Thursday, February 02, 2012

Saluting A 30-Year Letterman in Late Night Entertainment

On February 1, 1982, Late Night With David Letterman debuted on NBC. It was on at 11:30pm in Chicago, and being just 13 years old at the time, I'm pretty sure I didn't stay up to watch it. But I've seen clips of Bill Murray as Dave's first guest--now readily available on YouTube--and this week have enjoyed watching Letterman and crew celebrate their 30th anniversary. 

Bill Murray guested once again on Tuesday night and for the actual 30th anniversary show last night, Howard Stern, who also goes way back with Dave, was the only non-musical guest.

Of course, Letterman's show--as it has been since August 30, 1993--is now titled The Late Show, broadcast by CBS and airs an hour earlier. But Dave, bandleader Paul Shaffer, the CBS Orchestra and all involved have been remarkably consistent in delivering quality entertainment for 30 years.

Like Dave himself, quite famously, I was a fan of Johnny Carson, but Letterman's run on late night television has now surpassed his mentor's. And certainly since Carson's retirement in 1992, if not before, Letterman has been the best in the talk show business and my favorite by a wide margin.

Jay Leno might get better ratings on the Tonight Show, but I can't watch him for a minute. And though I enjoy Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel to some extent, if my television is turned on and tuned to a broadcast station anytime after 10:30pm, 9 times out of 10 it will be to see the Late Show.

That said, I actually watch David Letterman far less than I like him. Sure, I'll probably catch him once or twice a week, but far from every night. So of the 5,433 shows cited in the graphic above, I doubt I've seen more than a thousand, yet I've always enjoyed the ones I have.

And I even had the good fortune, largely by coincidence, to attend a live taping--the only one I've been to--of his 25th anniversary show in 2007. The main guest then was, yes, Bill Murray (a bit ironic that it's Groundhog Day). It was quite a fun experience. At the time, the Bears were about to play the Indianapolis Colts--from Dave's hometown--in the Super Bowl, and I prepared a Top 10 list of reasons why the Bears would beat the Colts. Well, that didn't come true, and my list never made it to air--and probably not even to Dave, though I gave it to a staff member--but you can see it here. Wow, the Bears being in the Super Bowl sure seems a lot longer ago than 5 years, doesn't it?

So the fact that Letterman--who had a quintuple bypass in 2000 and will turn 65 on April 12--is celebrating 30 years of being a late night visitor in people's homes is rather astonishing and laudable.

In tribute, I recommend Paste Magazine's compilation of Letterman's Top 10 moments. However, even among shows and interviews I've seen and remember, I think they're missing a few great ones.

Famously in 1982, comic Andy Kaufman and wrestler Jerry Lawler got into an on-air brawl, even dousing Dave with coffee. The fight was later revealed, long after Kaufman's death, to have be staged, but it made for riveting television (and much conversation at school the next day). Beware that this YouTube clip is unedited and uncensored, which means there's a good deal of profanity (I can't find a clip of what exactly was broadcast).

As I cited in this post, Letterman was good friends with musician Warren Zevon, a frequent guest and occasional substitute for Paul Shaffer. After disclosing his having terminal cancer in the fall of 2002--he would pass the next year--he made a memorable last appearance on Letterman, including his final public performances (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV). Also quite moving is Letterman's tribute after Zevon's death and for real archivists, this is Zevon's first appearance.

Correspondingly, along with all the humor Letterman has brought in his monologues and his interviews, one can't overlook the importance and influence his show has had as a showcase for myriad musical acts, including many making their initial television appearance. I enjoy finding such "time capsule" clips on YouTube, including performances by R.E.M., Dinosaur Jr., The Pixies, Screaming Trees, Bruce Springsteen (on Dave's last NBC show and a subsequent E Street Band reunion in 1995), Radiohead, Wilco, Amy Winehouse, Adele and perhaps most famously, Foo Fighters on Dave's first show following heart surgery.

Certainly, Letterman can be rather acerbic, which is probably why America as a whole tends to prefer Leno. But though he is at times notoriously harsh on his guests--such in this chat with Paris Hilton following her 2007 jail stint--he usually reserves his rancor for those who deserve it.

And as the clip below illustrates in showing what may be his finest hour, one of Letterman's best traits is honesty. Though far from depicting a typical Late Show, I believe the video also portrays why he has been such an important presence in our lives for the past 30 years. For that, and all the years of laughter, music and more, I say, "Thanks, Dave."

No comments: