Sunday, May 17, 2015
Dave at the desk is what I wait for, Monday - Friday nights. Not the monologue so much, or the interviews. It is the 5 minutes of desk time when Dave addresses concerns. This is the essence of the most outrageous, sublime, sardonic, ridiculous, touching, agitating.
For most of the past 35 years, I have fallen asleep with Dave being the last human influence of the day. Dave is more than a funny guy, although he is certainly that, and I believe there is almost no one with more influence on comedy, much less the entire entertainment business than David Letterman. And in at least the past 2-3 years, he has been the best in his own game, a master of his craft.
In 1982, Dave and I were both young. If I had an older brother, he probably would have been like Dave. He was brash and bold. He was confrontational and often completely absurd. One night my friend John asked me if I had caught any of the new Letterman show. We watched together and belly laughed. There was nothing like him. Guys popped up in the stairs. One night Dave rode a horse through some town in New Jersey. Another, Paul did his first Cher imitation. Dave was cutting edge and edgy. Dave could insult and impress.
In 1982, I was still mourning the lost of my father and a relationship, trying to figure out what to do next with my life. One thing I knew, I could get a laugh for the end of my day watching Dave and falling asleep to the music that ends his show every night. I was soon to give up my dream of being a poet and enter into a decade-long quiet time.
Dave and I have both morphed and evolved. We have both had challenges and had to admit to foibles. Dave has done this in public, I have done it with a much smaller audience. Dave had the power to order a parade of Easter bunnies into a H&R Block or shower steamy New Yorkers with a water cannon and get away with it. I don't know that I need to be quite that bold but I live that boldness vicariously in the late-night time slot.
Eventually I came out of the quiet and stepped deliberately back onto the path of poet. My third collection of poems is just weeks away from showing up on my doorstep. I am 61 and wondering what this all will be, still wondering how to make ends meet as well, but eager for the next steps in life. For years, I wanted to tell Dave of every achievement and how he is such an inspiration and relief.
Some of the most touching moments of my friend Dave include his return after his heart attack (and the many acknowledgments of his healthcare team thereafter), the first night of broadcast after the fall of the Towers, announcing the birth of his son, Harry (and every birthday greeting since), his apology for indiscretions, and so many friends he has eulogized. The night he spoke of the death of Paul Newman, he was eloquent and heart-rending. Dave announces weddings and births among his staff. Dave notes big acts and small achievements of countless people we would never know otherwise. Dave has become a generous and clever spirit.
There is no younger man behind the desk of a late-night talk show who has not learned something from Dave. Some of their schtick is directly from Dave. But Dave is the master. The way he has grown gentle and generous, as well as more and more subtle in the brilliance of his humor, is the maturity of an artist in action. Sometimes Dave gives me a flattop for a minute; I say, "Wait a minute..." And then I laugh so hard my belly hurts. And Dave certainly has a fascination with gravity.
Dave understands two things that I would really appreciate his younger colleagues pay attention to; they could benefit from internalizing these very simple lessons:
1) It is not about them, it is about us (the viewers) and their guests. The hosts are there to bring out the best in the guests and entertain the audience, as well as keep things going. The hosts are not the center of attention but central to the success of every 60 minutes on air. There is a really important difference here that Dave has mastered.
2) It really is not necessary to shout all the time.
Dave has also been an elemental commentator in the national political/social dialogue. There was the night he called John McCain out for a bad decision in grandstanding, the times he challenged both sides of any argument, the clarity of his vision of the world around us and the state of our politics must also be recognized, and the periodic visits from Bill Clinton, Tom Brokaw, Rachel Maddow, even O'Reilly, to run it down for us all.
About a year ago, after Dave was readying us for the fact that his time to step down was not too far in the future, the Monday after the Emmys and the self congratulatory presence of the his younger colleagues, Dave quietly expressed his disappointment that not one word was offered to honor him for being the pillar of this business. There was a fist around my own heart at that time. He was right to be disappointed. That was a serious slight and I stopped ever watching the others, particularly the newest on the block, whose schtick is most beholding to the legacy of Dave (if you leave off the shouting and the self-conscious need to be the center of attention).
What will Pat Farmer do? Are there rooftops just yearning to have televisions and watermelons dropped from them? What will the newest bands do to get to the forefront? How many rimshots will Anton Fig be spared? Will Paul start the Schaffer Severson Museum of Sartorial Splendor? Will Felicia finally tour and let us hear her do a whole marvelous set?! I can stop thinking that I have to train my 10-year old Lab to do something silly and let her resume nap time. But Darlene Love's holiday serenade, Jay Thomas and the Lone Ranger story, visits to Rupert G.'s counter are all over. And what about Biff? Can he exist without headphones? And Dave's mom can relax now. The camera crew won't show up again but weren't the Olympics just great?! And Regis, now you really do have to retire, right?!
I have become a mature artist myself and am ready to understand the sublime elements of both my art form, poetry, and life itself. Dave has been my buddy all this time and I am struggling. Who will keep me grounded? Who will show me the musicians I should pay attention to now? Who will synthesize the news in tangible ways? And how will I fall asleep now?
Take note, Stephen Colbert: don't try to top Dave. Just do your best to honor Dave and take us forward. We trust you will know what to do.
Dave, have a great time and thanks for it all. I never got to the studio and I never wrote you any of the letters I wanted to over the years, but you are a foundational element of my adult life and daily trod of getting through all of this. I love you, Dave, and you have taught me a lot. You are a great friend.
Thank you. It will be canned ham for dinner tonight...