I’m very sad. Once again, I’m about to lose an icon… someone I admire… someone who has made my unconventional, often isolated mind and soul feel like I belonged. Many times in the past, the loss of those rare people I could relate to, people who gave me joy and hope, was tragic and premature… Ernie Kovacs, John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, John Lennon, and George Harrison to name a few. This latest loss, while thankfully not tragic, to me remains very sad nonetheless. Tomorrow night is the last Late Show with David Letterman.
My first exposure to bizarre, live-format television was when I was three-years old and broadcast television wasn’t much older. Back then, when TV screens were black and white and only nine inches wide, there was no round-the-clock programming. There weren't even continuous programs from early in the day until about one o’clock in the morning when, years later, the networks would sign off for the night to images of a waving American flag and the strains of the nation anthem. Back then, on weekdays, there were some programs on in the morning, mostly quiz shows like “Strike It Rich”, “The Big Payoff” and “Queen for a Day”, followed by a short segment of “The Les Paul and Mary Ford Show” or Liberace behind his piano and candelabra singing to the mothers out there watching while they made lunch or did their ironing. But even at that young age, there was one TV personality with whom I felt a real connection. Ernie Kovacs, an amazing and inventive talent, had a show in the afternoon where he sat at a desk on a dark set smoking a cigar while delivering some of the funniest, strangest, and most fascinating material ever, interspersed with his wife, Edie Adams, occasionally singing a song. The way I remember it, whenever Ernie felt like he was done for that day, he signed off. Since no programming immediately followed, a static black and white test pattern would appear along with an annoying tone that would last until the evening when the nighttime programming would begin with programs like Your Show of Shows, I Love Lucy, Jackie Gleason, and others. Some years later, Ernie Kovacs would have a weekly half-hour show that consisted of a series of bizarre, innovative, thought-provoking and hilarious characters and sketches. I think that show was on at 8 o’clock Tuesday nights, and I never missed it. Then, one night in January 1962, Ernie Kovacs was killed in an automobile accident.
My other comedy idols included the Marx Brothers whose films of chaotic humor I would watch on television. Later, there was the comedy of people like Shelly Berman, David Steinberg, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, Bob and Ray, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, early George Carlin, The Firesign Theater, Steven Wright, and Jerry Seinfeld, along with those magical early years of Saturday Night Live.
But they were all occasional guests in my life. David Letterman was different. I first saw David Letterman when, for four short months, he had a morning talk show from June to October of 1980. It was strange, irreverent, intelligent, silly, and hilarious. I loved it, and I think I may have written a letter of protest to NBC when they took it off the air. Thankfully, two years later, Late Night with David Letterman debuted on NBC, and his 33-year run as my favorite late-night host began. To me, he was a hip version of Johnny Carson with a dash of Ernie Kovacs and Groucho Marx thrown in for good measure. He was clever, intelligent, genuine, and inventive with an amazing talent for generating delightfully humorous anarchy night after night.
One Thanksgiving eve on November 25th 1992 when Dave was still at NBC, Diane Smith and I had tickets to see the taping of “Late Night”. I remember that night Dave’s guests were Jim Belushi, Martha Stewart and the Jeff Healey Band. Diane loved Letterman, too, and during the warm-up before the show, when Dave came out to briefly mingle with the audience, I called him over to shake her hand. He seemed genuinely appreciative.
Then, about eight years ago, I started having a series of dreams with a recurring theme. In these dreams, I was always in the theater while Letterman’s shows were being taped and, afterwards, Dave and I would hang out together, just the two of us, watching television, eating pizza, or just talking. It was the strangest thing, until later when watching his show, I heard at least two of his famous guests admit to having had the same recurring dreams. While David Letterman is probably the last person who would want to “hang out” with even the most famous celebrities, to me, and obviously some others, there was something about him that made him feel like that friend with whom you could relax and just have a good time…like the friends many of us had in college.
In my lifetime, there have been many late night TV hosts…Steve Allen who I found unconventional but mostly just silly, Jack Paar who was extremely intelligent and wry, and Johnny Carson who was great but who had more of the Rat Pack generation of humor. Then, later, there was Jay Leno who, to me, never said or did a single funny thing in his life, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon who were too hyper for me, and Jimmy Kimmel who I’ve heard is pretty good but whom I haven’t seen. Just speaking for myself (and of course the hordes of top celebrities who have been paying tribute to him the last few months since he announced his retirement), David Letterman has said and done more to make me laugh, feel good, and agree with…than all of the others combined. His Top Ten list, Stupid Human and Stupid Pet tricks have become part of our media culture, and his freewheeling style, both inside and outside of the Ed Sullivan Theater, have forever changed the late-night television genre. Beyond that, he presented, respected and appreciated the finest musical performers of our time…whether famous or little known.
A word about Paul Shaffer and the band… Speaking as a musician, for my money…they’re the best. Sure, Paul often teetered on the line of being a bit obnoxious…but musically he and the band were brilliant. Maybe you have to be a musician with an unnatural grasp of even the most esoteric of songs over the past sixty years to fully appreciate what Shaffer has done…but for nearly 20,000 guests on over 6,000 shows, for the music to play as each guest walked on stage, Paul came up with a song that uniquely connected with each guest’s name or accomplishments. Sometimes the connection was obvious (as when the band played “Hanky Panky” as Tom Hanks walked out last night), sometimes it took some thinking before the wonderfully clever choice became apparent, but Paul’s vast grasp of musical knowledge and history was amazing. No matter that 98% of the audience didn’t get it…to this musician at least, each walk-on musical selection was a little gem that put another smile on my face.
Maybe it’s because I’m older that my sense of loss is more profound, having already lost so many who meant so much…but watching David Letterman’s last show tomorrow night will not be easy. How will it end? I don’t know, they haven’t announced who the last guests will be…but if it were up to me, Paul McCartney would show up to play one final song for Dave in the theater where The Beatles first played to millions of Americans on February 9, 1964…and the song would be “Hey Jude” with the lyrics changed to “Hey Dave”. But however the show ends, for the first time in 33 years…I won’t be smiling.