By: Kidman J. Williams
(David Letterman on being called a non-voting Republican) “I believe I have voted for both Democrats and Republicans. Am I either one? Absolutely not. Ladies and gentlemen, I am an American.”
David Letterman is as American as Aunt Mable’s apple pie on a window sill. He is as American as a fireworks show over a lake on the Fourth of July. He is as American as gang shootings, prostitution and wet dreams about Marilyn Monroe naked on a bear skin rug, drinking Jack Daniels while watching the Super Bowl. Yes, David Letterman has truly lived the proverbial ‘American Dream.’
Letterman was funny, daring, and a true game changer in late night television. Unlike Johnny Carson, Letterman was willing to go to bat with political jokes. He one time got Larry “Bud” Melman to stand outside a Russian Embassy and hand out pamphlets encouraging defection. That’s some serious brass balls. Those are the kind of balls that you sack tap and break your knuckle on, not because of the density of the steel, but because it hit your knuckles back with Chuck Norris force.
Letterman was born and bred in Indiana and according to accounts, never really seemed that remarkable. He was a bit of a class clown and never seemed like he would amount to the kingly status that he has achieved now.
David graduated from Ball State University in the late 1960’s and married Michelle Cook in 1969. He held some short lived employment as a weatherman from 1970 to 1974. He then became a radio talk show host from 1974 to 1975. During the 1970’s Letterman was a working, but struggling stand-up comedian at The Comedy Store. He was also writing for television shows like Good Times.
By the late 70’s He had already had appearances on The Gong Show, Mary Tyler Moore’s variety series, “Mary,” Mork and Mindy, and Liar’s Club; even doing game shows like The New $25,000 Pyramid and Password Plus. Things were really looking like there might be a real future for Letterman.
As some people might know, all the exposure led to many appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He was such a popular spot on the show that he became a permanent substitute host by the end of 70’s. This of course led to The David Letterman Show in 1980. It was a short lived daytime talk show that did get some critical acclaim, but the show never really caught on with the public. The show ended the same year.
At the time of Letterman’s demise from daytime TV, Tom Snyder and Rona Barrett were having quite the ego clash at the time. Tom Snyder took some issues with his co-host Rona Barrett, probably because of the fact that he was already doing the show without her and then he treated her as a guest instead of a hostess. That probably had nothing to do with the fact that she was a woman. This turned out to be the break David Letterman needed and in 1982 Letterman took the slot after Johnny. Late Night with David Letterman was born!
Late Night with David Letterman’s very first guess back in 1982 was the always entertaining Bill Murray, who is appropriately going to be his last guest on Wednesday May 20th. The play between the new night time host and Murray was in typical Bill Murray fashion.
Controversy Causes Ratings
Letterman like most celebrities has not gone without some controversy over the years. Some of the most memorable moments in shows history showed a well-known comic and put-on artist Andy Kaufman. You knew I was going to get to this, I mean Lawler and Kaufman even had Letterman fooled! The story showed Kaufman as the Inter-gender Wrestling Champion and escalated into a match with Jerry “The King” Lawler. At the time all of it seemed very legit. It wasn’t until later that people found out that it was just one of many huge gags that Kaufman played on people. This was the slap shot heard around the television world.
I know I’m going to miss some of peoples’ favorites, but for me to put everything in, Letterman would have to hire me as a ghost writer for his biography. Another very memorable moment was the very unconventional interview with the good Doctor, Hunter S. Thompson; there were a few of them. There is no reason found on the bizarre reasoning of why the interview took place in a hotel room with Carly Simon at his side, but it was no doubt entertaining; Hunter even asking why the monitor was showing Paul and not him.
Hunter like many guests would make many appearances on Letterman’s talk show and he wasn’t the only one to make some serious waves on the show. Drew Barrymore in her wilder days flashed Dave for his birthday. I guess if you come empty handed for a birthday bash, boobs are a good alternative to a new tie and a birthday cake.
An extremely memorable moment in Letterman history was always Howard Stern. Letterman was so balls to the wall that he has put Stern on the show, NBC and CBS, a total of 24 times. Stern’s first appearance however was quite memorable. At the time, Stern was in negotiations over his contract renewal and his 70’s porn star look. In this interview he made some very private things very public. Letterman even pissed his censors off, as usual . Howard even declared during the segment that, “Everyone has orgasms, except for the Pope.”
Letterman asked Howard about NBC and Stern started the conversation with, “It is worse than ever.”
We can’t possibly forget March 31st, 1994 when he went to CBS. He had Madonna on the show and she managed fourteen “fucks” amongst other four letter words. This episode was the most censored in American network television history and gave Letterman some of the best ratings that he’d ever seen. It pays to be a naughty little kitty.
There was a lot of fun controversy on David Letterman’s show, but there was a darker incident. It would be irresponsible of me as a journalist to not bring up the fact that Letterman was hit for inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace.
Let me just start by saying, this wasn’t Bill Cosby sneaking drugs into girls drinks and anally mapping his way in like some bad Skin-a-max jailhouse rape scene. These women were having sex with him, but the problem is that it was for career advancement and blackmail. Not so good for David. You don’t make butt prints on top of the company fax machine people. Letterman owned up to his mistakes publically to his wife, Regina Lasko, who, he said, had been horribly hurt by his behavior. He told his audience, “Either you’re going to make some progress and get it fixed, or you’re going to fall short and perhaps not get it fixed, so let me tell you folks, I got my work cut out for me.”
That’s a man, not a boy, but a man. I’m not condoning what he did, but he owned it. He didn’t really have to, but he swallowed it and meant it.
Another one of the controversies surrounding the show had to do with comedian Bill Hicks who had made a total of 11 appearances on Dave’s NBC show. Bill Hicks was going to make his first appearance on Dave’s new CBS show on October 1st, 1993. Well, Hicks’ segment was reviewed and approved more than once. The segment was cut from the show by the censors and Letterman himself. Hicks even wrote a 39 page letter to John Lahr of the New Yorker giving a detailed account of what had happened.
It wasn’t until January 30th 2009 that David rectified the situation. He invited the late comics’ Mom, Mary Hicks onto the show and aired the banned set that Bill Hicks had done from 1993 with an apology. Even David was stunned as to why it was ever cut.
This is the End, Beautiful Friend, the End
May 20th, 2015 will mark the end of an era. Letterman is one of the last. The last of the true innovators of the late night television formula. Letterman is like that guy in every war movie who looks around his platoon who is lying dead in the trenches and wonders, with a sad weary look on his face and says, “Did we do the right thing here?” David is leaving us behind with the likes of Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, the always corny Jimmy Fallon, I swear to God if he looks at that camera one more time and giggles I’m going to…I’m OK. No worries.
Letterman is leaving us in wonderful hands. We are inheriting Stephen Colbert and his Neptunium nut sack. In case I went over your head with Neptunium; it is a radioactive metal by-product of nuclear reactors and Plutonium. Yes, Colbert has nuclear nuts. Watch out squirrels of the world!
I think Tom Waits said it best with his song to Dave on the countdown show. “Take one last look at the place you are leaving. Take one last look.”
We will miss the laughter, we will miss the attitude, we will miss the grit and most of all we will miss you David Letterman. Thank you for all the years you tirelessly gave to us.