Last night, David Letterman took his final bow and the Ed Sullivan Theater went dark. If you're of a certain age, and I'm right in the sweet spot, David Letterman is late night TV. Johnny Carson belonged to our parents, and Jay Leno was way too ingratiating to ever be cool, but Dave was ours.
He was the guy you found out about from your friend with the cool older brother, who seemed to let you in on this giant secret. There was this guy who did all sorts of crazy stuff on late night TV, and they let him get away with it. He spoke the language of the misfits and outcasts, and he somehow made it seem like the coolest thing on earth. He was this awkward, Midwestern guy, and he had somehow conned the world into giving him the coolest TV show in the world. He literally redefined late night TV with the simple attitude of "What the heck?" There wasn't a thing he wouldn't try. He was our Johnny.
And if you missed that era and have just seen him mail it in for the past decade, you are forgiven for wondering what the heck the fuss was all about. We had never seen anything like it, and now that everyone has copied him, it doesn't seem quite as revolutionary. Well, it was. Of course, Mr. Top Ten himself gets a top list of his very own.
10. The Top Ten
One of the all-time great comedy gimmicks. I wasn't always the biggest fan of the list, which is odd for a guy who is busy ranking the world, but it was almost always the thing kids would talk about at school the next day. He had a knack for ratcheting up the absurdity.
9. Dismissive interviews
Late night talk shows exist, primarily, to sell you the entertainment industry's most recent product. Actors and actresses hit the circuit to push the product, no matter how crappy. Letterman had no interest in being your hype man. He'd push back guests if he felt like it, and then would have open disdain for projects, and people, that weren't worth the time. Annoyed, prickly Dave was the best Dave. Again, I didn't even know hosts were ALLOWED to not like things.
8. Stupid human tricks
Dave glorified the mundane. And as great as stupid pet tricks were, he upped the ante and then created stupid human tricks. This was the equivalent of putting your Uncle Bob on TV for having a trick knee. It was so wonderfully banal, which just highlighted how dumb the rest of TV is, too. No one was better at being stupid smart than Letterman.
7. Bill f'n Murray
Some guests bring out the best in a host. Johnny had Bette Midler. Jon Stewart has Denis Leary. But Dave Letterman had Bill f'n Murray. Bill Murray was often at his most Bill Murray-est when he was on the show, and when he was a guest, literally anything could happen. When they were clicking, it was the perfect marriage between two of the funniest people in showbiz history, in perfect comedic rhythm. It was like watching the 1927 Yankees.
6. Dropping things from high altitudes
You know what's funny? Lightbulbs exploding. Watermelons dropped from the tops of buildings. Heck, anything dropped from a great height and then impacting with the ground. There was a certain poetic beauty in watching them break stuff. And yes, I was inspired to drop a watermelon off of my roof.
5. Awesome musical guests
REM's first national TV appearance was on Letterman. He got everyone from Bruce Springsteen to A Tribe Called Quest to TV on the Radio to Rage Against the Machine. Whatever kind of music you liked, he'd find the best of the genre to play. He got James Brown to tear it up on his show. Personally, I was always partial to L7 nearly destroying the set. But the greatest act, to me, was when he had Warren Zevon on for the full hour. Zevon was dying, and his last performance was one of tremendous grace in the face of his end, culminating in Dave's request of "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," which Zevon somehow gave gravity instead of comedy.
3. Guests get crazy
Drew Barrymore exposed her breasts. Crispin Glover tried to kick him. Madonna got bitchy. Joaquin Phoenix got weird. Andy Kaufman got... well, he acted like Andy Kaufman. Harvey Pekar called him out as a corporate shill. Letterman had more downright weird guest incidents than any other late night host. This was not a safe space.
2. The cast of characters
I'll always be partial to Larry Bud Melman. Your mileage may vary. Maybe you loved Biff the producer, Lyle the intern, or Chris Elliott, who was a master of the bizarre. He dragged in the owners of the local shops around the studio into his universe. Heck, he sent his mom to the Olympics, and it was terrific. He even got already famous people to act as comedy delivery systems, like Marv Albert doing his awards, Bob Costas doing play by play for elevator races, or Dan Rather just telling stories. It was like being allowed in on this crazy other world, in which real life people got to be cartoon characters. Oh, and of course Paul Shaffer, who I think started out as a cartoon character.
Above all, the show was just so damn goofy. I'm not saying the show never got mean or cynical, but Dave did his best to avoid that kind of humor. He had the best gig on earth, and he knew it. What could be more ridiculous than that? His sense of humor tended to be inclusive, as he wanted more people in on the joke. It was a good run, and now it seems the whole world was in on it.