We Deserve Better: The Faces of Comedy and Tragedy

For my regular reader, please indulge this stream of personal feelings in response to the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers, the attacks on police officers in Dallas, and locally, the apparently-unrelated murders and subsequent burning of two people.

I’d like to promise it won’t happen again.

This week has me down. I have a compulsion to make jokes, but today, it feels inappropriate. When David Letterman left TV, I wrote a little story. It was rambling; it was personal;  it was not terribly dissimilar from what I’m writing now. The theater is represented by the masks of comedy and tragedy. From the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, Dave was an example, to me, that it is okay to “turn off” and not be funny. He did it when he returned from his heart surgery, to thank his medical team. He did it when he went public with a blackmail attempt and revealed his own affair. He did it on September 17, 2001, when The Late Show was the first late-night show to return to air after the terrorist attacks the previous week.

We, as human beings, deserve better than what we are given, and what we are giving to others.

That night, he expressed a frustration very much like I feel today. The Late Show, and Late Night before it, mocked New York, just as I mock Rochester, the city that I love. Dave was speaking about one specific set of tragedies, but in the fifteen years since, then, his message can apply to any one of the horrible events that have happened. His call for us to be courageous should not limited to the times when we face the unknown evils that lay before us, as the city of New York, the United States, and the world were in September 2001, but in the face of a known evil that we face every day. We, as human beings, deserve better than what we are given, and what we are giving to others.

David Letterman: Not Just Another Late-Night Goodbye (Unpublished)

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.