Me & Dave

[Facing leaving The Late Show] “I’m naked and afraid.  It’s so cliche, but I will share it with you anyway.  Any enormous uprooting change in my life has petrified me, really petrified me, but once I’ve come through the other side, the reward has been unimaginable.”
— David Letterman to Jane Pauley, CBS Sunday Morning, 16 May 2016.

I got drunk and roamed around downtown after David Letterman’s last show, embarrassing myself when I ran into an old lover.  It’s hard for me to believe that was 35 years ago.

Back then, I was a big fan of The David Letterman Show, aka “the morning show,” because I was a broadcasting geek, having already produced and hosted a daily half hour talk show on the local cable station.  I already had 10 years experience of creating television and revered all the same people that Dave and his staff did, the pioneers of television innovation from Ernie Kovacs to Jack Parr.

Dave continued to innovate television since then and this was the week he left again, retiring from The Late Show.  I found the departure moving and challenging.

Les Moonves, head of CBS, talked about how Letterman was unique in his experience, because he was a big television star who “didn’t like the limelight.”   While every talk show is “about the guy behind the desk,” as Peter Lasally reminds us, Dave was a guy who wanted it to be about the work.

Letterman loved performing, but he was never a ham.   He wanted more to be truthful than he wanted to be shiny.  His discomfort was often visible, which made him even more human and compelling, especially as he matured past wacky bits and into a raconteur and interviewer.

TV tends to love the bad good boy, the shiny glad handing guy who looks very nice on the surface, but reveals a bit of a wicked streak underneath. Wink, wink, nudge nudge!

Letterman found that construction a little too phony for him to work, so he was the good bad guy, cranky and prickly on the outside, but with a big heart and brain.   He was so tender and sweet that he needed to be defended, and we got that, especially women when we could make him blush.

Julia Roberts talked about having a crush on Dave before she had to appear to promote “Mystic Pizza” (1988).   She had seen him demolish other actresses with wit, so she decided to keep up with him.   She knew she couldn’t be as smart as he was, but she could keep up the tempo, dance with him, and that flirtatious TV relationship lasted nearly 30 years.

On her last appearance, Dave was really trying to understand why he was so sharp with actresses in those early years.  Julia understood.  “Stupid people annoy you.”  Jane Pauley gets it, noting that Dave wanted to push you out of your comfort zone, in a funny way and see how you respond.  If  all you have is habits, trained responses, that will show quickly.

That’s why Dave was the class of late night for so many decades.  “He could have dumbed his program down to get ratings,” Howard Stern said, “but instead he stood with integrity, which make him compelling and timeless.”   Dave didn’t need people to like him, to be number one.  He needed to make good American television.

I understand this approach.  I love performing, but I don’t love being a ham.  I never needed the spotlight, rather I loved doing the work.   I don’t know how to be sweet and shiny on the outside, glib, fun and one of the gang.

Dave has left the Ed Sullivan Theatre after an extraordinary run, having changed the world, given lots of laughter to millions, employment to a crew and getting some level of satisfaction for himself.

[Facing leaving The Late Show] “I’m naked and afraid.  It’s so cliche, but I will share it with you anyway.  Any enormous uprooting change in my life has petrified me, really petrified me, but once I’ve come through the other side, the reward has been unimaginable.”
— David Letterman to Jane Pauley, CBS Sunday Morning, 16 May 2016.

 Dave has built an entire support system to help him face the fear, break away and find the unimaginable.   Kudos to him on that.

But the lesson, that pushing through fear to find the rewards is crucial, is something that I, for one, can’t hear too often.  Dave did his best, full of self doubt, but found a significant audience that not only enjoyed his work, but also found it powerful, groundbreaking and worth tribute.

If you play it big enough, there were enough smart people out there to get the joke, or so Mr. Letterman proved.  Just show it and people will see the humanity.

Hmmm, wonder if there is anything I can learn from that?

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