Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Goodbye, Unca Dave

Just like "Saturday Night Live," I first started watching David Letterman because of my Uncle John.  "You need to watch this guy," John told me a shockingly long time ago, "he has people on his show, and then he makes fun of them.  He's really, really mean!"

Unlike the first time I watched "SNL" on my own, I have no idea when I first watched "Late Night with David Letterman," or who the first guest was.  But once NBC took "Friday Night Videos" out of Dave's slot,* I was able to see his show beyond just the summertime, and took pleasure in watching him mock himself and the show he did in a way that really, really attracted me.

Dave was awkward, he always seemed a little ill-at-ease in front of the famous and the beautiful, and he really let the audience know when a joke didn't work or he blew a punchline.  Dave was approachable, he seemed like a regular guy, he made fun of everybody, but mostly, he made fun of himself.  As I said in my recent essay "Comedy Is Hard," David Letterman is one of my heroes, one of the men I most aspire to be like when I'm doing my show(s), and someone I will miss now that he's gone.

For some stretch in the Eighties, he started to refer to himself as "your Unca Dave," and I've called him that ever since.  That's kind of creepy, really, since I really do have an Uncle David, but it's Letterman I think of when I hear those words.  I don't know if that says something about my own uncle, or just that shows that I have mental issues.

I watched the show on weekends, and all through the summers, but 1989 is the year I always associate with Dave, for some reason.  It was the Year of the Batman to us kids, and I stayed up every night to watch Letterman and I'd actually try to write down the Top Ten lists as Dave was reading them.

Before Jeff and I watch "Agents of SHIELD" each week, we have to suffer through a show that rips off one of Dave's old gags, where there's a hidden camera and a dude who approaches strangers and does whatever the host tells them to do.  It sounds stupid when I say it now, or when I see it on ABC in 2015, but it was hilarious twenty years ago when Dave would do it.

"Late Night" was a hallmark of my teenage-hood, and though I watched the show from time to time when it went to CBS (and became "The Late Show"), that show was more expensive, more polished, and more old person respectable, and it never grabbed me quite the same way.  I'd still tune in, from time to time, but it was an almost-religious tradition for me a quarter of a century ago, and that's the Dave I remember most fondly.

Well, "The Late Show" is ending this week, and though I would have liked to start up the tradition again and watched every one of his final shows (as I did with Johnny Carson back in 1992), I'm just too busy or undisciplined or loaded with projects that I ought to work on instead, so it wasn't until tonight that I turned on his show again.

Dave's guests were Oprah Winfrey and Norm MacDonald, and it was the same old Dave, making the same old joke about his terrible "hairpiece" that he made when I was beard-free and about a hundred pounds lighter.  I was enjoying the show, but then, at the end, Norm MacDonald actually got choked up, talking about first seeing Dave at age thirteen (doing stand-up) and what an impression that made on him, wanting to be a stand-up comedian, and cried at the end after telling Dave he loved him.  I too began to cry, and decided I ought to come in here and write a little something about the show.

In 1996, I got this picture taken.  I was too young and/or dumb to realize that if I stood in FRONT of the cardboard cutout of Dave, it might look like we were the same size, but hey, I was young and I was dumb, and I'm still one of those things.

So, since I typed this post, Dave's final show has aired.  It was jam-packed with tributes and clips, and there was never the quiet moment for reflection and tears I sort of expected.  Dave spent most of the show thanking people, including the staff, the band, and even the audience.  Not one for the maudlin, I suppose, the last shot of the night he actually had his back to the camera.

I wish I had been more of a dedicated viewer over the past ten years.  I've sadly only caught the show a handful of times since moving away from Los Angeles (which, in the grand scheme of things, has started to be a less and less significant chunk of my life), but I sure watched a lot of it this week.  YouTube may be a repository for the worthless, banal, wasteful, and unprofessional, but it's a heck of a place to find old clips and, amazingly, entire episodes of the NBC show.  Seeing tons of that stuff, both familiar and new to me, made me feel closer to Dave Letterman, and a bit of a more loyal fan.

Like his own hero, Johnny Carson, my guess is that Dave will disappear completely now from the limelight, enabling us to remember him as he was, young and goofy, or middle-aged and crotchety, or getting old but still vibrant.  It will be easy for me to remember him when he was at his best, because that's how I already remember him.  The man made me laugh, made me think, inspired me, and again, made me laugh.  I love you, Unca Dave.  You will be missed.

Rish Outfield

Okay, one more thing: for some weird reason, my favorite sketch on "Late Night" was a little bit where they showed what Dave and Paul (Shaffer) did after a typical episode.  They walk down the hall of 30 Rock, when they see an Amish man struggling with a handcart with a broken wheel.  Dave and Paul fix the wheel, sending the man on his way, but then realize that the son of a bitch took their wallets.  They run after, and shoot the Amish man, Eighties TV cop style.  If I can find that sketch on YouTube, I'll embed it here.

Whoa, it was there (from the end of a "Late Night" anniversary show).  Love the internet.

*According to the internet, this was in 1987.

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