You always portrayed an outsider, looking at your guests askance. The audience related to you as you warily eyed your eccentric guests…sneering and jousting….and as you recognized the “good guys”--the honest to goodness heroes of Our Great Land. And you captivated the growing masses of cynical viewers who were growing weary of how the revolutionary media environment of the seventies was already lapsing into the Reagan era of contrived family pablum. And as a young audience member with a voracious appetite for all things Hollywood, you spoke to me.
My first encounter with you was when you were a cast member on Mary Tyler Moore’s failed ensemble variety show. Co-castmember Michael Keaton recently regaled the youngsters with the clip of you--the gangly weatherman--uncompfortably doing dance routines. You hated it. You seemed to me the “grouchy” character--the outsider looking in. Even then. After a character part on “Mork and Mindy” (which I somehow missed at the time, sorry) and many appearances on Carson, NBC gave you that hour slot after the Today Show replacing “Sanford and Son” reruns. Since it premiered during the summer before my senior year I was able to partake.
In the summer of ’80, SNL lost the last of it’s original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, remember?..mostly to movie and Broadway careers. Lorne Michaels left the show as it was ready to embark on it’s ill-fated 1980 season with all new castmembers (including the only breakout: Eddie Murphy!). ABC’s drug-fueled SNL clone called “Fridays” was now the king of late night subversion, but only for limited audiences leading to a short run. The Canadian SCTV troop was making inroads through syndication. Variety was dead and the sitcoms were returning to Mayberry with “Alice,” “Flo,” and “Dukes of Hazzard” topping Prime Time. So your morning show, Dave, was a welcome but ill-scheduled surprise. If youngsters youtube some clips from this program, they will see some of the most daring and shocking comedy of the time--and it aired between news and game shows! How do you feel about that, Dave? The “feel” of that show was so off-putting at the time, hazy--sort of druggy-- out of place, weird, almost like a public access show spoofed to death in years to come….but you were Dave, Dave. Thanks for leaving some clips up, I know it must be hard on you. I do wish I had convinced one of my school buddies to let me have his Jimmie Walker comedy 8-track--only I knew that you were his head writer on that!
So flash-forward to my freshman year in college. When I think of my little wood-toned Sony color TV, I remember the resurgence of NBC which had struggled with mediocre programming during Fred Silverman’s “Big Event” experiments. Gary Coleman provided the only ratings. You remember…you were guest hosting Tonight in these years. I luxuriated among the new classics: “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” “SCTV Network” (replacing SNL as appointment viewing), the new sitcom “Cheers” ready for takeoff. As I adjusted to life in a dorm--away from Mom and Dad--I found a new home, a new family with you and your crew nightly starting February 1, 1982.
“Late Night with David Letterman” was basically the morning show with more edge and the repressed sardonic wit was allowed to flourish. A complete antidote to “The Tonight Show”s establishment feel. Carson was still the only game in town on the networks. Merv, Mike Douglas and Dinah were syndicated in the seventies. Phil Donohue was emerging to take the daytime talk format into the wastelands of dysfunction and crudity. Watching “Late Night” on my little Sony in Elliott Hall is such a loaded memory I can’t help but co-mingle your popular coming-out with my own stunted growth.
When Bill Murray, fresh off of “Stripes” emerged as your first guest that night, one could tell you had fans from inside the Hollywood establishment, a begrudging acknowledgement I’m sure. With SNL out of commission until Lorne returned in ’85, you were the only game in town when one was looking for irreverence. Somehow you could do a “Velcro suit” gag--stupid as it sounds--but couched in your wink wink nod nod sensibility, it seemed “cool.” And this was the genius of Stupid Pet Tricks and Larry “Bud” Melman and Monkeycam: you elevated inane schtick into a pseudo-hip phenomenon.
Dave, one of the aspects of your early years that I found completely enthralling was actually borrowed. Sorry. But your humility always allowed for a deference to past groundbreakers and I’m sure you’d agree. When you would have a camera on the street and comment on the people walking by, you were --in a sideways manner--paying tribute to the great Steve Allen’s observational comedy from the fifties and sixties. Your visual gags could evoke Ernie Kovaks. This is why some refer to you as a Great Broadcaster. Hell, Johnny never went outside the studio, did he? You used the medium of television in a way that had been forgotten. As you did the drive-through window bits in the 90’s, your show was referencing your own earlier schtick. I will never forget the banter during a studio walk-through you did with Willard Scott (also a great broadcaster) which had me in stitches. During those years, Dave-watchers (is that OK?) were the only Texans introduced to these quirky and gritty urban legends: Hunter S. Thompson, Brother Theodore, Fran Leibowitz, Harvey Pekar, Howard Stern. Crazy stunts by Crispin Glover and Andy Kaufman were rarely questioned in their authenticity--before the staged “trending” culture we have now. As a matter of fact, Dave, you provided more Youtube moments before Youtube than anyone at the time.
MTV was taking off in the early 80’s…and “Cool” was becoming “Unhip.” By commenting on the ridiculousness of pop culture (while actually contributing to it) you became the antithesis of market-driven entertainment. That is the Dave I have missed during the CBS years.
The late eighties were a blur to me. With all the changes that come with career choices and newfound freedoms--apartment living, new friends, horrifying possibilities and the inherent escapes--I don’t know how I had time to watch your show. Somehow I fit you in. As Clooney told you the other night, you just become part of one’s night. With the VCR, I taped you and watched you the next day….the best of all worlds!
