Dave Letterman made me realize that I wasn’t alone out here.
I was about 13 when I first discovered Dave—I call him Dave because that’s who he feels like, Dave, an older brother or uncle who’ll shoot straight with you. I wasn’t completely a naïf to the late-night talk show scene: I knew who Dave was, as I had seen him and Jay Leno during their appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. But it wasn’t until he left NBC for CBS after the hullabaloo with Jay Leno following Carson’s departure from The Tonight Show that I really took note of Dave.
And I was snared. It was a perfect storm, really: Once I hit the teenager threshold, my mom and dad let me stay up later as long as I could drag my tail out of bed for school the next morning—always a mixed bag and an occasionally-losing battle. And, as I said, I was a teenager. Adolescence. A time of rebellion and looking beyond the norm and searching for anything and anyone who could provide that. This wasn’t easy. This was before the Internet and YouTube and viral videos and the connections that we all have now, knowing that there are other folks like me out there, feeling what I felt, and found funny what I found funny without even knowing it. Hence Dave. Finding Dave was a revelation.
You’ve probably read a few articles about Dave in the past week or so, as we barrel to his last show like so many bathtubs and watermelons thrown off a building, premiering tonight, and folks who knew him and folks who didn’t are pouring their love out to the man, trying to encapsulate what made the man not just a funny guy, not just a good host, not just a terrific showman, but a comedic legend. And I’m struggling with that same problem.
Dave was funny, sure, but a lot of comedians and late-night hosts are funny. He could marry the funny with what could be an incredibly endearing demeanor, mocking his guests and himself and both parties silently winked at one another, knowing that it’s all in good fun. He often carried grumpiness like a cloak of honor, exuding a comic cynicism that was well ahead of its time. Dave didn’t have the same shiny generic glean of some of his competitors, letting his sardonic, sarcastic wit and assholery ooze over his guests, regardless of whether he liked them or not. And while, as I said, he generally seemed to enjoy his guests’ company, there were some with whom he did not hide his contempt—looking at you, Crispin Glover and Paris Hilton. There was a genuineness about the man: Maybe it was Midwestern upbringing, maybe it was his legendary work ethic, but Dave was not a man, when it was all said and done, to put up with your bullshit. He had one job and one job only: to make the audience laugh by any means necessary. If you weren’t there to contribute to that, regardless of what move or TV show or book you were there to hock, then you could get the Hell out of the way.
And yet. That was the thing, right there: The audience and the funny held primacy over everything else. Being a comic host was Dave’s job, sure, and he had his corporate overlords to nod to from time to time. But even then, he jabbed at them, such as his frequent jokes and barbs lodged at CBS president Les Moonves. This bucking of the establishment, not just his bosses, but the world as a whole, was what made me and will always make me love David Letterman: He knew that life was absurd and, rather than resist it, he made it his own. The rest of the people out there, dismissing the idea that life is absurd, they didn’t get it. He did, though. Not only that, but, if you were willing, Dave wanted you to be part of his exclusive club who knew that life was absurd and laugh at it together to soften the blows life throw and make them more palatable, maybe even downright funny.
And, eventually, the exclusive club grew, branching out to other ringmasters: Jon Stewart. Stephen Colbert. Conan O’Brien. However, all of them agree, even Colbert, who will take the reins of Late Show next month, that their parts wouldn’t be possible without Dave, their mentor and a whimsical, Dadaist, absurd, grumpy, downright comic genius.
So, Dave, a man I’ll never meet but shaped how I approach life more than most people in my life, I thank you, not just for the funny and the belly laughs, but for letting me join your club.