The rule in my house was, as long as you got up for school in the morning without complaining, you could stay up as late as you wanted at night. This was born out of necessity (and a lot of debate), since during the summer of 1982 I had become addicted to Late Night with David Letterman, a show that didn’t even begin until The Tonight Show ended at 12:30am. I don’t remember exactly how it all happened. I mostly remember the feeling. It felt like I had found something that no one else knew about. Like I was in on a secret- part of a conspiracy. It felt like David Letterman produced the show just for me, in the dark, in the middle of the night.
But for those of us who could stay awake, Letterman was there to shake things back up.
Letterman took everything we knew of the traditional talk show and turned it on its ear. He showed us videos of his dog, Stan, who wrote poetry. He placed guests in dentist’s chairs. He had the camera revolve like a clock so that at 1:00am the show was upside-down. He strapped a camera to a monkey’s back and gave us the Monkey Cam, for crying out loud! I had never seen anything like it. It was as if some kids had stolen a TV studio from the adults and decided to put on a show.
Dave was also moody. Grumpy. Curmudgeonly. Sometimes it seemed as though it was an annoyance for him to be there. We’d never seen a host who was so clearly unimpressed with his guests, who would rather chat with Larry “Bud” Melman than a celebrity and who had such outward disdain for his upper management bosses (or “weasels”, as he’d often call them). But we understood and loved him for it. Dave was one of us. The show wasn’t polished. If something went wrong, Dave laughed and talked about it going wrong. This was so different from what we were used to. We were always told that everything was fine, that nothing ever went wrong on TV. But Dave pulled back that curtain. He was “alternative” before Alternative became a genre.
To watch the Late Show with David Letterman in its current incarnation, no one would ever guess that Letterman was a man who once wore a suit covered in Velcro and threw himself against a wall, wore a suit of Alka Seltzer and got dunked into a container of water, and wore a Human Sponge Suit, weighing himself both before and after he was dunked into another vat of water. The Late Night Dave was up for anything his writers would throw at him. Whether it be storming the GE offices with a fruit basket after GE bought NBC (and getting kicked out of the building for his efforts), conducting man-on-the-street interviews, or visiting a business claiming that it only sold light bulbs.
While it was common for talk shows to have musical guests and comedians, Late Night took the opportunity to break new acts or give people their first shot on network television. With Paul Shaffer as his bandleader and with guests like REM and Sam Kinison, Dave was always willing to take a risk on new and sometimes controversial talent.
Then there was Chris Elliott. I was afraid of Chris Elliott. A writer on the show, in the mid-80s Chris started to make regular appearances as a performer as well. The first time I remember seeing him, Chris was playing one of his many “Guy” characters: i.e., The Fugitive Guy, The Panicky Guy, The Conspiracy Guy, The Regulator Guy. The one I remember seeing first, though, is The Guy Under the Seats. The Guy Under the Seats started out by talking to Dave like a regular guy and then at some point would lose it and start yelling at Dave and threatening him, before climbing back down into his hatch in the studio audience with a final warning that he would one day make Dave’s life “a living hell”. I can’t explain why, but as I was laughing at the bit, I was also scared. Chris had this strange edge to him that I hadn’t seen much before. I got that he was funny, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. It wasn’t until I saw a lot more of him that I realized it was the fact that Chris was so raw and fearless. He did anything and everything and couldn’t care less if he was likeable or not. It speaks volumes of what Dave and his crew were trying to do overall and of how different Late Night with David Letterman was from everything that came before.
It’s actually strange to think that there are people who watch Jimmy Fallon on Late Night now and think that the games he plays with his guests or the Thank You notes he writes or the pre-taped bits have never been done before. Sure, Letterman may not have performed any musical numbers with his best friend Justin Timberlake or played Tiddlywinks with Scarlett Johannson, but if Dave hadn’t talked Terri Garr into taking a shower live during the show, or convinced a reunited Sonny and Cher to perform “I’ve Got You Babe” together, there wouldn’t be a Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
And bits? You wanna talk bits? Let’s start with some throwaways: Young Inventors, Supermarket Finds and Small Town News. Too subtle? Okay, how about we ask Hal to “turn on the external camera”, dial up the phone and check in with Meg Parsont who works across the street at Simon & Schuster? Too obscure? How about these, then. Stupid Pet Tricks, which begat Stupid Human Tricks. Now we’re talking. Then, of course, there are the crème de la crème of Late Night bits. The Top Ten List and Viewer Mail. Both of which are classics that are performed to this day.
What Dave did was so innovative that it inspired the next generation of comedians and talk show hosts to follow his lead.