product of three people: Dave, head writer Merrill Markoe, and director Hal Gurtner (that’s Gurnee, Dave). I agree and would be remiss if I didn’t link to a few recent articles by and about Markoe, who deserves every accolade she gets. I think almost everything she does is terrific.

I remember seeing an episode of Late Night in which she appeared as a guest. This was some time after she’d broken up with Dave and quit the show to write other things. The ostensible reason for her appearance was to promote a book, but I think the real reason was to make Dave uncomfortable. I don’t remember the details, but I got the clear impression that everyone on the staff adored her and was happy to see her again, but that Dave didn’t quite know how to handle the situation. Which made for a great segment, which I’m sure both Dave and Merrill appreciated.

I saw one episode of Late Night in person, during a week in 1989 when the show was in Chicago. It was recorded in the Chicago Theatre, which was kind of like the revamped Ed Sullivan Theatre that the show moved a few years later. The guests were Michael Jordan (before his appearance with Stuart Smalley on SNL) and Jay Leno (back when he was still edgy and funny) and it was great. My wife didn’t go with me because she was breastfeeding our baby daughter and didn’t think she could leave her with grandma for a whole day. Kids can really ruin your life.

In his interview with Jason, Andy Ihnatko said Late Night was like the iPhone in that after it appeared, everything changed. I kind of agree, but not fully. There’s no question but that Late Night got everyone’s attention, and there were lots of magazine and newspaper articles about the new Age of Irony. But although the talk shows we see now are clearly the progeny of Dave, that really wasn’t the case right away, at least not on the big three networks. Sure, we now have the Dave-infused Conan and Kimmel shows, but I don’t think anyone would argue that Arsenio Hall’s or Joan Rivers’s shows were direct descendants of Late Night.

But Dave certainly was getting through elsewhere. My wife went through a phase in the late-80s where she’d stay up late and watch Spanish language TV. And she found a talk show in which the host was clearly doing Dave. The rhythms of his speech, the looks he gave the audience: all Dave. I don’t speak Spanish, but even I could see what the guy was doing, and that was before I saw him throw index cards. So Telemundo—or maybe it was Univision—was clearly ahead of the English language networks. And I’ve read that there were European Daves, as well.

Like Jason and his guests, I’ve focused on Late Night rather than The Late Show because it was the innovator. When The Late Show started I watched it and enjoyed it, because it was a really good show. But it wasn’t quite the same.

The first thing you noticed if you were a fan of Late Night is that The Late Show’s monologue actually tried to be funny. And it was, but that was never the point of Late Night’s monologue. The second thing you noticed was that Paul Shaffer was put in the background. He eventually came back to the prominence he’d had on the NBC show, but there was obviously an initial decision that he was too weird for 10:30. I assume he was well compensated for the loss of status.

One thing The Late Show has that Late Night didn’t is a good interviewer. Dave’s interviews in the early years were entertaining, but only because they were off-center. Now he can do off-center or uncomfortable if he wants to, but those aren’t the only tools in his toolbox. Dave can now do the kind of warm interview that Carson used to do with Jimmy Stewart or with children. Interestingly though, Dave almost never does that kind of interview with kids because kids now are used to edgy and uncomfortable.

They’ve grown up in the Age of Dave.

  1. I also had the advantage of living in the Central time zone, where the show came on at 11:30 instead of 12:30. 

  2. Also, Thick of the Night had the plug pulled on it, so they had no choice but to go back to Dave. 

  3. Phil Michaels says this referred to the entire SNL cast, but I remember it as referring to Chase alone. 

  4. I think it’s after Late Night has started, but I’m a little fuzzy on that.