Late Night, with David Letterman debuted on Feb. 1, 1982. His first guest, famously, was Bill Murray. I never watched it. It was on too late for me, and besides, I was in graduate school, working two jobs; I didn’t have time for television. In 1992, after considerable controversy over whether Letterman or Jay Leno would replace Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, Leno got the gig. CBS then created the Late Show with David Letterman to compete for the late night audience. My wife and I had just moved to Utah, and we decided to give the show a try. Dave became our frequent late night companion. He could be a cranky, weird, unpredictable late night friend. He was also consistently and brilliantly entertaining. You have to be likeable to succeed on television. You had to be someone people wouldn’t mind inviting into their home night after night. Dave was a prickly houseguest. But from the outset, I loved his show.
One of the first things Dave did on the Late Show was called ‘meet the neighbors.’ He went around with a camera crew and visited the small businesses surrounding the Ed Sullivan Theater. Eventually, some of those local businessmen became minor celebrities, frequent guests on the show. And one day, I had an epiphany about Dave. His job revolved around celebrities. He was there to promote their newest projects, to interview them and make them seem charming and fun and cool, to laugh with them and joke around with them. That was his job; the care and feeding of famous entertainers. That was what Carson was brilliant at doing, what Leno was also becoming very good at. And Dave thought the whole thing was a crock.
And that became the central dynamic of Dave Letterman’s show, the key to his entire appeal. Night after night, Dave Letterman deconstructed celebrity. Instead of worshipping at the shrine of celebrity–Leno’s raisson d’etre–Dave undercut it, revealed its essential emptiness, showed the inherent instability of how it structured its sign system. Celebrity just means ‘someone who is celebrated’–it’s entirely circular. So Dave set out to prove that ‘celebrity’ meant nothing. He could turn anyone into a celebrity.
So Rupert Jee, owner of the Hello Deli, on West 53rd street, became a celebrity. (Jee appeared on Late Night over 200 times). So did the two Bangladeshi businessmen, Sirajul Islam and Mujibur Rahman, who ran a gift shop nearby. Never mind that Sirajul and Mujibur weren’t particularly charismatic or amusing. Nor was Jee, who mostly just came across as nervous. That was the point; neither were most ‘celebrities.’ That’s why Letterman got so much mileage out of the Stupid Pet Tricks and Stupid Human Tricks that became show specialities. Or the frequent appearances of spectacularly unfunny characters like Larry “Bud” Melman. Again, there was Dave turning essentially anyone to a celebrity. That’s why he’d do weird things like drop bowling balls off the roof of the theater, or water balloons, or whatever. Aren’t you amused? You think ‘celebrities’ are talented? Watch this guy launch ping pong balls from his mouth, and then catch them. Watch this guy carry a bicycle around balanced on his chin. Watch this dog walk around with a paper bag on its head. Think George Clooney can do that?
Sometimes, it took an ugly turn, as can happen with deconstruction–a tool that can certainly turn on you. He made ‘Vickie’, a young intern, a celebrity. (She was actually an intern named Stephanie Birkitt). He’d call her up, and eventually put her on camera; she had more than 250 appearances on the show. (That story took an ugly turn in 2009, when Birkitt’s boyfriend threatened to blackmail Letterman for his alleged sexual affair with Birkitt). So, there was a dark and sordid underside to the Letterman project. But in a weird sort of way, didn’t the blackmail and the revelations of his affairs confirm the validity of the show’s position? Dave got away with it, didn’t he? And why wouldn’t he? He’s a celebrity, after all. And don’t celebrities always get away with everything?
The deconstruction of celebrity helps explain the consistent popularity of certain guests–Bill Murray, Teri Garr, Tina Fey, Jim Carrey. Talented people, that is, who were basically in on the joke. And that’s why the most disastrous guest of all time was the one celebrity who most thoroughly embraced that role and life–Madonna. Or, more recently, why he seemed to delight in ripping Bill O’Reilly to shreds. Self-righteousness never did play on Letterman.
And that’s also why Letterman’s occasional moments of authenticity were so tremendous. His first show after the 9/11 terrorist attacks was one of the greatest cultural moments I can remember. He was the one guy who got it absolutely right. Under pose and artifice can be, you know, actual truth.
Last night, Dave’s last show aired; he’s decided to retire, and will be replaced with Stephen Colbert. Ever since Dave’s departure was announced, I’ve felt petulant, out of sorts. I rarely watched his show the last few years; I’ve become a Jon Stewart man. But it’s not right, darn it, for Dave to not be on anymore. I’ve felt this more and more lately, an uncharacteristic conservatism, a feeling that things are changing far too fast, and that I want it to stop. Late night is not supposed to be dominated by people named Jimmy. I’m getting old, and let me tell you, aging is not for sissies.
I do know this: Letterman was great because what he did was righteous and needed to happen. He took a show that was about nurturing the cultivating the cult of celebrity, and used it to reveal, like Dorothy with Oz, the fakery and delusion at the heart of that cult. He did some good in this world. He’d also be the first remind us, he was basically just a talk show host, not the Dalai Lama. He was a deeply flawed human being, capable of terrible abuses of his own power, but a man with a core of decency underneath. He was a friend I kind of stopped seeing, but that I now find I will miss. Don’t be a stranger, old pal, and stop by again sometime.