By Paula Hendrickson
As I write this, it’s Monday night and Late Show with David Letterman just started. Letterman is mid monologue and despite jokes about his impending retirement (from the show, anyway), it’s hard to fathom late night TV without this lanky legend delivering his nightly Top 10 list, even if I only tuned in once or twice a week.
In his 33 years hosting a talk show – first on NBC and later on CBS – Letterman has grown into a television institution. From Stupid Human Tricks to bits that made celebrities of people including Calvert DeForest (as “Larry ‘Bud’ Melman”), nearby business owners like Hello Deli’s Rupert Gee and souvenir shop owners Mujibur and Sirajul, and even his own mother, Dorothy, Letterman showcased the humor of everyday people. Many times he seemed to find average folks far more interesting than the thousands of celebrities who have been his guests over the decades.
Stupid Pet Tricks and 100-plus segments with zoologist Jack Hanna revealed Letterman’s love of animals. Nearly every time a dog did a Stupid Pet Trick, the host seemed to pay more attention to the pooch than its trainer.
Even semi-regular viewers probably caught on long ago that Letterman appreciates tradition and loyalty. One of my favorite Late Show traditions has been the Christmas show. Like clockwork, you could count on two things: 1) Jay Thomas throwing a football and knocking a meatball (and sometime the pizza too) off the top of the Late Show Christmas tree after telling his infamous Lone Ranger story, and 2) Darlene Love giving another killer rendition of her holiday classic, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” Thomas missed the show in 2013 due to illness, but was back for a final throw in 2014. Love always brought the house down.
Letterman’s skill as an interviewer shone when he had the ear of a world leader, humanitarian or any brilliant mind who might be able to answer difficult questions about topics like global warming, terrorism and growing global food and water shortages. Those discussions gave viewers a glimpse of the comedian’s serious side, and made it clear he’d done his homework on the topics in order to ask smart and serious questions – albeit often couched in his self-depreciating, “What do I know? I’m just a goofy talk show host” manner.
A notoriously private man, Letterman has openly shared raw emotion with his audience only a handful of times. The most memorable being in 2000 when he returned following life saving quintuple bypass surgery; on his first show after 9/11; and when he admitted to misdeeds rather than cave into a blackmail attempt. All of those moments resonated with viewers because letting his guard down even a bit proved there’s a lot of depth to this normally acerbic comedian.
It’s easy to take someone for granted when they’re on your screen five nights a week for decades on end. But when put in context, Letterman is the bridge between classic talk show hosts of earlier years — Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, Steve Allen — and the pop culture icons of today – Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers and even Jon Stewart.
When Letterman signs off this Wednesday for the final time, it truly will be the end of an era.
David Letterman’s final show airs tonight at 10:35 p.m. on CBS.