In all the hoopla over David Letterman’s retirement, we read over and over about the heart surgery, the post-9/11 show, and the sex scandal. Everyone mentions favorite guests Julia Roberts, Regis Philbin, Bill Murray, and Cleveland’s own Harvey Pekar. Frequently cited are watermelons tossed from the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theater, Stupid Pet Tricks, Top Ten Lists, and Dave, wearing an Alka-Seltzer suit, immersed in a giant water tank.
All noteworthy, to be sure, though I never cared much for tossing things off the roof. But it’s all been said, over and over. I don’t want to repeat the usual tropes, but I have an urge to express my affection and respect for David Letterman, who, in all his incarnations, is my favorite TV experience. Because we don’t get cable, I’m missing out on the current Golden Age of TV—no Sopranos, no Wire, no Breaking Bad. Mystifying my friends, I don’t care a whit about “Downton Abbey.” I have binge-watched only one show: “In Therapy” with Gabriel Byrne. Instead, I have enjoyed many foolish comedies: “Cheers,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “The Office,” and, currently, “Modern Family.”
My Dave fandom, though, is deeper and wider. I actually saw a few episodes of his 1980 morning show and liked them. I used to enjoy his stand-up appearances on “The Tonight Show” and would even defend his hosting of the Oscars. I watched Dave almost every night for almost thirty years. My husband, cinephile and movie exhibitor, often gets home late, and we watched Dave together. Otherwise, my husband doesn’t watch TV, so this was a rare bonding, extra-cinematic, entertainment experience. We both love Dave.
So here I want to share two things that haven’t appeared widely. One is an insight I read somewhere online. The other is a very slight, beloved quirk of Dave, again, unmentioned in most of the written hoopla.
I can’t locate the column right now, but one writer made this cogent observation. Dave made you feel like you were in on the joke, making an inclusive group of his audience. Maybe this is what put some people off, because, watching only occasionally, they’d feel excluded instead of included. But if you watched regularly, you understood some things. Why did Dave run across the stage every night when his name was announced? Because he did it the first night back after his heart surgery to show his robust health. Why did he repeat jokes so often? Because the repetition itself was funny. He had certain favorites: George W. Bush walking into a door, a deer rearing up and pummeling a hunter, Dave and Paul Shaffer shouting together, “I wouldn’t give his problems to a monkey on a rock!” These were funny because they were so silly and because you were sharing a joke with Dave. Dave liked “Will it Float?” and “Is This Anything?” and you were inclined, if you liked Dave, to go along with these nonsensical bits.
Dave was known for being private and press-avoidant to the point of surliness. However, you could watch Dave regularly and feel that you almost knew him, although you’d never crack the mystery of his complicated self. “He’s the most three-dimensional talk-show host ever — hell, he’s probably the most vividly revealed person who’s ever been on television,” wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker. “The sheer number of hours, combined with a compulsive honesty that trumps reticence, means that he has exposed more moods and aspects of his personality than any human in front of a TV camera.” Jay Leno, in contrast, reputedly so personable and “nice,” is a complete blank to me. He likes cars and has a solid marriage to a good woman, but otherwise, I don’t know a thing about him. Jay told jokes, whereas Dave was himself part of the joke. Which you prefer is a matter of taste, I suppose.
Finally, here’s one of my favorite Letterman quirks. I’m sure it’s been written about somewhere, but I’ve never seen it. Dave habitually put a “the” in front of things where “the” didn’t belong. On rare occasions, a guest would smile and repeat Dave’s verbiage, noting the idiosyncrasy, but mostly it went unremarked.
“Breaking Bad,” cited above, would be instead “The Breaking Bad,” or possibly “the Breaking Bad program.” Julia Roberts starred in, for example, “The Steel Magnolias” and “The Pretty Woman,” and Bill Murray in “The Caddy Shack.”
I don’t know why Dave did this, and I can’t explain why it’s amusing. It set Dave apart, just a little bit. Like the Sneezing Monkey, Dave found it funny for his own reasons, and I for one am already missing it.