You may have heard, tonight the maverick who changed the landscape of late night television will slide away from the desk for the final time. David Letterman didn’t merely open the door for all who followed, he took a Howitzer and obliterated it.
Dave’s influence on comedians, satirists, television, the zeitgeist, and certainly my own irascible observations on the inanity of life really cannot be measured.
David Letterman is a genius. He categorically invented the late night talk show as we know it. Dave took the talk show conventions perfected by the masters Steve Allen and Johnny Carson and turned them inside and out, upside down and backwards.
Dave’s first late night show hit the scene like a broadcast tsunami. It was cool. I was in college then and Dave’s show embodied the kind of cool we’d been waiting for. It wasn’t my dad’s show. That was Johnny. Finally a daft guy with no patience for showbiz vapidity. Dave was authentic and he abhorred few things as much as the self-aggrandizing perpetrated by insipid Hollywood phonies.
As a college kid, I found myself transfixed. There was nothing like Dave’s show. At parties, there amongst the kegs, the smell of weed and angst, was a television tuned to NBC. Always. If I couldn’t land a girl, I always had Dave. Nine times out of ten, he was more satisfying anyway. Dave was appointment viewing to be sure. Late Night was a revolutionary, subversive, tour de force of comic brilliance– the first show to articulate the voice of my generation, tired of the pomposity and bullshit.
When I first began pursuing a career in television in the early 90′s, my father arranged for me to meet with a broadcast consultant, who he thought might be able to help. The first question the guy asked was, “What is your goal? What do you want to achieve in television?” My answer, without hesitation, “I want a show like David Letterman’s.” At the time I had an offer to be a news reporter with a local television station, and the consultant said something that haunts me to this day… “If you want a show like David Letterman one day, you need to take the career steps that will lead you there, and you must ask yourself, is taking a job as a local television reporter going to get you to a show like Letterman’s?” Of course, the answer is an unequivocal “no.” But at the time I had a wife and a young daughter, I simply couldn’t toss those responsibilities aside for a vision quest.
But once Letterman’s brilliance seeps into your subconscious, there’s no escaping its influence. My style as a reporter never was Edward R. Murrow, it was always David Letterman. I never fit in. My snarky quips, interviews tinged with mockery, wisecrack rebuttals when anchors would utter an asinine tag, the aversion that would creep across my face when articulating a vacuous story– all Dave. I constantly fought the conventions of the business, just like him, but with decidedly less success.
For a while, I was a weatherman, just like Dave once was. While my contemporaries would begin their forecasts with viewer pictures of sunsets, I would use things like a music video of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Couldn’t Stand the Weather.” Once during the Gulf War, I took a weather radar shot showing clear skies over Baghdad and noted on-air, how we had perfect weather for bombing. A viewer once asked where lightning came from… my response? “From God.”
I anchored a Sunday night sports show, and while the other “serious” sports guys would bring professional athletes to the studio as guests, I had professional wrestlers, NBA dancers, and girl groups. My ratings always surpassed theirs.
Thank you, Dave.
When I turned my attention toward television production, like Dave, I never accepted the rote way things had been done before. I tried to push the bar higher, always endeavored to find the less conventional way to do things, pushed to find the edge, and then once I found it, pushed harder. Dave repelled against his own network, filled with micromanaging, meddling executives, and so did I. The Emmys that adorn my mantle stand as a testament to him.
Then when I added social commentator and satirist to my arsenal of pursuits, I unashamedly emulated Dave in every way. My Twitter feed is often a pinprick to the over-inflated pomposity of celebrity. It reflects the snarky mindset that set Dave apart. In fact, all my social media accounts are immersed in that cynicism. My mother once called me and said, “David, I cannot believe I raised a son who would make fun of Oprah in such a negative way.” I took a breath and sincerely articulated the cold, hard truth… “Mom, I’m simply making jokes about celebrity the way David Letterman would.” (Note: I had to “un-friend” Mom on Facebook.)
Dave’s real beauty lays in his authenticity. He is who he is. You may love him, you may hate him, and ya know what? He’s OK with that. There’s virtue and freedom that comes from being real, and if bursting sated egos and overbearing ridiculousness comes with a cost, so be it. Every time I’ve appeared on an HLN show, I’ve tried to emulate Dave’s authenticity and fearlessness– to inch that knife into the process and hope the viewer not only gets the joke but the underlining context of the message. Dave taught me that.
At the end of the day, every television success I’ve ever had or ever will have I owe to David Letterman.
Thank you Dave.