As you may be aware, the very last episode of Late Night With David Letterman will air tonight. It will be supplanted in September with a new late-night talk show starring Stephen Colbert, which will presumably be titled Late Night With Stephen Colbert. Call it a hunch. I wasn’t going to write about David Letterman’s retirement because, frankly, I haven’t watched a full episode of Late Night in about twenty years. I’ve seen interviews and pertinent clips on YouTube and the like, but I haven’t deigned to stay up late enough to sit through the entire thing. I used to, however; as a young kid watching Late Night With David Letterman was a nightly summer ritual shared by my brother and me–mind you, this is when Letterman came on after The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, so we were watching Dave during the 12:30-1:30 AM block.
I suppose I was around nine or ten when my official bedtime was lifted during the summer. I don’t remember there ever being a formal declaration, and indeed there may not have been. I had a television of my own in my bedroom, and there simply came a time that I ventured past the 11 PM nightly airing of The Honeymooners and Johnny Carson’s monologue to find out what lay beyond. For a while, my brother and I shared the one television, a chunky, white behemoth that was stolen from a hotel at some point and so got AM/FM radio along with VHF and UHF television. We would while away the evenings watching sitcoms and the occasional edited-for-TV movie, but by 11 PM we’d settled into a rhythm that would culminate with Late Night With David Letterman. And let me tell you, we fucking loved that show.
Those who never saw the show in its NBC days probably don’t know how really wild and revolutionary it was. There was a camera attached to a truss above the set that would careen about wildly and threaten to brain a member of the studio audience. There was a guy named Larry “Bud” Melman who was much-beloved by the audience but always seemed like he didn’t want to be there. Dave would have inventors, people doing Stupid Human Tricks (an offshoot of his more popular Stupid Pet Tricks), and other assorted weirdos and crackpots. Late Night With David Letterman was like a low-budget public access cable show, except that Steve Martin would show up from time to time. It was in stark contrast to Johnny Carson’s more staid, formulaic fare.
My memories of watching David Letterman are inextricable from memories of my brother, who would normally watch while stretched out on the linoleum floor of my bedroom while I watched lying in my bed. Throughout the night, I would test him on the time, which he almost always guessed down to the exact minute, a feat that amazed me as a kid (though I now suspect that my brother simply knew when commercial breaks happened relative to the half hour.) We’d both get really excited when Chris Elliot was on the program doing something weird and gross. Late Night With David Letterman in those days shaped and appealed to our senses of humor, and I doubt these episodes have aged well. We saw Crispin Glover almost kick Letterman’s teeth in, we saw Drew Barrymore bare her tits to him, we saw Harvey Pekar booted off the show, never to return–something that resonated with the two of us, since my father was a regular reader of Pekar’s American Splendor. And in the flickering light of late-night television, my brother and I bonded. We had few opportunities to do so back then and even fewer as we grew older and further apart. So to David Letterman, I tip my hat and thank you for thirty-three years of humorous service that helped shape the lives of two stupid kids from Queens.