When we were young (Well, maybe younger): Yes, that's me (right) 35 years ago on The David Letterman Show.
The Late Show With David Letterman
Final broadcast: Wednesday, May 20, 10:35 p.m. MST, CBS-TV, cbs.com.shows/late_show
It was June 26, 1980, and a nasty blanket of mugginess draped New York City. I remember almost everything about that day, including how by noon, I had embarrassed myself in front of a live, nationally televised audience. To borrow from Bob Dylan: "I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now."
Some friends and I were standing outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza in midtown Manhattan 35 years ago, when a production assistant from NBC approached us, asking if we would participate in a survey. We said sure, and after some silly Q&A, the network employee turned to me and said, "You should be on the show today."
"The David Letterman Show," she said, which was about to air live on NBC.
In the early '80s, Letterman was still cutting his gap-filled teeth on comedy, and some network clowns thought it might be clever to tuck the comic's biting satire among daytime TV soap operas and game shows. The Letterman Show was a critical success, even winning an Emmy Award, but it was canceled in less than 12 months. A couple of years later, Johnny Carson hired Letterman to host a late-night slot, following The Tonight Show, and the rest is history.
The 1980 Letterman was pretty much the man you see today, with his particular comic disdain for convention and showbiz phoniness. His early show had some bits he repeated in all of his programs: small-town news, stupid pet tricks and dragging an odd collection of backstage staff in front the cameras, much to their fear and viewers' delight. As for my June 1980 appearance on Letterman's show, I was rooked into participating in a skit about some bad advice from Dear Abby's lesser-known sister, played by comic actress Edie McClurg (among her hundreds of roles, she played the school secretary in Ferris Bueller's Day Off). Suffice to say, I was wickedly nervous and the only thing preventing an enormous rack of studio lights from setting me on fire was my record-setting sweating had completely soaked my clothes. But I got to go backstage and meet Dave, his guests and the show's staff and when it was over, my friends and I had a good laugh.
Coincidentally, one of my friend's relatives owned a VCR, a new invention at the time, so I do have a video tape of my time with Dave, but it rarely sees the light of day.
Through the decades, I've attended more than two dozen tapings of Letterman in its different incarnations: NBC's Late Night with David Letterman, which ran from 1982-1993, and CBS's The Late Show with David Letterman, which will end its 22-year run on May 20. Tickets to the broadcasts were always free but difficult to secure, because Letterman was always the best show in town. Letterman's house band has always been phenomenal and while television audiences only hear a few seconds of the band's music before and after commercial breaks, studio audience were always treated to full performances from the best musicians around. When legends like Springsteen, Miles Davis or James Brown took the stage, it was magical, and I have splendid memories of being there for those broadcasts.
Then there's Dave Letterman. The self-effacing man who is visibly uncomfortable with the idea of people paying attention to him is always the smartest guy in the room. He chastised political wannabes, called Rush Limbaugh "a bag of hot gas" to his face, and elevated the uncommon valor of men and women in uniform who had performed what they simply saw as common service to their country. We will never see the likes of Letterman again.
When Johnny Carson, appropriately called the King of Late Night, retired from The Tonight Show in 1992, he left an empty throne. Letterman steered clear of that vacated seat, in deference to the man who Letterman said was singularly responsible for his career. For me, and presumably millions of others, Letterman's absence from late night will be an even greater loss. Carved of a uniquely mid-American comedy ethic that gave us Bob and Ray, Carson and Will Rogers, Letterman had an exquisite understanding of life's tragic sense, which he routinely redressed as a silly celebration of the familiar: dogs, kids, love, music and the absurdity of what is popular.
Unfortunately, Letterman is leaving behind a late night landscape of sameness. Look at the two Jimmys, the James and the Seth (Fallon, Kimmel, Corden and Meyers, respectively) and you'll swear you've stumbled onto fraternity row. It's increasingly difficult to distinguish one from the other. Quesion: Which one re-enacts music videos? Answer: All of them. Just last month, Andres du Bouchet, a comedy writer for Conan O'Brien bit the show business hand that fed him by denouncing what he called "Prom King Comedy." His Twitter posts were later deleted, but the label stuck. I'm just old enough to tell myself it's time for me to say goodbye to late night. It's time.
I'll miss Dave terribly. For me, New York City, television and comedy—even at my own expense—will never be the same.