Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The End Of An Era, And The End Of A Genre

When I started the day, I made a promise on Facebook that I wouldn't post incessantly about the end of David Letterman's Late Show. But I HAD to write at least one thing. For any student of broadcasting, any student of comedy, or anyone who lived through the last 33 years, this is a truly bittersweet day. And for some of us, it's just a little more sad. I won't dwell on all the things you've probably seen on real media outlets, but I wanted to share some personal recollection on David Letterman's talent and influence on my life.

I spent my formative years in Indianapolis, and have a very unique experience of watching a very young David Letterman and a very young Jane Pauley start their careers on local television. Jane was, and still is, a magnificent newsperson but Dave started out a little bit differently. He was the smart ass who was sitting in the back of the room throwing spitballs at the teacher while the teacher was trying to explain the Roman empire. Even as early as the mid 70s, Dave was the guy who was breaking rules and changing the way those of us in our impressionable years molded our personalities. Just listen to the writing and delivery on this rare audio of Dave doing radio bits in 1974, courtesy of Brad Krantz.

People in Indy knew Dave had "something", but most of them didn't know exactly what it was. But it did land him a full time job at WLWI, the then ABC affiliate. Here's a video of some of Dave's local television work, hosting a 4H talkshow, doing the weather, and other middle market television duties in Indianapolis.

You've got to understand, that as a 15 or 16-year-old kid growing up in ultra conservative Indianapolis, seeing this kind of stuff on local television had a huge effect on me. Not only was it incredibly funny, but it proved that you could be sarcastic, sardonic, and silly without being shot at sunrise. I felt that this guy gave me permission to come out of my shell and develop a personality that was uniquely mine without fear of being seen as a freak. Of course, if you talked to my classmates at North Central High School, many still thought of me as a freak and do to this very day. But that's another blog post

After gaining a foothold in television and doing guest comedy bits on legendary Indy radio stations like WNAP,  David Letterman somehow found himself becoming a radio talk show host on WNTS, perhaps the worst radio signal in Indianapolis, a daytime station at 1590, WAY at the end of the AM dial. Just to give you an idea of what a potential train wreck the station was, this was their building.
WNTS building
But Dave did amazing radio. There aren't many tapes of his work at WNTS, otherwise I'd post them here. But he was simply hilarious, doing "bits" unlike anything heard on the radio at the time and coining phrases like "homelisteners" to refer to his audience, a term that' morphed into "homeviewers" during his TV career. The son of the owner of WNTS and General Manager of the station was Jeff Smulyan, who has always had a keen eye for talent and broadcasting, and later went on to found (and still runs) Emmis Communications. On a side note, I tried to call into Dave's show often, and hardly got more than a few what I thought were brilliant words out before he'd call me a "snot-nosed kid" and hung up on me with great aplomb. I don't think I ever got past the second sentence, and sadly have never communicated directly with Dave since those days.

At some point, most everyone realizes they've done all they can do in Indianapolis, and Dave was no exception. He got his wife Michelle, loaded up a red pickup truck, and headed to Los Angeles. This is where the well shared stories about David Letterman in just about every media outlet start, and where, in the interest of brevity, I take a pause in the Dave stories.

Fast forward to 1980. With The Gong Show's run finished, I needed a reason to avoid college classes by watching oddball TV shows, and I discovered my childhood hero Dave Letterman had a NETWORK show. None of this cheesy local programming, a real live network show with an audience, Edwin Newman, an actual News God, doing updates, and crazy things that nobody had ever seen on television before. He had semi-regular guest players like Chris Elliott, Edie McClurg as the wonderful Mrs. Marv Mendenhall, and many more. It was absolute genius, and that's why it lasted only four months.

But like Jeff Smulyan before him, Fred Silverman, who was running NBC, saw that there was something amazing about Dave, so, as is well documented in other places, Dave got his own show in the Wasteland of the Vast Wasteland, 12:30AM Eastern. And it was spectacular. You know the story, I won't go into it, but for many years, I never missed the show, watching it in real time even though I had to get up at 3:30AM to produce a radio show for some of that time. It didn't matter, you never knew what a going to happen next on the show, screaming at workers in Rockefeller Center with a bullhorn, jumping into water in an Alka-Seltzer suit, having Jay Thomas throw footballs at a meatball on top of a Christmas tree, it was all off the wall, usually hilarious, and completely different than anything else on TV.

Perhaps my favorite recurring bit on the show, both at NBC and CBS, a the annual visit from Darlene Love and her singing the classic "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)". After her final performance of the song last year, the Late Show staff put together this supercut of all her performances. I only have two words to describe it, musical magic.

I can't talk about David Letterman and how much he means to me without sharing two personal stories, so please indulge me. My wife and I got to see Late Night With David Letterman tape in the mid 90's, and it was amazing. But perhaps the part I'll remember most was before the show. As things often happened for me in those days, we got our tickets from a staffer on the show who was the friend of a friend, so we sort of had to sneak our way into what was then (and to me will always be) the RCA Building, we went up to the offices and got taken to the 6th floor studio. We were early, so the person who was taking care of us suggested we wait for a while up on the 9th floor in the NBC Commissary and she'd come get us when it was time for warm-up. I'd been to the legendary Commissary before, but my wife hadn't. So we hung out there having a drink with me rambling on about how Johnny Carson made jokes about the place when he was in the building and who I'd seen there in the past. Just then, Hal Gurnee, who was a TV legend in his own right, but was better known as the Director of
Hal Gurnee
Legendary Director Hal Gurnee
Late Night, walked in. If you remember those days, Hal was a part of the show and had become kind of a cult hero. To make a long story short, I can clearly remember Hal's blue shirt and the fact he grabbed a snack and coffee before showtime. It was "a moment", to sit a few tables away from HAL EMMY AWARD FREAKING GURNEE. I can't tell you who was on the show, what jokes Dave told, but I can tell you all about my "brush with greatness" with Hal Gurnee.

One last thing. One of the Executive Producers of the Late Show With David Letterman is a lady named Barbara Gaines. She's been featured on the show on and off over the years in many different ways, but her story is much more significant to the success of the show. She started out as the receptionist on the Morning Show, has been with Letterman through thick and thin, and, as many of the unheralded staff and crew of TV shows are, is not recognized for the tremendous contribution she's made to Dave's career. I found her on Twitter (no, I wasn't stalking her) yesterday and sent a short "thank you" tweet.
I know this sounds geeky and a little bit creepy to some, but I was stunned to see that she favorited the tweet and followed me. That may not mean much to most people, but it's a true honor to be noticed by one of the unsung heroes of Dave Letterman's magnificent career. Barbara, not that you'll read this, but I'm deeply touched.

I loved Johnny Carson, but only really appreciated his talent and interviewing style towards the end of his career. I feel like I've had some kind of connection to David Letterman most of my life, and I've laughed and learned from him. I believe he's the last of the late night sitting-behind-the-desk-with-a-big-non-functioning-microphone-on-it hosts. Yes, we have Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert, and those who will follow them, but the guy who set the tone for all of them is Letterman. 33 years on network television is an amazing run, especially with some of the bumps in the road he's endured. But his wit, wisdom, and whimsy have changed the late night talk show genre forever, and we should all be proud that, just as with people like Michael Jordan and other one of a kind megastars, we got to see Dave in his prime. There will never be another David Letterman, and, at least to me, he will be missed.

But that still doesn't make up for hanging up on me so many times.

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