I avoided David Letterman for years, but it was hard to avoid our son’s guffaws. He would come home late from working as a busboy and would turn on the television
“What in the world was so funny?” I would ask the next day.
“Dave was throwing watermelons off the roof,” our son would reply. Oh.
Never a fan of late-night TV, I avoided Letterman until my wife and I took an apartment in Florida, much too young for that kind of thing. There wasn’t much to do in the evening, so I gravitated to Letterman who by that time had moved from tossing watermelons to wandering around suburban subdivisions knocking on doors. It wasn’t in the least bit funny. I think of them as Letterman’s Lost Years.
Still, I became hooked on Letterman’s sour moods, his distracted interviews, his foolish audience-participation games, his apparent disinterest in most of the music, the Freudian working-stuff-out cameos by his mom. He was an acquired taste -- a grumpy guy dealing with major heart surgery and 9-11 and that obviously nasty fling with the intern.
Dave's strange routines (traced and parsed in Wednesday's New York Times) made him part of my trinity of flawed television role models – joining Tony Soprano and Clint Eastwood’s gunslinger and assembly-line bigot. I made sure to watch Dave late at night, because you never knew.
I loved his loyalty to standup comedians, his repartee with old pros like Regis Philbin and Martha Stewart (he upgraded her totally marginal financial conviction to “she killed a guy.”) And I shared his affection for Julia Roberts and some guests of the female gender. (Salon.com ran a top-ten list of Letterman crushes and never even mentioned his gushing about Cate Blanchett.)
One night Dave interviewed Natalia Makarova (whom my wife and I had seen in Lincoln Center, summer of 1971 -- the most transfixing evening of ballet we have ever had.) Dave had met Makarova when both were honored at the Kennedy Center; he gave her total respect on his show.
Ever since Letterman announced his retirement as of May 20, I have been unable to watch his show. It’s over. I never watched Johnny Carson or Jay Leno and I doubt I will ever watch Stephen Colbert. (Jimmy Fallon and Marco Rubio have blurred into the same persona -- a hyper comedian I call El Joven.)
Alas, my walkabout meant I did not see Michelle and Barack Obama. I missed Tina Fey – greatest eyes on television -- strip down to her skivvies. Thank God for youtube.
I did catch a snippet of Dave talking about the chasm that awaits him upon the dreaded R-word. Is it more shtick or real terror? My advice to him is, sometimes it’s very healthy to get off the high wire. How many insipid sit-com actors or loutish baseball managers can you interview in a lifetime?
Dave will be fine -- in his own miserable way. Plus, he can always go on the roof of his own home and chuck off a few watermelons.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.