Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dave's of Our Lives: Reflecting on David Letterman's Retirement and Other Rued Endings

Later tonight--though already taped as I type--David Letterman will say good night to a brilliant run on late-night television stretching 33 years--initially on NBC and since 1993 on CBS.

If Variety is to be believed, when he signs off for good, the Indianapolis native will have presided over 6,028 broadcasts.

During Dave's time on the air, there has been no late night host I've liked more--save perhaps Johnny Carson at his best, and his Tonight Show was never on opposite Letterman--nor watched as often.

I exponentially preferred Letterman to Jay Leno, and attending a taping of The Late Show on January 25, 2007--an episode celebrating 25 years of Dave in late night, with frequent guest Bill Murray--is something I'll never forget. (As it was right before the Bears played Dave's hometown Colts in Super Bowl XLI, I submitted my own Top 10 List that I assume was roundly ignored.)

So it is not being disingenuous to say that I truly like David Letterman, his ingenuity, his irreverence, his wry monologues, his Top 10 lists, his patter with Paul Shaffer, his oft-bemused interviews, his taste in musical guests and his consistent presence.

And that I will miss him.

With the caveat that I didn't really watch him all that often.

Though I routinely enjoyed the shows I did catch, tuning into Letterman--whether at 11:30pm Central or 10:30pm since August '93--never really became habitual, at least not until the past month or so. 

And of 6,028 broadcasts, I would guesstimate that I've seen no more than 300 full shows, if that.

Yes, that's less than 5%.

Of course, since the advent of the internet and online video, I've also seen a good number of clips of Top 10 lists, newsworthy interviews and cherished or heralded musical guests.

But even if we're talking simply parts of shows, I'm guessing my intake has still been considerably less than 10% of Letterman's Late Night/Late Show output.

This relative sparsity has never been due to dislike, active disinterest, the late hour (especially after Dave moved to CBS and 10:30 Central) or preferring competitive programming with any consistency.

It would be too blanket a statement to say I haven't frequently cared about Dave's guests or whatever they were promoting--especially as part of his charm is that he often, quite obviously, didn't either--but for one reason or other, I only tuned in rather sporadically.

So while I will definitely miss having the option to watch The Late Show with David Letterman, and perhaps hearing about it the next morning, I can't forthrightly suggest my life will be acutely altered or my day-to-day enjoyment actively much diminished.

Incidentally, I have similar feelings about Jon Stewart, who will be exiting as host of The Daily Show on August 6. I think Stewart is brilliant, hilarious and almost universally "right on!" and have greatly relished each time I have caught him on the 10pm (Central) broadcast--or more often, snippets posted to Facebook the next day.

But he's been on The Daily Show for 4 nights per week since early 1999, and I've maybe seen 50 full episodes--which is again probably an overestimate.

I realize I may sound like a lummox who doesn't support the things I like, or just is lackadaisical about liking anything with a passion.

Hopefully those who peruse this blog with any frequency believe otherwise, but to share that since 1999 I've likely seen Bruce Springsteen live in concert--involving in places like New Jersey, London, St. Louis, Detroit, Columbus, etc.--more times than I've tuned into Jon Stewart from the comfort of my bed doesn't really abet my rebuttal.

Nor will my admission that I never really "got into"--beyond watching a handful of episodes each--universally acclaimed TV series that many hold sacrosanct, including The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men.

But I really do love entertainment and culture and television and those increasingly rare creations and artists and personalities that unite us in the ever-more-fractionalized "zeitgeist."

Like David Letterman.

And Jon Stewart for that matter.

Still, while I often write--or just verbally kvetch--about the seeming erosion of transcendent artistry that bridges demographics and provides common touchstones to the masses, I find myself pretty accepting when a treasured performer or practitioner decides to call it a day.

As George Harrison sang on the title song of the 1970 album he released in the wake of the Beatles' breakup, "all things must pass." And maybe I'm a "glass half full" kind of guy, but I find it better to appreciate what's been given than bemoan what's been taken away.

Or, looping into these thoughts on retirement the far grimmer finality of death--and gauchely quoting myself--"weep for all that's been lost, smile for all that's been gained" is a philosophy I try to espouse, especially when the deceased has clearly lived a long, estimable and memorable life.

Bringing this back to being strictly about retirement, I also admire when people are able to go out on their own terms. This was the gist of an article I wrote when Doug Sohn announced he would close his inordinately popular Chicago sausage emporium, Hot Doug's, last year. (Incidentally, though Hot Doug's has arisen in 2015 for two temporal special events, I haven't been interested in partaking, partly in the name of letting the past stay past.)

So in the same vein, I'm glad Dave is heading off into the sunset, whether to devote more time to his son Harry, become a competitive cliff diver or to pursue anything else he may wish to do.

Thank you, David Letterman, for all the years and all the laughs.

Even when I wasn't watching.  

There are articles galore about Letterman's denouement, but two I recommend are Paste's compilation of 25 Top Musical Moments from his shows and this Salon interview with R.E.M. Mike Mills, who memorably performed on the show and publicly broke the news of Dave's retirement.

Inspired by David Letterman, here is my list of the...

Top 10 Retirements and Other Endings I've Most Rued (Not Including Deaths)

Unlike the Late Show's Top 10s, this list isn't meant to be humorous, but rather to recall the artists and creations I've truly missed after they came to an end. This won't include reference to anyone I've known personally nor endings due to death (e.g. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Williams, Nirvana).

Citations include only people/things that I've acutely enjoyed in real-time during my lifetime, and which have ceased to exist, typically due to retirements, though in some cases because of breakups or cancellations.

And while I miss all of the following--notwithstanding reruns, YouTube, recordings, etc.--it may not quite be accurate to say I've "rued" their endings. This isn't just because of the outlook I cited a few paragraphs up, but because their "time" had appropriately run its course. (This logic is why I don't mind leaving off R.E.M., The Kinks, Cheers, etc.) 

10. Johnny Carson
9. Hot Doug's
8. Beavis & Butthead
7. Tower Records (and all large record stores)
6. The Replacements (though they've kinda come back) 
5. Seinfeld
4. Steve Dahl & Garry Meier as a radio duo
3. Michael Jordan, retirements #2, 1 & 3 in order
2. The Far Side - Gary Larsen 
1. Calvin & Hobbes - Bill Watterson

I obviously look forward to watching the last Late Show with David Letterman in less than 3 hours--with appreciation and wistfulness but not too much chagrin. Though the guest list hasn't been officially shared, it's been revealed that the Foo Fighters will be the last musical act, fitting as Dave loves them and had them play on the show following his return from heart surgery in 2000.

But as I'm all about the Boss, and as Bruce Springsteen was Letterman's hand-picked "most wanted guest" for his last NBC show in 1993, I'll end this with my favorite song about leaving the past behind...and looking forward. (From a concert I attended, to boot.)

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