Hearing that David Letterman would step down as host of The Late Show sometime in 2015, I immediately flashed back to one of my all-time favourite Letterman moments.
It was August 1985, and Dave (he was always “Dave” to fans) was just three years into his tenure as host of NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman.
With a failed morning show behind him, the former stand-up and occasional Johnny Carson fill-in was now following his mentor in the 12:30 p.m. timeslot – the ideal spot for his brand of gonzo humor.
With his gap-toothed smile, ever-present cigar and a customary outfit of a blazer with khakis and sneakers, Dave was at odds with standard late-night conventions. Add in an anarchic sense of humour, kooky guests, oblique in-jokes that rewarded regular viewers, and you had a recipe for highly compelling TV.
On this particular night, Dave’s penchant for mischief was directed at an outdoor taping of The Today Show. Using a bullhorn, Dave introduced himself as the president of NBC News and informed the cast and crew gathered below at Rockefeller Center that he was not wearing pants.
He invited The Today Show’s garrulous weatherman, Willard Scott, to come and wish a woman who was “150 years young” a happy birthday, and told Jane Pauley to “go ahead and light the tree.”
It all seems quaint now, but it was classic Dave: unconventional, snarky, seemingly made up as he went along. It sparked a long-running feud with The Today Show’s insufferably smug co-host Bryant Gumbel, during which he repeatedly dismissed Letterman’s actions as unprofessional and asked him to apologize. Of course, Gumbel’s visit to Late Night several years later was a foregone conclusion.
Showbiz feuds can be a great publicity tool, but Dave’s prickly manner and steadfast refusal to be a simpering suck-up seemed to engender genuine enmity. Cher famously called him an “asshole,” (“I think a lot of people feel that way about me,” he responded), Shirley MacLaine agreed with her, and innumerable guests have been subjected to Dave’s withering put-downs.
The Gumbel segment will be remembered – if it’s remembered at all – as a mere footnote in a career highlighted by classic bits like The Top 10 List; Stupid Pet Tricks; the pencil through the window; the Velcro suits, the “Late Night Monkey Cam” (a camera strapped to the head of a chimpanzee on rollerskates) and the destruction of assorted objects by dropping them off a roof. Just about everyone who watched Dave in his 80s and 90s heyday can instantly recall a favourite bit.
But it was one-on-one where Letterman truly shone. He was the best interviewer in the business, effortlessly cutting through the showbiz bull to make those segments with Hollywood A-listers, B-listers and wanna-be’s fun and unpredictable.
His infamous evisceration of Paris Hilton, which started with 30 seconds of idle chitchat before Dave dropped the hammer, was a prime example of his ability to give an audience who couldn’t care less about her new perfume or movie role the entertainment it craved.
Dave didn’t do inane banter about funny on-set antics or the weather in L.A.: guests had to work to plug their movie or TV show, and God help them if they weren’t willing to put in the effort.
The recent appointments of Jimmy Fallon and Seth Myers as late night hosts are intended to help the networks attract the younger viewers coveted by advertisers. Both are very good at what they do. The truth, though, is that the late night talk show is no longer a cultural touchstone in the YouTube era.
Younger audiences will no doubt greet news of Dave’s departure with indifference, but he was one of the true titans of late night. He doesn’t need a bullhorn to trumpet his achievements.