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.
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.