Good Bye, David Letterman
by Robert A. Mitchell
Photo: Jeffery R. Stabb CBS 2015
We humans are weird, strange, emotional creatures. On any given day it is difficult to ascertain what might put us into an emotional tailspin and send us into a slight depression and self-reflective state. Last Wednesday night (May 20th, 2015) I was sitting with my wife watching David Letterman’s last show in our living room in my adopted state of Indiana — which I thought was apropos given Letterman’s roots. The end of the show when Dave said, “That’s pretty much all I’ve got, the only thing I have left to do on a television program, thank you and good night,” followed by The Foo Fighters playing their song Everlong over a montage from both the CBS and NBC shows was hitting the rewind button x10 on my memories. Images I have not seen in years flashed by, Larry “Bud” Melman saying “Good evening.” Then video of the various stunts that Letterman pulled such as being lowered in a tank of water wearing an Alka-Seltzer suit, the suit made of velcro which he vaulted off a trampoline onto a wall of velcro. I insta-remembered seeing these shows as a kid and was jettisoned back thirty years.
That night I had an extremely restless sleep. Endlessly tossing and turning. Mild allergies mixed with anxiety. The images from the Letterman montage and the song Everlong replaying in my head. A couple of times through the night I would have this sensation of suffocating and bolt upright as though I was emerging from being buried in sand or like I was drowning. Being awake most of the night, I fell into a self-reflective thought pattern, wondering what I was doing with my life and where I was going with the finite amount of time I have on this planet. The next day was no picnic.
In between my daily routine I found myself on YouTube replaying The Foo Fighters montage several times to tap into that nostalgic, melancholy feeling. I fell into the rabbit’s hole and began watching an endless amount of old Late Night clips. I recalled the opening of the Late Night on NBC that I loved so much. A yellow taxi-cab driving slowly down a dark and desolate New York City street. A stencil on the asphalt saying Late Night. The camera tracks through an office building as a janitor cleans an office. A neon sign for a neighborhood bar. The camera enters, several patrons alone and slumped over the counter and booths. The camera then swoops into a parking garage, a guy stretched out on a bench reading the morning paper. New York City looked gritty and dangerous. One of my other favorite television shows in the eighties was The Equalizer, it also had an opening sequence of a gritty and dangerous New York. As if to confirm my reflections of this era of the pre-disneyfication of New York, in one of the YouTube clips I watched, The Late Night announcer Bill Wender says in his baritone voice “From New York, the dumpster that never sleeps.”
Allow me to rewind the VHS tapes of my memories, press play and adjust the tracking. 1985. My father had an apartment in a high rise building in Toronto that was near the holy shrine that was The Maple Leaf Gardens. He was a truck driver for the Globe & Mail (A daily Toronto newspaper). This job saw him working nights. I have fond and vivid memories of sitting in the passenger seat as we drove down near empty streets. As we turned and went down Spadina Ave and through Chinatown, red and green neon signs spilled their colors onto the streets and there were these pockets of hustle and bustle centered around restaurants. We would then arrive at the Globe building on Front street. My father would usher me into the building and we headed to the large printing room to watch the creation of the morning paper. It was a huge thrill for me to stand high above the printing press and marvel at the many conveyor belts as thousands of papers rushed by. It was one of my first glimpses into the subculture of people who work nights.
It was also around this time that I would wind up on my first film set. One of my father’s buddies, a fellow Globe driver who I called Uncle Mitch, was also a driver for movie trucks. He got me on the set for Police Academy 3: Back In Training. I don’t recall much of being on the set except being in awe of the people, trucks and equipment. I have always loved cameras and was quite taken with the film cameras and the lights.
