By Edward Copeland
The moment when I knew Late Night with David Letterman wasn't like other talk shows might have been the first time Dave did one of his smallest touches and flung either a blue index card or a pencil through the mock window behind his desk and we heard the sound of breaking glass. Before we begin reminiscing about that magical night 30 years ago when a gap-toothed former weatherman from Indianapolis changed the face of late night television. (If he'd stayed a local TV weatherman, perhaps across the country, more hail would be described on TV as "the size of canned hams.") To commemorate the debut of this standup comic's breakthrough off-the-wall, wacky talk show that took NBC's airwaves hostage following the end of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, I feel that it's only appropriate that we recognize this anniversary with the proper reverence. You might have already played the YouTube clip above, but that's OK. Play the official anthem of Late Night With David Letterman again, only sing along this time, using the lyrics I've provided below. I'd have an animated bouncing ball if I were capable of creating one that was timed with the music but, alas, that falls beyond my capabilities. After you've paid due homage by singing the Late Night anthem, rejoin me after the jump so we can talk in more detail about Dave's impact on the talk show format, the culture and many impressionable viewers of a certain age. If you don't believe me, you should poll them — and we all know how painful that can be.
You can feel it across the land.
It's clear blue skies,
It's grandma's eyes,
A place where you can stand.
Late Night is the reason
Our forefathers fought with pride.
It's surfin' fun,
it's dad and son,
A feelin' that's deep inside.
It's a Late Night world,
It's a world that we can share.
So turn on your TV
And watch it with me.
It's a Late Night world of love.
There's a whole new generation
who are willing to say yes.
Soups and stews,
A wall of shoes,
A thing called happiness.
So change the channel,
Change your life,
Doesn't cost a thing.
We're talking loud,
now join us as we sing
(REPEAT CHORUS TWICE)
I wanted to make this tribute more thorough, but unfortunately I was hit with a long Internet outage last evening that made finishing this piece a bit of a rush job. In a way, that's more appropriate. Late Night With David Letterman always resembled a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants operation, that the tribute follow suit just seems right.
Letterman and I are both Aries born in Indianapolis, Ind. I lived there when he was a weatherman, but I was too young to remember him in that role though my parents do. When Letterman were merely a standup comic, I didn't care for his comedy much, so I don't know when or why I started tuning in to Late Night, which premiered in the second half of my seventh-grade year of school. I never saw an installment of his short-lived morning show. I do, however, remember what changed my opinion on him. Letterman had an HBO special, but not a standup special of the type comedians usually had, called Looking for Fun. Its premise had Dave trolling around Los Angeles trying to find fun things to do and displayed the type of absurd humor that would be perfected on Late Night. I couldn't remember the year of the special — my memory spoke to me and said I watched it in the house we lived in through my sixth-grade year, so I was guessing 1980 or 1981. I checked the "not as reliable as you wish it was" Internet Movie Database and it doesn't even list such a special in Letterman's credits. I did a Google search and found a comic's Web site making the same complaint about IMDb and dating it as 1981. He actually at one point had the special on the site in three video clips until Time Warner asserted its rights and forced him to remove it, so there's a lost gem of Letterman comedy out there somewhere. During my junior high years, I turned Late Night on and got hooked. It was a relationship that lasted through high school and college and even a little bit beyond. Somehow it lost part of that go-for-broke edge it had when it was on at a later hour on NBC when it went on earlier on the Tiffany Network. I'm sure people younger than I am probably feel toward Conan the way my age group did toward Dave. I don't know if there's a new generation that's embraced Fallon or Kimmel. One thing is clear across all age groups: Nobody likes Leno.
