David Letterman and consensus

Ever since David Letterman announced his retirement last year, the world of running commentary has been writing think pieces at a sprinter’s pace.

To tease out common themes:  Letterman was a true innovator cast as a true original in American comedy, as the Atlantic Monthly put it this past week.

Letterman was the one who mocked the artifice of television and show business.  Dave drew attention to the fact that you were watching a television show, that it wasn’t another world that you were transported to as viewer. It was a guy in a room with strange ideas about what was funny set to a kick-ass rock band.

There’s been plenty written about how he was skeptical of his guests and a prickly  Letterman interview was the ultimate late night thrill cam.

Then critics pointed out that the show became broader and less innovative when Letterman moved to CBS and the sacred 11:30 p.m.  Eventually, Letterman’s show evolved into something resembling Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show,” with the host as a storyteller.

Several pieces ended on how things are different now, with people’s shared experience of late night comedy happening the next day online rather staying awake to watch it live.

Now that we’re not watching shows as they happen on television are we better rested? Are we having more sex? What are doing with that time?  But I digress, as I just did.

For the most part, I agree with all of those takes on Letterman’s legacy.

And maybe that’s why I’ve felt agitated in the run up to  Letterman’s, it must be said, splendid finale last night. It’s the warm, wooly consensus.

This was a person and comedy show that seemed to go against convention.

Whether or not Letterman and “Late Night”  actually did subvert the mainstream is less important. It was representative of that impulse to me.

“Late Night with David Letterman,”  the 12:30 a.m. show on NBC, is my favorite television show. It was when it was on the air, it is now and I suppose it always will be.

“Late Night”  entered my world in  the summer of 1988, the year my parents got a VCR.

At that point I had heard of Johnny Carson, through my parents explaining the joke in  Weird Al Yankovic’s “Here’s Johnny” parody of that old El Debarge chestnut,  “Who’s Johnny?”

So, after a look in TV Guide,  I started programing the VCR to record “The Tonight Show” and because I was paranoid that I wouldn’t get the whole show, I made sure it recorded past the hour mark.

The first few times, I don’t think kept watching the tape after Carson said good night.

I don’t remember the first time I kept watching, but when I did,  I kept watching all the way through end of my junior year in high school, in 1993, right before Letterman jumped to CBS.

Letterman came to me right on the cusp of high school, when kids start to  take possession of things in the culture. It was around the same time when R.E.M. and the Replacements became “my bands.”  “Late Night,” quickly became “my show.”

Mad Magazine was already “my reading material,” and it more than anything medicated me with the proper dosage of  irreverence and got me healthy enough to fully experience Letterman.

The Top Ten lists were the easiest to consume. I eventually got all the compilation books that the show put out and passed them around my high school like I was the guy who could buy cigarettes.

The first one still makes me laugh: “Top Ten Words that Almost Rhyme With Peas.”

It’s so wonderfully weird. Every time I think about it, it’s like I’ve taken some mind expanding drug.

Then, magically, A&E started putting on reruns of “Late Night” on in the evenings. So, I was able to watch old Dave then still record Letterman at night to watch the day after school. Nascent binge viewing, I suppose.

Letterman infected my language. My friends and I started using the word “beverage” in casual conversation, mainly because Dave asking Paul Shaffer to play some “beverage music” as he sipped something out of a coffee cup.

Letterman was different and it made me feel OK  about being different.

It’s tough to elaborate on that.

I’ve always had a more stable relationship with facts than I’ve had with wisdom,  but if I’ve noticed something in my 38 years, it’s that being different, challenging cliches and acting on your discomfort with accepted ways of doing things is really hard.

Don’t confuse that with righteousness. That’s something else, important, yes, but something else.

I felt a little of that old spirit during Letterman’s last show. It was like joyous celebration of self-deprecation —  generous and a bit off.

Maybe it’ll hit me later that Dave is really off.


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