During this summer I also bought my first comic books from the corner store on the street far below my father’s apartment. The store had one of those circular metal racks for the new comics and the first one I bought was The Punisher limited series number two. The cover was striking. It featured the Punisher standing against a brick wall in a Manhattan subway entrance as a bunch of bad dudes descended the stairs towards Frank Castle. Once again this cover reenforced the image of a tough, crime-ridden New York City. That comic book is now signed by the artist Mike Zeck and framed on the wall of my writing office. I spent a lot of time in my father’s apartment by myself. He was sleeping during the days and working nights. My imagination flourished in all of this alone time. I remember reenacting that Punisher cover by hiding behind the couch in the living room and pretending it was that New York City subway entrance and I was a ten year old vigilante. Years later, finding out the revelation that Late Night with David Letterman was not shot at 12:30 am but was taped in the afternoon was tantamount to another kid finding out the truth about Santa Claus.
My father has been a long distance truck driver for over thirty-five years. His home is a sleeper bunk behind his steering wheel in some rest stop/parking lot/truck stop somewhere in North America. However, during this summer of 1985, as I have stated, he was a city driver for the newspaper which, although a night shift was an inversion of his hours, was the most time I recall spending with him. Which brings me back to David Letterman. On my father’s nights off we would stay up late and watch The Late Show. I can still recall my father’s deep robust laugh when I think of watching these shows. David Letterman in the mid-eighties. Boy oh boy was that funny stuff. His deadpan, sarcastic and self-deprecating humor was a real revelation to me. The idea that one could tell a joke and have no expression on your face which kept people guessing if you were telling the truth or were joking is my favorite kind of humor and one I have spent my years trying to obtain. There was also David Letterman’s sense of mischief. Some of the bits that have long stayed with me are Letterman playing “Mr. Curious”, a guy just hanging out in the street trying to see what’s in your bag or perhaps at the one-hour photo shop trying to get a glimpse of your vacation photos. On my recent YouTube journey through old Late Night clips I came across the Mr. Curious moment when he approaches two uniformed NYC beat cops. “What do you do for a living?” he asks. The one cop responds, “I’m a mailman.” “It’s a tough city; the mailmen carry guns and billy clubs,” Mr. Curious turns toward the camera and deadpans. Looking back I can make the connection that since it was this humor that I first encountered which made my father laugh so heartily, it has been my goal to be this kind of funny as a way to seek my father’s approval.
By the time I was a teenager and was back in my hometown for a couple of years my friends and I’s comedy influences had turned towards the Red tapes from the Two Bar in Jersey and the Jerky Boys. Which I have to think were directly influenced from the ultimate prankster Letterman, phoning a pay phone in Times Square bit comes readily to mind. One of the best pranks my friends and I pulled was at our local convenience store. We pulled up to the store, my friend dialing the store on his newly acquired cellular phone and informed the cashier that “We have been tracking an individual (describing my sixteen year old self) and that this person was an international renowned counterfeiter and that under absolutely no circumstances should they sell me anything.” I waited a couple of moments and then walked in. Immediately the two people working in the store eyeballed me with such intensity that I could feel them starring at me. I played it up and wandered the couple of aisles and picked up several items, inspected them and put them back on the shelf. I finally approached the counter and picked up a five cent Bazooka Joe bubble gum and placed it on the counter. At this time my friends waiting outside walked into the store trying to get a glimpse of what was taking so long. They looked at me and had to stifle laughter and went back outside. As I then try to pay with a twenty dollar bill, the look upon the cashier and stock clerk face’s was one of the most remarkable things I have seen. A look of absolutely astonishment and bewilderment. They refused to sell me the gum. When I pressed them on why they couldn’t sell me the gum they fumbled over words, finally arriving at that they could not tell me. That moment in that corner store was one of the greatest tests of maintaining a deadpan face. I left the store to so much laughter from my friends and finally breaking my deadpan face, myself.
