David Letterman speaks his heart on surgery, future

20 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Late Show With David Letterman’ finale countdown: Revisiting the New Orleans connections.

David Letterman won’t be the only unemployed person come May 20 when the “Late Show” curtains are drawn one last time; Letterman’s departure will also mean the end of the road for eccentric keyboardist and jokester sidekick Paul Shaffer. The first night Late Night with David Letterman aired, Bill Murray bounded on stage and vowed to shadow Letterman for the rest of his career. “I know you’re on here late night where nobody can stop you,” he ranted. “‘If it’s the last thing I’m gonna do, I’m gonna make every second of your life from this moment on a living hell.” Tuesday night, Murray will appear on the penultimate Late Show as Letterman’s last scheduled guest, and there’s an obvious symmetry to it, as well as history; Murray’s walked or flown onto Dave’s stage numerous times over the years. I give big odds against “mawkish.” America will be saying goodbye to its most evolved celebrity, a complicated man who’s had the good graces to respect his audience by embracing certain core, sometimes apparently conflicting, values. “It’s just a damn TV show,” Letterman has said, expressing discomfort at the praise lavished upon him of late. Canada’s Schaffer picked an appearance by James Brown in 1982 as his favourite musical moment, while host Letterman brought up a 1984 drop-by appearance by Bob Dylan. Shaffer spoke highly of Letterman who provided him with what he called “the best job he was ever going to have.” In his early days of bandleading, Shaffer said that Letterman would always encourage him to speak up if a funny thought popped into his head.

During the nostalgic extravaganza, Letterman and bandleader-sidekick Paul Shaffer have been toasted by favorite guests and musical acts, while celebrating many of their best (and worst) on-air moments together. For just a few months in New Orleans, though, because in fall 1983 NBC affiliate WDSU ditched Letterman’s show for the syndicated (and more profitable) “Thicke of the Night,” a Canadian transplant hosted by Alan Thicke. The bandleader goes on to talk about what the new chapter will hold for himself — the late-night curmudgeon’s perpetual right hand: In those moments, were you thinking only how great this is for Dave and what an accomplishment? Yes, when Letterman was lowered into a 900-gallon tank of water wearing a suit attached with 3,400 Alka-Seltzers, he was channeling Steve Allen, the first host of “The Tonight Show.” But when NBC opened up the time slot after “The Tonight Show,” the network restricted Letterman from using a number of time-honored talk show conventions that Johnny Carson had made his own. And here came this Indiana comic in Carson trappings, but he was giggling at the rules he was breaking, wearing a Rice Krispies suit into a giant bowl of milk, reveling in regular guests who were slightly off-kilter street poets or obviously incompetent character actors.

Mark Lorando, the Times-Picayune TV columnist, called the replacement show “torturous.” Benjamin Morrison, also of the Times-Picayune’s TV staff, called it “painful and prosaic.” WDSU’s Royal Street studio was petitioned and picketed by “Save Dave” activists, and the newspaper’s TV Focus Forum – rocking reader interactivity and engagement decades before online comment streams and polls – was flooded with protesting letters. It is hard to convey to somebody now, when rule-bending television is the norm and the ordinary stuff has to fight to survive, just how breathtaking early Letterman was. They were entertainers part of whose acts riffed on the shtick of entertaining: think Murray’s lounge-lizard rendition of the Star Wars theme on SNL. No. 9 Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel harmonized on The Boxer and America in 2003, but Garfunkel had eased our mind even more with his epic solo version of Bridge Over Trouble Water a decade earlier. Dogs did Stupid Pet Tricks; Chris Elliott emerged from under the bleachers; stuff got smashed, either by being dropped from a five-story tower or crushed by steamroller or hydraulic press.

But he set the tone for an era, one in which irony and skepticism were entirely legitimate responses to life, and “celebrity,” far from an exalted status, was mostly just dumb luck. The 1970s SNL and the 1980s Letterman, both grimy New York institutions, had a kind of punk-rock sensibility, puncturing the artifice that had bloated showbiz and stripping TV down to essentials and anarchy. (You could say the same of some other classic early-Dave guests, like Andy Kaufman and Sandra Bernhard.) Fans responded to that same sensibility in Murray and Letterman, but their detractors saw a similarity too. Cable penetration wasn’t what it would someday become, but Letterman did what he could for the industry by jokingly announcing on his show that WDSU would pay for cable installation for New Orleans viewers. People who didn’t like Murray thought he used irony as a crutch, using his laid-back delivery to smugly distance himself from, and make himself superior to, his characters and material. With its Seasons (Waiting On You), in 2014 the Baltimore synth-pop band Future Islands wowed the Internet and thrilled an ecstatic Letterman too: “I’ll take all of that you got!

Letterman came in for some of the same knocks, as I write in my TIME essay: To some detractors, Letterman was the culture’s Typhoid Mary of nihilism. While Carson’s show was a smooth, pleasant entertainment for adults to enjoy before drifting off to sleep, Letterman was what happens when there’s no adult supervision. In David Foster Wallace’s short story “My Appearance,” an actress is coached on how to succeed on Late Night: “Laugh in a way that’s somehow deadpan. In the last few weeks, there have been more words published about Letterman, about his influence on comedy and television and even society, than there probably were in the last five years. No. 4 The World’s Most Dangerous Band was never more dangerous on the night in 1982 when James Brown got his groove on with Sex Machine, There Was a Time and I Got the Feelin’.

He did change the landscape, moving us from the era of Carson, which still took show business relatively seriously, into the one of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, which sees artifice everywhere, especially in the institutions meant to guide us. Murray kept making funny movies, but as he aged and greyed, he tapped into the melancholy that is often the silent partner of comedy, working with directors, like Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson, who knew how to bring that out in them.

