Today is the birthday of David Letterman (b. 1947). How odd to think that he has been sitting behind that desk even longer than Carson had ruled The Tonight Show .
My perspective on the great gap-toothed funnyman is different than that of almost anyone you’ll speak to: he was mostly on my radar from the late 70s through the late 80s, and I haven’t followed him much since! (This wasn’t a defection from Letterman per se, but a defection from television. I have since returned to looking at tv from time to time but my viewing habits now consist almost entirely of old movies, true crime and paranormal reality.)
I am the only person I know who followed Letterman before he did late night television. I remember him when he was just a stand-up comic doing guest spots on The Tonight Show and other programs. I recall him winning a televised national contest of stand-ups somewhere around ’78 or ’79. And I was an avid follower — apparently one of the only audience members — for his first nationally televised program, The David Letterman Show, a morning program that ran from June through October, 1980. It was the most insane, misguided bit of tv scheduling, I believe, in the history of television. Mid-morning (10am or so) is sort of little-old-lady tv time. Who else would watch television at that hour? I remember it being the slot where in those days you would normally find things like Phil Donahue, Dinah Shore and game shows. Letterman’s show was satirical — a sort of parody of what you might find at that hour. The only precedent I can think of for something that subversive on daytime tv was Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. This ballsy, satirical approach filled a void at the time…it seems a legacy of what SNL had done just a few years before but had recently stopped doing, with the replacement of their entire cast and writing staff at just around the same time. (Later, Letterman even inherited SNL’s Paul Shaffer). Regulars on the show included Rich Hall, Valri Bromfield, Edie McClurg, Wil Shriner, etc. For a few weeks his regular musical guest was Loudon Wainwright III. Letterman’s biting sensibility was mixed with his own experience as a local broadcaster in his native Indiana in the early 70s, where he had been a weatherman, helmed a late night movie show, and done a children’s program. He and his cast played constantly with Americana and audience expectations about what would happen on television. What was radical for its time was the fact that they did so with a freedom that one associates with the early days of television. (I think it is for that reason a lot of people assumed Letterman was influenced by Ernie Kovacs, although he apparently insists he wasn’t. He usually cites Steve Allen, who was also regularly on his show. I also see a lot Bob & Ray in there…that dry, straight, deadpan, and the relentless parody of the broadcast medium itself.)
At any rate, this show was doomed to fail, although I was naive enough at the age of 14 to be bitterly disappointed. A couple of years later though he got Late Night with David Letterman, a much more savvy bit of television scheduling…following hard on the heels of The Tonight Show, the late hour was another borrowing from SNL. Letterman’s was the first later than late night talk show, setting the template for all those that exist now. My buddies and I were die-hard fans. (In retrospect, what the hell were we doing watching television — together — at that hour? These memories must be of Friday nights). For this show Letterman mixed his crazy comedy (e.g., the adrogynous senior citizen Larry” Bud” Mellman, and Chris Elliott as a crank who lived under the seats) with interviews with top celebrity guests. At this stage, I had little interest in Carson, by comparison — much preferred Letterman to The Tonight Show. I was very devoted. I was even watching when Andy Kaufman staged his famous stunt with Jerry Lawler, and realized at the time that it was a stunt. I thought then and think now, that anyone who couldn’t see IMMEDIATELY that it was a leg-pulling stunt devised for our entertainment was mentally retarded.
Which brings us to The Tonight Show (speaking of retardation). There is a reason that Letterman was Carson’s anointed heir to the coveted seat when he retired in 1992…Letterman brought a flood of creativity to the table with him, along with a two decade track record in broadcasting, and a similar cornfed midwestern appeal (Carson was from Nebraska, Letterman from Indiana). Letterman was the only real choice. I continue to have no idea what Leno supposedly brings to the table. To me, he seems like the corporate choice. Like “Johnny Bravo” in that Brady Bunch episode, he’s just some guy who “fits the suit”. The conventional wisdom is that people either love or hate Letterman but everybody likes Leno. I say, “Yeah! Except for everybody who hates Leno!” Everybody I know hates Leno. I have watched The Tonight Show since he took it over perhaps twice and only for a couple of minutes.
That said, I have watched Letterman’s CBS show perhaps twice as well. While I love the magic of the old Ed Sullivan theatre, I feel like Letterman has filed most of his edges off in order to compete with Leno….replacing spontaneity with finery and glitz. And it seems like he’s been stuck in a rut for the last couple of decades. I’m sorry…he’s still doing “Top Ten Lists”? He does that for thirty years and people still watch that? It seems to me his ratings woes stem from a lack of invention rather than the problem people usually talk about (his famously acid demeanor).
I recently had another negative revelation, one that was slow in coming because of where I fit in the historical timeline. A colleague who is a famous sideshow artist saw it long before I did, and is pretty outspoken about it. It’s that Letterman’s detachment and irony are actually hostile and harmful to the variety arts I happen to cherish. Mostly because I hadn’t watched the show for a couple of decades I had forgotten about this. I mostly remember Letterman as somebody who helped revive interest in old school show biz…his sensibility was about bringing all sorts of American freaks before the cameras. What I had forgotten was the extent to which he makes fun of them. He doesn’t celebrate them; he makes comedy at their expense. Not along ago I wrote profiles of most of the variety performers who’ve played in my American Vaudeville Theatre. Many of them have Letterman credits. And when I played their clips, I found myself shocked at the lack of respect Letterman’s program showed to artists I admire a great deal. Ultimately Letterman has that Baby Boomer perspective that ridicules the very idea of performers like ventriloquists, rope twirlers, magicians, and so forth as corny, apparently. He is so out of touch now that he has virtually no idea that such performers are vastly hipper than he is. Seems to me there’s a niche there. There oughtta be some space for it on yer television.
To find out more about the history of variety arts, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.