I’m not a famous person.
There’s no one asking me my thoughts on the leaving of television by game changing late night talk show host David Letterman. As the cavalcade of A-listers have paraded through and paid homage to Letterman on these his final shows, I’ve been fine to sit watching it all on my couch.
But I, like I suspect many of you, have also been influenced by David Letterman. Sure, I’ll never tell Esquire magazine that; no one will ever “pick my brain” to find out from where my sense of humor comes. But in my lifetime there are a very few selection of people or entertainers who I feel shaped me, and at the very top of this list sits David Letterman. He may not have shaped me as some sort of professional comedian, but as a human being I largely credit Letterman for having one of the largest singular influences on my sense of humor — and I’m sure I’m not the only one among us.
So lost in the hoopla of famous faces begging Letterman to stay and top-level reporters clamoring to get a few words from him on his departure — during tonight’s show — is the average midwesterner like me who learned what funny meant by watching Letterman almost my entire life. It began in sixth grade, when I’d stay awake and sneak out of my bedroom and down the hall to turn on our giant Zenith TV in the darkened family room and lay on my stomach, my face and ear inches away from the speaker as not to awaken anyone.
My parents had loved Johnny Carson and while I understood that, David Letterman was different. Letterman would deliver the absurd with a straight face; he’d deliver terrible jokes with the knowing glint that he knew the joke was not the joke. The joke became the delivery with David Letterman. He conversed with people in a friendly yet slightly unforgiving way. He didn’t suffer fools gladly but celebrated fools who knew they were fools. Letterman’s distinct style, as Esquire Magazine would call it in 1990, was “the new sincerity.” It embraced the idiosyncratic but also promoted a healthy skepticism. And it was all so gloriously insane. Suits made of alka-seltzer. Paint cans thrown out a 44th-floor window onto the street below. Paul Newman shouting complaints at the hose from his audience.
I watched NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman like a sponge; I soaked up the jokes, the beats, the cadence. It seemed like so much of it would be too silly to be on network television, yet there it was, every night — like a class being taught by a professor.
It’s hard for me — and probably many of us — to remember a period of my life when the comfort food, the security blanket of David Letterman wasn’t around. It was something that would just be there forever. His cantankerousness was strangely fond; as he grew older he began to become not just a drinking buddy but a mouthpiece, unafraid to call out the bullshit of politicians or look down his nose at flash-in-the-pan celebrity debutantes. His comic rebelliousness became bolder and wiser. He’d befriended us all those years ago, and he seemed to have come to feel a certain responsibility for us. This was never more evident than his monologue after the horrific events of 9/11, when he broke the “comedy silence” to address the events and let us know we were all going to get through it.
Letterman’s 9/11 monologue wasn’t just a clarion call for comedy, it was an arm around the shoulder of all of us. Our heads were spinning with government speak and terrifying images of wreckage. We needed someone we trusted to let us know everything was going to be okay. So many comedy outlets now have, on their montage reels, the moment they “came back” from 9/11, but it’s important to remember that Letterman was the first. The show, which had always been so wrapped in the identity of a ravaged New York City, would go on.
We aged with Letterman; as we grew, married and had children of our own he would face his own dangerous and mortality-proving open-heart surgery. He was attacked by blackmailers who threatened to expose his “secrets,” which he combated expertly by taking to his own show to admit those secrets and remove all power from his detractors. He interviewed heads of state, political candidates and sitting presidents with the acumen of an interested citizen and the goofiness we expected. He devoted an entire hour to Warren Zevon, who was dying of an inoperable cancer and advised us all to “enjoy every sandwich” — he would be dead within the year. While you’d be demolished by saying so to persons of a certain age and era, while I fully appreciate Carson’s trailblazing and legacy many of us didn’t actually grow up watching Carson. To us, Letterman was our Carson. So tonight we’ll watch Dave Letterman say goodbye with the same touched hearts with which we watched our own parents watch Johnny Carson’s final episode. And, like Carson, I think we all know that it’s a true goodbye — just as Carson before him, Letterman’s notorious reclusiveness means that he won’t be handing out Emmy awards or making a cameo as a screwball professor on The Big Bang Theory. I think we all secretly know that he’ll disappear from our lives, and that makes everything all that more saddening.
I am not a famous person. I am, however, a person whose personality, sense of humor and perspective was forever changed through the presence of David Letterman over the past thirty-three years, and to know that will be going away is difficult. But things go on, and lives go on, and having had it, in the end, is wonderful enough. It will have to be, because there will never be another David Letterman.