David Letterman signs off from his final Late Show at 12:30 on May 20, ending a 33-year run on late-night television. In that time, we have seen national tragedies, natural disasters, and had two practice rounds saying goodbye to a network late-night host, thanks to Jay Leno.
Although I am too young to have ever actually watched The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson during its run, and by extension Dave’s original run on Late Night, I somehow found myself taking a side in the late night wars that were long over by the time I had formed an opinion. Leno was the Claudius to Johnny’s throne, and Dave was the young Prince Hamlet.
For a time, I was devoted to David Letterman’s Late Show, staying up late with the volume turned low on my TV every night. To a teenaged comedy sponge, this was the show to watch. I was quick to learn the running jokes. I knew that the phone on his desk wasn’t plugged into anything, but I was always excited to see who might call each night. I looked forward to seeing what pies his mom baked every Thanksgiving, what interesting wig Bruce Willis would wear, and what animal Jack Hanna would bring to pee on Dave.
I have stood on 53rd Street, just outside the back entrance to the Ed Sullivan Theater, on two occasions. (I never managed to get tickets). I got a glimpse of Paul Schaffer one time. The other time I watched the entire Purina Incredible Dog Challenge and saw Will Ferrel’s hand. Just a few weeks later, Paul McCartney would stand on top of the theater’s marquee, stopping Broadway traffic for blocks.
David Letterman was like having a spare father who made fun of famous people. He introduced me to the magic of New York, truly the greatest city in the world. I was introduced to legends of comedy and watched them bomb. I saw politicians rise and fall. I saw a lot of Richard Simmons’ legs.
I have long considered myself a student of comedy, and have David Letterman to thank for the intro courses. When I hosted my college radio show, I tried to match his style and tone, and on occasion some of his material might have leaked in with my own. Even today, I find myself flipping pens and pencils, just like Dave.
The final episode of The Late Show with David Letterman is nearer now than it was when I started writing, but I am no more ready for it. I am afraid that in the noise of late night hosts leaving their shows, Dave is just one more name on a list, when he deserves the same celebration that Johnny Carson received over twenty years ago. I know that Stephen Colbert will soon be taking over the Late Show desk, but I am afraid, more than anything else, that no one will be able to excite me the way that Dave has for a majority of my life.
Thank you, Mr. Letterman, and say hello to Oprah for me.