As a matter of fact, your sensibilities became so intertwined with mine, I copied your act on a public access talent-variety show. I borrowed your sardonic humor and even had my own Paul Schaffer who used sound effect and music cues of my own selection in the same way you used yours. What makes it all the more bizarre, was that I was one of the few English-speakers on a show that catered to an Hispanic audience. Actually, you would have loved it, Dave. Much as you wore your natty suit with sneakers and a bad haircut, I sadly did the same. I still had hair then, Dave. So with my geeky appearance…sort of button-down, my vast knowledge of vintage television, my off-putting sense of humor and my complete sense of estrangement from any particular group--especially the group I was in front of, I became you in San Antonio.
As television became an increasingly smaller part of my life--with work and theater taking over--,my devotion to you fell by the wayside. By the time your transition to CBS occurred--with all the accompanying controversy and hoopla, rememer?--I was following with scant attention. But I did watch enough to generate some memories of your first years on CBS. (Sometimes I confuse memories of those early CBS years with your NBC years--such as the Manky Patinkin/Tony Randall skits). And when did you stop those brilliant “interviews” with Charles Grodin? Do you guys still talk?
I’m sorry I lost touch with you, Dave. Mostly after you moved to CBS. What with more theater, more work, commitments, relationships…my television compadres were limited to prime time must see comedians like Seinfeld, Reiser, and “Frasier” on your old network. I’d visit occasionally. And I was one of your few defenders when you hosted the Oscars! (What was all the bitching about?) By now, even SNL found it’s footing thanks to Hartman, Hooks et.al. Actually, you had a hand in giving showcases to so many of the newer talent gracing Lorne’s stage--Sandler, McDonald, Farley and the rest of the young SNL Rat Pack. Now, Dave, the guys coming up in the world also came up in your world…like I did. You are now becoming a Kingmaker. Much like the newly retired Carson was.
Well, Dave, upheavals in my life….huge events good and bad, major losses, great wins….led to a move to Austin to become a filmmaker. By now, my time was filmed with, well, film. Regular TV viewing was limited to a few programs throughout my self-prescribed cinema master class.
So I wasn’t there for you during your heart surgery. I hadn’t started contemplating my own mortality yet. You were as old then as I am now. Wow.
And, Dave, I wasn’t with you when “comedy” changed after that fateful day in 2001. When you and Tina Fey--the queen of SNL--and Leno and all the rest decided it was best to “keep America laughing” and “celebrate our heroes.” It was sincere, Dave, and I share your anguish over world events….but it did kill comedy. The edge was gone as politicians now used you and other comedy shows for stump speeches. Jon Stewart was ushering in the news as a comedy show to reach those young people….like you reached my generation…to use comedy as a sharp beacon of the truth rather than skirt the painful realities. But, Dave, I quit you around this time. Your guests were deferential to you and afraid to rile you. The audience applauded at every line you provided, funny or not. The Top Ten list had a corporate sponsor. You allowed politicians on your show to promote their agendas. Movie stars became your admirers and a mutual appreciation society was formed. But you still kept to yourself. As a matter of fact, you may have become more insular than ever. You were now an institution. And I could barely watch.
You just became part of the news cycle with your scandals now. I always admired how you stayed out of the limelight, but now….Hey, I had lost my edge by this time as well. My performing was relegated to short student film appearances, character actor stuff.
So, Dave, a year after I turn fifty I see you retiring in your late sixties. And you aged. Not in a bad way, but I think “Where did those years go?” As I watch the parade of VIPs…Presidents and Movie stars…I feel I missed your party. I wasn’t there, Dave. Sorry. I missed your boat and mine. So I watch with a wistful regret. My eyes tear up when I see those comics (who I remember starting) pay loving tributes to what you did for their careers. I nod my head in agreement when celebrities recount their first visits on your NBC couch. As I watch you, nearing retirement, I sense a retirement of my own.
I hate to admit it, because you probably could care less, but you were a huge influence on my life. Whether it was corny local TV, theater performances, drunk party bits, young salesman ice-breakers…..coping….coping with a “world I never made” (Howard the Duck, you know the reference, Dave?) Appreciating those that blazed the trail before us, recognizing those that stand out beyond the grand morass of digital entertainment, calling out the frauds and the fakes….your tastes and my tastes were the same. I realize that now.
You said in your new Rolling Stone interview that you were “motivated by fear and guilt.” Dave, I feel the same way. Your neuroses and mine are probably extremely similar. Although I have never shied from the limelight--if I had ever been in your position, who knows?--I too am an outsider, an observer, ready to comment, condemn or congratulate. But in my way, I’ve dangerously flirted with movie goddesses; supported dreams of others--opened up avenues for burgeoning talent; kept open that window to the past-- to nurture and inspire rather than to escape. But where we are different, Dave, is whether or not you want it--you are a superstar. It’s uncomfortable watching you be a hesitant rock star….probably because you and I were the same--once. And part of me wishes I could partake in your success rather than be sitting here writing this thing no one will read.
Doesn’t it belong to both of us? I felt your pain, to quote one of your favorite leaders.
Dammit, Dave I was told in high school that I would be the next Johnny Carson. When I met Jay Leno in a Hollywood bookstore, he signed his copy of “Headlines” to “my replacement.” I wanted to listen to all those stories….I’ve always been a great listener. I’ve wanted to be a “great host”! My life has been a talk show. And for thirty-three years, you were the producer.
For that, I thank you, Dave. And thanks for the memories.