Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Letterman Leaves LATE SHOW

I've been watching him since he was on early in the morning.  Many full time and not-so-full time media critics will be analyzing the late night TV magic David Letterman had for decades.  It started on NBC then transferred to CBS.  This blog post of mine is written as a viewer and a longtime fan.  I will miss him.
I started laughing out loud at David Letterman during my days at my first professional television job.  I worked at the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee on the city's edition of PM Magazine.  I also did appearances on the station's live afternoon shows.  When we got to the PM Magazine offices early in the morning for work, we'd watch Letterman's short-lived morning show.  Our little ragtag Midwest crew really dug his loopy sense of humor.  His elevator races were a hoot.  We fully recognized the Midwest vibe underneath the on-camera goofiness, a goofiness the edged more into brashness during his NBC years.  I was still working in Milwaukee when NBC gave Dave Late Night with David Letterman.  That show quickly became required viewing for all us young professionals.  Heck, back in those days, we could actually stay up late without nodding off.  He was in our age group.  He was younger than the Elder Statesman of Late Night,  the renowned Johnny Carson.  Letterman did his monologues wearing a jacket, tie...and sneakers.  He had a gap-toothed smile and his tall frame was topped with a generous amount of curly hair.                                                                                                                              
His material was different and fresh -- a bit on the smart aleck-y college boy side -- his band was groovy and hip and his segments were wacky in their originality.  Stupid Pet Tricks made my nights!  So did Stupid Human Tricks.  And his "Top Ten" lists were priceless.  When it came to his guests...he could be fun with Carol Channing.  He could be a terrific straight man to a very animated and funny Bette Davis in her latter years.
And he could knock young stars off-balance by saying something we viewers would be thinking but never expected a late night host to say.  Remember the exotic-looking Natassja Kinski when she starred in movies such as Tess and the remake of Cat People?  She was a guest on his NBC show.  She'd been given a piled up, hipster hair style.  Letterman asked, "Is that your hair or do you have a barn owl on your head?"  She was not amused.  I laughed so hard my sides ached.

That's what I meant about the brashness.  He wasn't easy on stars simply because they were stars.  That was Letterman's trademark then.  He was still at NBC when I was new to New York City.  Stars would be nervous before going onto his show.  How do I know?  They'd say so to me in our green room.  Several times celebrities came to VH1 to tape interviews for my talk show and they'd remark "I have to do Letterman's show later today" and they'd say that with the same dread as a 7th grader saying "I have to go to the principal's office."  Tony Danza moaned the most.  He really hoped that Dave would be nice to him.  Cher got bleeped for casually calling Dave "an asshole" on the show  Shirley MacLaine casually repeated Cher's sentiments.  His brashness would be replaced by a maturity because life knocks you around as yet get older.  He grew out of the brash smart aleck phase and into more of an informed, embraceable curmudgeon.  And we watched him get older over the years.  Just like we viewers did, he experienced workplace disappointment, sexual immaturity, health problems, love, death, changes in family life and aging.  We watched him flop.  Remember when he hosted the Oscars?  I started watching David Letterman when he was the new kid on the late night block.  This week, I heard a reporter refer to him as the "elder statesman" of late night hosts.  For us baby boomers, Dave reflects our growing older and our life experiences.
I really wanted Dave to succeed Johnny Carson on the Tonight show.  I was stunned when he wasn't selected and Jay Leno got the gig.  Probably not nearly as stunned as Dave was by NBC's decision.  His disappointment made me even more of a fan.  I, in my own way, knew the feeling.  I was blessed with an A-list roster of guests for my VH1 weeknight talk show.  After my wonderful VH1 years, I was approached to be a regular on a new WNBC weekend morning news program.  I'd do celebrity interviews, film reviews, and humorous human interest features.  That appealed to me.  I'll admit it, in taking that part-time weekend gig, my goal was to be so good that I'd be promoted to doing entertainment features and interviews for the network's weekend Today show.  Our local show premiered in the fall of 1992.  Management changed my duties in the show's first week and assigned me a steady beat as the "wacky" correspondent in the field.  That meant doing live segments from shopping malls and street fairs.  The film review spots disappeared and I had to push to do occasional celebrity interviews.  It was as if I'd never hosted a national TV talk show that got me excellent reviews from The New York Times, People magazine and TV Guide.  But I was under contract and did the work.  In December 1995, management told me that I was doing quality work and I was very popular with viewers.  However, I'd no longer be under contract, I'd only be working two days a week -- just weekends -- and I would not be moving up to any network opportunities.  One more thing:  If I was offered any other on-camera work during the week -- such as TV commercials or small acting roles that could bring me in extra income to supplement my part-time TV wages -- I'd need WNBC's approval to accept the work.  Even though I was not under contract.  (You can see samples of my VH1 talk show work here:

I gave two weeks notice and quit in January 1995.  Yes, I understood Dave's disappointment at 30 Rock.  I was thrilled when he relocated to CBS.  His gifts, his hard work that made comedy look easy, had been validated, appreciated and highlighted.  And his artistic gifts grew.  A Kennedy Center Honor was bestowed upon him for his intelligent and innovative comedy.  Our President made guest appearances on his show.

I watched David Letterman at night from the days of my first professional TV job at a local station in Milwaukee, my days as a national talk show host for VH1 and my days of disappointment in the same building for the same corporation for which Dave worked.  I've watched him from when I found true love to when I lost my love to AIDS in 1994.  I watched Dave when he returned to work in the days following our enormous September 11th tragedies.  Those shows displayed Dave at his respectful, mature, tender-hearted best.  When he felt comfortable to make us laugh again, I felt ready to laugh again.  He helped heal millions of broken hearts in the TV audience.

We watched him through major changes in television, in our society and in the world around us.  I've continued to watch him over the last few years as I attempt to revive a career and rejoin the workplace.  I was hit hard and rendered unemployed by The Great Recession.  Like Dave, I'm older now too.  And still in need of a laugh.
I have a feeling that David Letterman has been to many like a friend or family relative we really do love but don't always make time for.  He's that friend we'd call at the last minute to cancel and postpone, the friend we'd call at the last minute if we couldn't find a more fabulous date, the relative whom we knew whose birthday we could forget because he or she was always understanding.  You assume that friend or relative will always be around.  When you're hit with the reality the person is leaving, you're driven to make up for lost quality time.  You realize how special that person really is.  This week, millions of folks probably returned to the Late Show on CBS because this was its last week.  They loved Dave but hadn't been paying attention to his show in a long, long while.

I've never met Mr. Letterman.  But I stood close to him in the NBC lobby by an elevator once as he chatted with Bob Costas.  I've had tickets to a few tapings of Letterman's show.  However, he did mention some of my past work in one of his monologues.  In between my VH1 and WNBC years, I was the host of a syndicated late night summer replacement game show.  It was called Bedroom Buddies.  I had a great time with a great crew taping that awful show in Los Angeles.  The show was like a very low-rent version of The Newlywed Game -- only the couples weren't married.  I did my best with that cheesy material because the gig, quite honestly, helped me pay off some bills.

I was told that Letterman mentioned seeing Bedroom Buddies.  He did not say my name but he reportedly did say Bedroom Buddies "...marks the end of civilization as we know it."

It was a bad show.  But I take comfort in the fact that both David Letterman and I have lived long enough to see even worse shows premiere on network television.  Some even in prime time.

So long, David Letterman. I'm gonna miss you.  A lot.  Thanks for the laughs when I really needed them.

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