As I entered my twenties I was back living in Toronto. A worked a lot of jobs, landscaper, bartender, house painter, dock worker, until I fell into working nights in a grocery store. I had now become like one of those people in the opening montage of the original Late Night. When you work nights you tell yourself it’s only temporary. In my case, I temporarily worked the graveyard shift for ten years. My first store I was promised full time for over a year, long story short once a full time position became available I was then told it was being absolved to cut back on the payroll. The next night I quit. Two weeks later I started working for a new grocery company. The store was located at Bloor and Spadina. The street I fondly remembered transversing with my father many years ago to see the newspaper being printed. My first shift was the night of September 1st, 2001. By the night of the 10th I had worked several nights in a row. As the pre dawn bluish, pink sky began to form in the East I left work and entered the subway. I was heading to the furthest Western stop as I was seeing a woman who lived in Mississauga, a city adjacent to Toronto. I was so exhausted I fell asleep on the train. At the last stop I bolted out of sleep. I headed to the surface to catch the first of the two busses I had to take to get to my girlfriend’s apartment. Finally arriving I had breakfast and fell into a deep slumber. An hour or so later I woke up and could not return to sleep. I went to the living room and turned on CNN to see if the world was still there. This morning it wasn’t.
The images I was seeing were indescribable. I watched a plane smash into a World Trade Center building. The buildings came crashing to the ground. People running as a tidal wave of ash billowed down streets. New York City a city I had come to love and I’ve only seen on television was on every television channel. The confusion of that day is hard to put into words even after all of these years. My father was actually not on the road and was home. My immediate impulse was to call him. “What’s going on?” I asked. “They’re gone.” “What do you mean they’re gone?” “The World Trade Center. They don’t exist anymore.” Stunned silence. It was immediately known that world we knew had changed irrevocably.
Just six days after the attack – with the site still smoldering – David Letterman returned to the air. His poignant monologue still resonates. “…if we are going to continue to do shows, I just need to hear myself talk for a couple of minutes, and so that’s what I’m going to do here… It is terribly sad here in New York City. We’ve last five thousand fellow New Yorkers, and you can feel it. It’s terribly sad. Terribly, terribly sad….there is only one requirement for any of us and that is to be courageous because courage as you might know, defines all other human behavior.” That’s one of the things that resonates with me as I reminisce about watching Letterman all of these years. He was always there. During the difficult time of the 9/11 attacks or his personal health crisis, when he was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery for a quintuple bypass. Most recently during Hurricane Sandy that was taped in an empty Ed Sullivan Theater. The image of Letterman and Paul Schaffer standing in yellow rain courts outside the theater still resonates. Now I’m married and currently calling Indiana my adopted state. As George Clooney joked on one of the last shows, “I’m a married man now Dave, I’m home, I’m home with my wife, I turn on the t.v. and now I hear that you’re not going to be there…that’s not okay.” I felt the same way. David Letterman was no longer going to be there. That’s not okay.
One thing that has resonated with me about David Letterman was he never pandered or kissed the asses of the numerous celebrities or politicians that have sat beside him over the years. If it was talking about not getting the Tonight Show after Johnny Carson retired or the Leno, Conan fiasco. There was the night Paris Hilton was on the Late Show to sell a perfume and the first thing Dave asked, “So, what was jail like?” The time that John McCain snubbed the show, the memorable Bill O’Reilly appearance. Dave Letterman didn’t play softball and mince words with guests. It has been said by a great many people the impact Letterman has had on other comedians and the creation of what Late Night television shows could and would be and what they have become. In short, in my opinion David Letterman is late night television. Last night I flipped to CBS to see what was occupying the 11:35 pm spot. It was the show The Mentalist. My heart sank. The time slot after the local news has someone missing. However there is no room for nostalgia in show biz. The next day after the last Late Show with David Letterman workers were in the Ed Sullivan theater taking down and destroying the iconic set piece of the bridges and skyline of New York City. I read in a N.Y. Post article that the George Washington bridge was saved; perhaps it will wind up in the Smithsonian.
As I finish up my thoughts, those late nights sitting in a dark room in front of the television, the bluish light flickering around me, scenes of Letterman dropping watermelons off a six story building, tossing bowling balls unto a car far below fill my memory. Forever etched in my memory is Chris Elliot popping up in the audience as the man below the stairs. Larry “Bud” Melman interviewing travelers at Penn Station. Who can forget Zippy the Chimpanzee skating around as “The Late Night Monkey Cam”? There was Paul Shaffer’s voice, always off camera interjecting a point. All of these great television moments. I want to thank Mr. Letterman for making my father and I laugh so many times. I wonder where my father is tonight and when the last time he laughed was.