This story first appeared in the Movies and Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
I don’t even remember exactly when this happened — sometime around 1977, I reckon, though the exact year is lost in the mists. Early in my writing career, I’d gone to a comedy club near my home in Orange County, California to see a comedian friend named Gary Mule Deer, a prop comic whose bio I’d written for his PR company.
The club was nondescript, with three acts on the bill. Gary was the headliner, preceded by Soviet defector Yakov Smirnoff, who said from the stage that it was his first American gig ever. But the first comic to take the stage that night was a former weatherman from Indiana named David Letterman. My wife-to-be and I saw him do 15 minutes or so on a tiny stage that night, and we knew it immediately: This guy was going to change the face of comedy.
OK, that’s a lie. We did see David Letterman at the beginning of his comedy career, almost 40 years ago, but there were few signs that this guy was going to become DAVID LETTERMAN. As I recall, Letterman was good that night, but I couldn’t tell you any of his jokes, or his topics.
We were entertained, for sure, but that was it. The rest came later.
The rest began with the morning talk show that Letterman began hosting in 1980. The guy had no business doing a morning talk show, which was the whole point and why he was so glorious at it: absurdist humor, stupid pet tricks and a guy who wasn’t really interested in his guests at 10 a.m. What the hell was that?
Great TV, that’s what it was. I watched the show most mornings and wondered how he stayed on the air. The inevitable happened after four months, when the show was canceled.
But What the hell was that? turned into How great is that? when it moved from morning to late night, as we all learned in 1982, when NBC put Dave where he belonged. I’ll leave it to others to analyze the many ways in which he changed the face of late night, how he made absurdity and self-consciousness and irony a bigger part of every subsequent host’s toolkit. Who among the hosts now doing the job could have come up in a Dave-free world? None of ‘em, that’s who.
Over the years, I suppose, it got easy to take Dave for granted. Back when it was Letterman v. Leno, I’d never watch Jay instead of Dave. But in the new late-night landscape I’ve certainly turned to Kimmel regularly, and checked in on whatever viral silliness Fallon was doing.
Maybe Dave took the gig for granted, too. (Thirty-three years in the same job will do that to a guy.) But he still had something nobody else had. When the chips were down and the stakes were high, in the aftermath of 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy, or when he came back from his bypass surgery, or when Warren Zevon wanted to do one more television show before he died, when there was something that needed to be dealt with on the unique forum that is late night, Dave was the one you and I and Zevon would turn to. And Dave would rise to the occasion and find exactly the right tone. Always. (Even when he was admitting his own adultery.)
He had another chance to rise to the occasion on May 20, when his show came to an end. Letterman being Letterman, his was not a teary farewell, but a self-deprecating one, with the host turning the jokes on himself and acting like a guy who just happened to be surrounded by talented folks for 33 years. It was anything but a victory lap, but of course it was just right.
You know who else has taken Dave for granted? Emmy voters. He won a bunch of Emmys back in the ’80s and ’90s, but nothing since 2001. And that feels wrong. The Television Academy is known for bestowing golden parting gifts on the final seasons of shows like “Breaking Bad,” and there are far worse things they could do than salute a man who changed television. Sure, it’d be a sentimental sendoff for the least sentimental guy in late night, and it would make Dave uncomfortable and he might not even show up.
But so what? As I’ve been saying since 1977, this guy is gold.