The montage the folks at Late Night put together to accompany "The Late Night Anthem" (official title) contains so many moments dear to my heart and the hearts of many friends I know who recall seeing those moments live or remember the individuals, some who have shuffle off this mortal coil. Now, it includes plentiful shots of Late Night regulars such as band leader Paul Schaffer, utility player Chris Elliott and "Where'd-they-dig-up=that-guy?" guy Larry "Bud" Melman. (In fact, Chris and Larry "Bud" played such integral roles in what made this talk show unique, I've written separate posts on each on them. Follow the links on their names.) Elsewhere in the video, we see the great Bill Murray, who was Dave's very first guest on the inaugural show. Sandra Bernhard makes an appearance — her appearances always proved entertaining just by how uncomfortable she could make Dave. Who can forget Stupid Human Tricks or Stupid Pet Tricks? My college roommate and I cracked up for months over that monkey in a dress's expression after she paws at Letterman and then looks shocked. The other band members would get a moment in the sun, such as drummer Anton Zipp or was that Figg? I didn't see the nutty Crispin Glover appearance the night it happened, but I saw the clip plenty of times later — and this took place before YouTube or the Web. After all that fake gunplay, we see the great Penn and Teller. There's Pee-wee Herman taking Dave for a ride in a fake car that in retrospect looks quite similar to when Conan O'Brien drives around in his desk. Comic Jeff Altman gets an appearance (which seems strange in retrospect) followed by the band's guitarist Will Lee and then the great longtime movie star Van Johnson, who just left us in 2008 at the age of 92. Underground comic writer Harvey Pekar (who left us in 2010 and was the subject of the movie American Splendor) made the most of every appearance, usually making NBC's corporate owners extremely uneasy. Then it's a medley of wacky comics: Gilbert Gottfried, Bobcat Goldthwait and the one-of-a-kind stand-up philosopher Brother Theodore, who most of us never would have heard of in the first place if it hadn't been for Late Night With David Letterman. Ironically, it ends with a parting word from guest Jay Leno. How could they know how that would end? What surprised me at the time was the glaring omission from the "Late Night Anthem" montage, Where in the world was Teri Garr? She was one of Letterman's most frequent guests on his NBC shows and the two had such comic chemistry that no one could stop the rumors that the two were secretly married. Hell, Teri even took a shower on the show once. I can't remember the premise, but for some reason they had to do the show out of Dave's office. As a bonus, the clip below includes Dave's Dancing Waters.
The incredible magic of Late Night With David Letterman can be found in how its appeal cut across the usual clique and class divides of your typical suburban high school. In my sophomore year, Late Night had achieved such a level of popularity that the student planners of the school talent show lifted the talk show as the framing device for that year's talent show with a student pretending to be Letterman introducing the acts. I'm not ashamed to say that their material was quite lame and the only two jokes that got riotous laughter were written by yours truly: one being a Top 10 list, the other concerning who paid for promotional considerations that referenced a mini-scandal after a school dance. I'd share them but they were so site and date specific that if you didn't attend that school 27 years ago, the humor would be lost. Weren't we lucky that NBC didn't hear we were stealing their "intellectual property?" This was before General Electric purchased NBC. Boy, they welcomed Dave, didn't they?
In addition to all the memorable guests such as Cher who doesn't mince words as to why she avoided his show. Later, when she and Sonny reunited. The countless appearances of Tony Randall. The features: Supermarket Finds, Viewer Mail, Small Town News, Dropping Stuff Off a 5-Story Tower, Crushing Things With Steamrollers or 80-Ton Hydraulic Presses. Thrill-Cams. Monkey Cams. The NBC Bookmobile. Inventing a catchphrase ("They pelted us with rocks and garbage.") One clip I wish I could have found was a bit they used to do about editing mistakes, talking about the rare times they had to edit the show before it aired. They showed a segment where a guest was keeled over in his chair with an arrow in his back and Letter was pointing at the audience and yelling, "You. Yes, you. You know damn well what I'm talking about." Then there were the suits.
I was so tempted to run every clip YouTube had of Brother Theodore just so those unfamiliar with him could see his act. He had to be seen to be believed, but I narrowed it down to one.
They did plenty of special shows: A mock Christmas special that gave Dave a family, the 360 degree rotation show, the reverse image show, the rerun shows, but perhaps my favorite were the Custom-Made Shows and I thought I would end with a clip from one of those because when Jane Pauley finally gets coaxed into speaking, I think she sums up the feelings of Late Night with David Letterman fans everywhere about the show they loved.
Please remember: This tribute has only been an exhibition. It's not a competition. Please. No wagering.