My mother bought our first VCR in 1985, later than most. Some would think she was behind the times, but I prefer to call her business-savvy, waiting out the entire Betamax vs. VHS battle.
What was just as important as the machine was the free gift — blank video tapes, perfect for recording live television. They were Polaroid, shrink-wrapped in units of three and capable of holding up to 18 hours of sitcoms, movies, news shows and sporting events.
But that day, the day of the great Duke VCR purchase, was devoted to recording a singular event: David Letterman.
More specifically, it was the “Late Night With David Letterman 3-Year Anniversary Special,” and it came on at 11:30 p.m. on a Thursday night. How something so aligned with my soul could be on so late at night — on a school night no less — was inconceivable to me. I had watched Dave’s show whenever I could, during the summer, during Christmas break, but asking a 13-year-old to stay up until 12:30 a.m. and still be bushy-tailed for a reading of Orwell’s “Animal Farm” the next morning was a tall order indeed.
Dave was in my wheelhouse the way that Johnny Carson was not. Carson was most definitely the master, but he already had gray hair and a bygone sensibility when I was old enough to care about adults talking to each other on television.
Dave was different. Dave was snarky. Dave was smart. Dave was different. That particular anniversary show was highlighted by a live airing of the “Late Night” baby. Bob Costas and Vince McMahon were stationed at two hospitals in New York City, each waiting on the first child to be born during the broadcast. It was an idea that didn’t have a simple result. There was the possibility that it could have been a bust, but in Dave’s world that would have been okay too. (In the end, McMahon hailed the new infant, who would be 29 today)
That’s the kind of thing that was not aired in prime time. It was almost like a testing ground for what would be funny in some sort of future world. As talented as current “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon is, it seems like the biggest hits on his show are planned out and fail-safe. There is never that fear of the bottom falling out. The brilliance of Dave’s show, first at NBC and then at CBS, battling Jay Leno, was that such confidence was given to the host that it didn’t matter if a bit succeeded or failed because Dave would be there to make it funny.
Need to waste five minutes of air time? Let’s go drop things off of a five-story building. Need a segue to the next commercial break? Toss Chris Elliott underneath the stairs and have him pop up to berate the host. Did it make sense? Not usually, but part of the fun was the possibility of something going wrong. Either way, Dave would make it funny.
In the early days, his show didn’t compete with anyone, so his guest list was populated with celebrities but also with interesting knuckleheads like the Amazing Kreskin or Brother Theodore. When he found someone that he had a rapport with, like Tony Randall, Terri Garr or Amy Sedaris, they would become a fixture on his show.
Unlike his contemporaries, or for that matter any current entertainment talk show host, Letterman perfected the art of the interview. While everyone else would gush over their guests, Letterman poked and prodded and sometimes demanded awkward television. He has been called swear words by Shirley MacLaine and Cher, he was flashed by Drew Barrymore, and he turned down a date by a young Julia Roberts, not realizing it was sincere. But those are the moments of spontaneity that are missing from other shows.
It was also those moments of honesty that made his show must-see viewing. The week following 9/11? We watched Dave. His return from heart surgery? We watched Dave. His table-turning confession about an extra-marital affair? We watched Dave.
Letterman announced last week that he would be retiring after 33 years on the air. He did it in perfect Letterman-esque fashion, shocking the audience and his longtime bandleader and comedic sidekick Paul Shaffer in the process. It was messy and unrehearsed and essential television. It was the type of TV we had always tuned to Letterman for, and it looks like we’ll get one more year of it.
I agree with everyone else that he has been coasting for the past few years. He seemed to realize it too, and he was able to leave on his own terms, something that didn’t happen to his rival, Leno, on two separate occasions.
The landscape is different now, still entertaining but never dangerous. Letterman’s replacement, Stephen Colbert, is certainly worthy of carrying the torch, but no matter what else happens, there may not be a need to fire up the VCR again.
(Ricky Duke is the editor of the Log Cabin Democrat. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org)