David Letterman’s real legacy? He never kissed ass.
I started watching David Letterman when I was a little kid. It was the early ’80s and I would hear my parents laughing so loudly in the den downstairs that it would wake me from a dead sleep. I would join them on the couch in my pajamas and laugh along with them at stupid pet tricks, Larry “Bud” Melman or Dave wearing suits of Velcro or Rice Krispies. Like my parents, and millions of Americans, I was hooked on the most unique television I had ever seen. It was an unusual hybrid of comedy, variety, talk and music, a formula that would endure for most of Letterman’s years on TV. While similar to Johnny Carson, it was somehow radically edgy and different.
As a long-time fan of Late Show with David Letterman, and Dave himself, last night’s farewell was more than just an end to an impressive 33-year career. It was the end of a talk show with a host who had real integrity. I can’t think of another entertainment-based show whose host stayed true to himself, his aging audience or his brand of humor more than Letterman did. That guy never kissed ass the way Jay Leno would, or Kathie Lee Gifford does with that fake Hollywood disingenuous “I love everybody” B.S. that we, the audience, know isn’t real. He didn’t exchange Tom Hanks for the latest YouTube star, nor did he try to pretend he was anything but a 60-something-year-old white guy from Connecticut.
If he loved a guest he gushed; if he didn’t, he never tried to hide it. He knew that we knew. He was unapologetic in his love for Sarah Jessica Parker, who was on the show 32 times. He clearly had a special relationship with Julia Roberts, who had done the show at least once a year since her first appearance in 1988. And of course, there was his favorite, Regis Philbin, who had the most appearances with 150 (some of which seemed to be last minute if another guest bailed on them), but we knew Dave loved him, regardless.
I respected Dave when he didn’t pander to a guest. Like when he shut down Paris Hilton’s blatant and shameless attempt to promote her clothing line and perfume, instead riddling her with relentless questions about jail: “Did you have three meals a day?” “What would the breakfast be?” “Did you lose a lot of weight in prison?” Even after she tried to change the subject and stop his endless questioning he kept at it telling her that this was “all he wanted to talk about.”
He disagreed publicly and stubbornly with Bill O’Reilly, telling him, “You’re putting words in my mouth just the way you put artificial facts in your head.” Leno would never do that.
When Dave seamlessly went from interviewing C- and D-list stars to having full access to Oscar-winning A-list celebrities he kept the questions mundane and real, forcing people who were now his equals to come down to his level rather than trying to meet them at theirs. He would ask Tom Hanks what famous person he met that excited him. He didn’t shy away from Cher’s disgust and hostility. She sat with her arms folded the entire interview finally calling him an “asshole” and he didn’t cower, nor did he kick her out or say an unkind word to her.
We got to know the real David Letterman, not the fake persona that so many stars try to put past us.
He boldly addressed and took responsibility for his sexual involvement with a Late Show intern telling us, “I have had sex with women who work on the show.” He wasn’t afraid of being serious about people he admired, having musician Warren Zevon on for a full hour after Zevon’s cancer diagnosis, and he did not shy away from his controversial Bristol Palin joke. He was not going to kiss anyone’s ass; he was always honest, sometimes brutally.
We also knew that he loved the Foo Fighters, having them on after his heart surgery, as well as a week-long residency in October 2014, and again last night as his final music guests on his final show. He played favorites and didn’t pretend that wasn’t true, which made him so very real.
Which explains why, when the biggest names in comedy (Steve Martin, Chris Rock, Tina Fey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, etc.) appeared on his final show, it felt like they were our old friends too, coming on as extras to read the final Top 10 list, putting their egos aside parading in like a senior class show just before graduation.
Come to think of it, I find it fitting that Dave ended his 33-year run during graduation week since we, as fans, watched him work hard, stood by him and wished him well. For me, living in New York (for many years just one avenue away from the Ed Sullivan Theater) I can’t help but feel a kinship to this New York and TV icon. I will miss both my neighbor and my late-night TV companion. Good luck, Dave!