Letterman At 25

OK, OK, I know this is a sports blog, but I would regret it if I didn’t use my little forum here to mark the 25th anniversary of David Letterman’s first late night broadcast.

As much as I feel silly admitting it, there was a period of about six years of my life when Letterman’s show was more often than not the highlight of my day. (Not that I was that miserable a kid — I simply enjoyed the show that much.) In 1984, after Letterman had been on NBC for a couple of years, I decided (after the occassional viewing) to commit. So from about the seventh grade through high school graduation, I probably missed his show less than ten times.

I can recall family vacations where I had to rotate the hotel room TV to prevent the light from waking my parents; unfortunately, one of those nights was Letterman’s classic disruption of a “Today” taping with a bullhorn and these unforgettable lines: “I’m Lawrence Grossman! I’m the President of NBC News! This prime-time special was my idea . . . and I’m not wearing pants!” screamed at Bryant Gumbel and company. I howled with laughter, awakening my folks and quickly putting an end to my clandestine hotel Letterman viewing.

To mark Letterman’s anniversary, every TV critic out there is predictably doing a “Top Ten Letterman” moments. While I surely agree with most of them (Crispin Glover, Cher, the Monkey Cam), I tend to remember less celebrated moments: A rant from performance artist Brother Theodore followed by a perfectly-timed reaction shot from a disinterested and/or confused Billy Joel, “The Strong Guy, The Fat Guy, The Genius,” Larry “Bud” Melman offering Penthouse magazines to tourists, the after-school special parody where Letterman consoled a young boy upset at the cancellation of his favorite show, “David Letterman’s Summer Time Sunshine Happy Hour,” stage hand Al Frisch doing anything, a disasterous appearance from a unintelligble Sam Phillips of Sun Records fame. His final NBC show with Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen — Letterman had never seemed so excited about a guest as he did for Springsteen — is one of my favorite hours of TV ever. (NBC allowed Letterman to go over by about 10 minutes as he emotionally thanked his staff, a foreshadowing of the sometimes more serious and thoughtful Letterman that CBS got in 1993.)

Since Letterman’s move to CBS, I haven’t kept up with his show as much. (Now I TiVo it and watch it in bits and pieces.) Don’t get me wrong. I still think Letterman’s the best in the business. But his show is now more a talk show with comedy elements than a comedy show with talk elements, which it was in its mid-eighties heyday. But 25 years in, Letterman is fresher and funnier than talk-show hosts 2/3 his age and for my money has made a more lasting impression on TV than his hero Johnny Carson, a point that Jon Stewart correctly made after Letterman gave a moving tribute to Carson at the Emmys a couple of years back. And for anyone who doubts Letterman’s relevancy, his is still the only late night talk show to consistently make news and for a myriad of reasons: His first post-9/11 broadcast, his tales of his surprise holiday trips to Iraq, his welcoming a newly single (and hopefully underwear-wearing) Britney Spears.

Thanks Dave, for the memories and for the highlights to come. Now where’s that DVD boxed set of highlights? Can you get someone working on that?

Well, I had planned on writing about sports, but I went on long enough about Letterman, who is from Indianapolis, home of the Colts, who I believe are playing in some game this weekend. More about that tomorrow!

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