Letterman Has Left The Building….in Disguise

Author: Bill Dudley

After 33 years, David Letterman has finally left the building, in disguise. “CBS This Morning” reports a decoy limo was placed behind the Ed Sullivan Theater last night where Letterman normally exits. After his final show however, Dave snuck out thru neighboring Angelo’s Pizza wearing a white jacket, and walked up Broadway amongst the people he so often made accidental television stars over the past 3 decades.

From the early 1950’s thru the early 1980’s, late night talk shows were slick, perfectly executed, and  hosted by some of the true greats of television history including Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, and the king of all, Johnny Carson. Actors, directors and authors appeared to plug their latest efforts.

After the failure of a very short lived morning show (19 weeks), Letterman was given the time slot directly following Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Johnny was a big Letterman fan, but gave him guidelines so that he wouldn’t be doing the exact same show.

Dave was told he must do the following: (1) Have a much shorter monologue, (2) Not have a big band, like the Tonight Show Orchestra, (3) No co-host, and (4) No lingering guests. When each interview was concluded, the guest exited, unlike “The Tonight Show.”  These barriers actually made “Late Night With David Letterman” a much different show, and was the catalyst for The Top Ten List, Stupid Pet Tricks, Stupid Human Tricks, along with Dave’s zany and sometimes absurd usage of average people helping create his outside comedy bits on the streets of New York City.

Along with many members of his own staff, unlikely personalities such as Larry “Bud” Melman, and  Rupert from the neighboring Hello Deli became Letterman’s co-stars. These people really had no business being on national tv, but that’s why it worked. The Letterman brand was very unique, and very funny.Original head writer Merrill Markoe helped Dave create all of these elements, the roots of which were a homage to the long forgotten Steve Allen, and early tv genius Ernie Kovacs.

Ten years later when Carson retired in 1992 after a 30 year run, his hand picked successor was to be David Letterman.  NBC had other ideas, and hired Letterman’s former pal, and frequent guest, Jay Leno to be the new host of “The Tonight Show.”  Letterman was crushed, and leaped at the chance to jump to CBS to take on Leno head-on. The not so friendly late night war was on for over 20 years. When Leno was asked to retire (a second time) from “The Tonight Show” last year, only Letterman was left to represent the baby boomer generation. Though their feud was supposedly settled a few years back, Letterman never appeared on any of Leno’s final shows, and Leno didn’t appear on any of Letterman’s.

Although I have been a huge fan of the self deprecating and sarcastic wit of Dave for all of his 33 years on television, I had no idea of how big a deal this was when he announced his retirement. It didn’t really hit me until the last 2 months when the giants of the entertainment business, one by one, came to pay their respects and love for Dave, a man whom I always assumed didn’t care about anything.

Stevie Wonder, Kelsey Grammer, Mike Myers, Bruce Willis, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey, Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Michael Keaton, Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Julia-Louis Dreyfuss, Jim Carrey, and Alec Baldwin, all took part recently, and most were also on hand for the final show last night. Archive film of former President Gerald R. Ford announcing “Our long national nightmare is over” kicked off the show, with former Presidents George Bush (the elder), Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all echoing Gerald Ford’s words, as did current President Barack Obama.  Everyone seemed to be having a great time, except perhaps Dave’s 11 year old son Harry, who brought his mom (Regina), and his best friend for protection. I’m hoping Harry will one day look thru all the bewilderment of the final show, and realize what a unique and special dad he really has. What other show could have presented both Liberace and Bob Dylan in the same episode (March 1984)?

After 33 years, and 6,028 shows, I must say Letterman was truly an original. He was always entertaining, while looking embarrassed to be there. Dave never faked anything. You could always tell if he didn’t like a guest, or thought they were tanking. Julia Roberts noticed this too, which is why she was afraid to come on back in 1989 to promote her first hit film Licorice Pizza.  It turned out she had such good chemistry with Dave she appeared a total of 26 times.

Timing never being my strong point.  I flew back to New York to see “The Late Show” a few years back and arrived the day AFTER Paul Mc Cartney appeared on the show. It was Paul’s first appearance at The Ed Sullivan Theater, since he was a Beatle back in 1964.  Speaking of music, Letterman owes a lot to his pal Paul Shaffer, and his excellent R&B band, who played all the right songs, at the right times for the full 33 years.

Retirement will not only be a hard adjustment for Letterman, it will also be a hard one for his fans. Dave was a part of my life for so long, I can’t remember the world without him. Late night competitor Jimmy Kimmel worships Letterman, and actually aired a re-run last night so his fans could watch Letterman’s final show. Conan O’Brien encouraged his fans to tape his own show, and watch Dave’s live. Current “Tonight Show” host, Jimmy Fallon also paid tribute. Frequent Letterman guest Rachel Maddow said it best: “Dave’s influence is so ubiquitous, I can’t imagine life without it.”

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