By the time this article is posted, David Letterman’s final Late Show broadcast will have already occurred, but as I write this, it’s still a couple of days off. There have been approximately one godzillion tributes to Letterman in the weeks leading up to his retirement, but I couldn’t let the event pass without offering a few words of my own.
I’m old enough that my first exposure to David Letterman wasn’t CBS’ Late Show or NBC’s Late Night, but his late ’70s stint as a semi-regular replacemet host on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I was such a fan that I was one of the few loyal viewers of his ill-advised gig as a morning show host in the summer of 1980.
Dave’s ironic detachment and self-aware mockery of television itself came to influence a generation of comedians and late night talk show hosts during his 11-year run on Late Night. He changed the tenor of witching hour TV with surreal comedy bits such as Chris Elliott’s appearances as a vaguely menacing guy living under the audience seats. Most people will bring up Dave’s Velcro suit or the Late Night Monkey Cam, but my favorites were theme episodes such as the annual “International Night” (with Kamarr, the “discount magician”) and the infamous “360 Degree Image Rotation” stunt in which the picture slowly spun over the course of the hour.
While I don’t believe that it influenced my decision to attend Ball State University, I certainly was delighted when I learned that Letterman had gone to school there. He and I even had one of the same broadcasting professors. During my junior year, Dave established a scholarship program and funded a radio studio with a plaque dedicating it to “all C students before and after me.”
As much as I would like to think that I picked up some residual Letterman mojo during my Ball State days, I have to say that his true influence on me was in demonstrating the fun of working in the medium of television, of getting on camera in front of thousands and doing something you can’t believe you’re getting away with. For good and ill, more than a few of my pledge drive moments have been informed by that “I’m the only thing on Channel 12 right now” attitude.
Happily, my wife and I had the opportunity to see Letterman’s Late Show in person a few years ago during a trip to New York. It was one of those “right place/right time” things. And while the Dave we saw was more settled-in than the one who staged elevator races or pitted a humidifier against a dehumidifier, I’m grateful to have witnessed a few minutes of Letterman’s late night legacy.