Tuesday, 30 June 2015

David Letterman: Innovator, pioneer, original thinker

David Letterman hosting his show back in the 1980s.
Have you ever seen a man drink milk through his nose and shoot it out his eye? How about a guy wearing a suit of Velcro jump onto a wall of the same stuff and just stick there? Or the quarterback of the reigning Super Bowl champion throwing footballs at passing New York City taxis to see how many he can get through the open windows passing by?

These are just some of the hundreds of stunts David Letterman hosted on his late show.

Many of them happened after the end of the 1980s, but the first time I ever saw David Letterman in earnest was when I left home and moved into student residence at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

Letterman recently retired, which got me thinking about when I first saw him, and what kind of a true original he was.

Communal TV
In res, we had one large TV in our lounge, and often had to negotiate with the other 30 residents on our floor to see the shows we wanted. The flip side was my floormates introduced me to shows I may never have found myself.

One of the first of those was “Late Night with David Letterman”.

I had heard of the show, and even saw the odd clip on “Entertainment Tonight”, but it was in the late-night hours in the winter of 1988 that I really started watching Letterman, thanks to a floormate of mine named Mak.

He was a night hawk, and I was soon discovering I was too.

It seemed whenever I got back to my floor after midnight, Mak was watching Letterman in the lounge.

The guests were always good, but what I remembered most were all the odd and quirky things Letterman did. The first that comes to mind is rotating the screen clockwise a few degrees every few minutes. Halfway through the show he was upside down and right where he started when the show was over.

Home for the summer
The summer of 1988, my last summer on the farm, I did not have much to do, so I stayed up and watched Letterman.

That’s when I saw one of the quirkier, but also more touching, things Letterman did. There was a staffer on the show named Bridget Huckaby who was getting married but didn’t have much money. The network, NBC, had a pay scale for guests on the show. So Letterman got her to come on the show, pretty regularly, so she could earn the network scale. She’d read the Top 10 List and do other things. Guests who performed an act received more money, so one night Letterman got her to come on stage. Reluctantly, and that’s an understatement, she had a sock puppet she briefly talked to. Good enough for Letterman, and the network I guess, because she got the money for her wedding.

You can read Bridget's own reflections here:

But that seemed to be the kind of guy Letterman was. He’d skewer pompous, ridiculous guests, but real people he treated with caring and compassion.

The years after
As the ‘80s became the ‘90s and beyond, I still recall those odd Letterman stunts and bits. There was the stupid human trick where the guy drank milk through his nose and shot it out his eye. That always left me wondering – how does someone find out they have that talent? There was “bad ass ham” and the episode where he earned money for a charity every time he said the word “psyched”. Emmit Smith was one of his guests that night. There was the top ten list of goofiest driver’s licence pictures. What was number one? Why Letterman’s own picture of course.

I got away from Letterman for more than a decade, but returned for awhile a couple years ago. It was really like visiting an old friend again. He was married and had a son now, just like all the real-life friends I have re-connected with. As expected, he worked his son into his routine. Who would expect anything less?

Parting thoughts
Much was made a few years ago about how David Letterman was the logical, and rightful, successor to Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. It never worked out, as Jay Leno got that job. It also precipitated Letterman’s defection to CBS.

The truth is, Letterman could never replace Johnny Carson. Letterman was his own unique man with his own unique style. Stupid Pet Tricks and the subsequent Stupid Human Tricks, the Top 10 List, the World’s Most Dangerous band, Larry “Bud” Melman, and so much more were all his creations. We had never really heard of intellectual property before but, when Letterman departed NBC for CBS, all of a sudden we heard the term constantly, because NBC claimed all that stuff was intellectual property that belonged to them, not Letterman. That was how valuable NBC perceived Letterman and all that “stuff” to be.

Personally, I have always valued innovators, pioneers, and original thinkers. There was no one more original in all of TV, not just late-night TV, than David Letterman.

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