The closest the city came to a “Late Night” remote was a November 1984 live appearance by Larry “Bud” Melman (later known to CBS Letterman fans by his real name, Calvert DeForest) aboard the Riverboat President. Letterman, meanwhile, struggled in the ’90s after moving to CBS; he topped Leno in the ratings for a while, but didn’t quite seem to know how to function as top dog rather than underdog. No. 2 In October, 2002, the Letterman friend and Werewolves of London singer Warren Zevon sat in with the band for a week, during which Letterman devoted an entire show to the rocker who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. Celebrities asked to sum up Letterman’s influence offer paeans like the one Craig Ferguson, who followed Letterman for a decade on CBS’s “The Late Late Show,” recently shared with me: “The question is big because Dave’s impact is huge,” Ferguson said. “He’s very self deprecating about what his contribution has been.

Then in his next decade–maybe not precisely with his heart surgery in 2000, but right around there–he entered his second great period, this time not as a comic bomb-thrower but as a raconteur, a spoken-word essayist. But really the anarchy and quirkiness and oddness that Dave brought to television is similar to what the Marx Brothers brought to vaudeville and early movies. WGNO reruns of “Mama’s Family” and “Designing Women” ruled local late-night ratings – defeating both “Late Show” and “Tonight” — at the time of Letterman’s CBS launch. “Good Times” reruns on the same outlet would prevail in later years. We showed up once as “The Comedy Team that Weighs the Same” (168 pounds, two ounces) and did a weigh-in, on a very large scale, wearing only Speedos. By May 1998, Lettermen’s New Orleans ratings were so substantial that his show demonstrated its appreciation by flying 400 New Orleanians to New York to be in the “Late Show” audience for an episode. “Among the 460 passengers traveling by 737 and DC-10 to New York courtesy of Letterman were members of the Antoine’s and Brennan’s restaurant families, WCKW radio’s John Walton and Steve Johnson, assorted TV brass and Harry Connick Jr.’s geometry teacher, Jesuit’s Kathi Tomeny,” she wrote. “Social workers Kevin Bourgeois and Kim Cappiello designed crab and crawfish-studded hats for the occasion, while Kristen Marks and Heidi Landry donned sequined purple, green and gold vests and giant Mardi Gras beads.” “The stomping, clapping, cheering Orleanians — dancing in place along with an irrepressible (Frank) Davis, who led them from the aisle — paid little heed,” Peck wrote.

The episode featured a theme-setting Biff Henderson location piece (in which he sampled barbecue shrimp, beignets and Bananas Foster), guest appearances by Richard Simmons and John Goodman, music by Beau Jocque and the Zydeco Hi Rollers, and a New Orleans Top 10. I don’t know any comedian working who doesn’t respect Dave for being the giant figure he has been.” From another generation and another rung in the comedy ladder, there’s Scott Morehead, a cast member in his first Second City revue, the e.t.c. troupe’s “Soul Brother, Where Art Thou?” “I first discovered Dave Letterman in a sort of conscious way when I was in middle school,” said Morehead, who is 33. “I had a great friend, Matt Hoffman, he had a VHS copy of, like, Dave’s best moments. Shaffer’s TV history with the city dates to the doomed Mardi Grass 1977 episode of “Saturday Night Live.” Shaffer had departed “SNL” after its first season to star in the sitcom “A Year at the Top,” which flopped. His return to “SNL” came in time for a performance of “The Antler Dance,” the brainchild of head writer Michael O’Donoghue, on the Mardi Gras episode. “It was a satire on that kind of ’60s kind of dance craze,” Shaffer said in a story marking the episode’s inclusion in a 2008 DVD box-set release. “It was about this legend that Michael made up about this masked man that shows up once every 10 years at Mardi Gras and leads the wild throngs in the dancing of The Antler Dance.

He also said that he has a a “few commitments” that he plans to take on, though he did no disclose the details. “After the summer’s over, we’ll see what happens. Now that I think of it, in watching it, I still didn’t really understand it.” The odd bit is notable today for the background cameos played in it by a couple of The Meters. (The funk titans had been booked to perform on the episode but got bumped by time constraints caused by the legendarily chaotic execution of a live TV show during Carnival.) Shaffer and Letterman made consecutive December pleasure visits in the dark post-Katrina years of 2005 and 2006. The oddest of holidays rites began in 1998 when Jesuit High School grad Jay Thomas, a “Late Show” guest along with Vinny Testaverde, knocked a Hello Deli meatball off the top of a Christmas tree on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater. Since his days as a weatherman on a local Indianapolis newscast, where he’s described the awesome responsibility of being “one heartbeat away from anchorman,” Letterman has been a uniquely American wit.

He had comedy first and foremost in his heart.” Or witness Norm Macdonald, the usually cynical, unflappable Norm Macdonald, appearing on one of Letterman’s final shows Friday night. “The first time I saw him I was 13 years old,” Macdonald began, telling a story about Letterman appearing on a Toronto TV show. In 1985, during a particularly weak season of “Saturday Night Live,” a TV critic from The Philadelphia Inquirer called me and asked why we weren’t doing “risky” comedy like Letterman.

Letterman is not for the mawkish, and he has no truck for the sentimental,” said Macdonald, still fighting for words. “If something is true, it is not sentimental. The critic cited the Monkey-Cam, a bit involving a roller-skating chimpanzee with a TV camera attached to his head. “That’s not risky,” I said, “It’s actually foolproof. When people give him compliments, he always sweeps them away.” Middle-period Dave, after NBC gave the “Tonight” show to Jay Leno instead of him and he first went to CBS, was trying, hard, to be No. 1 in late night. Trying to explain this transition in 2009, I wrote, “Since his 2000 heart surgery, (Letterman) has taken on President Bush and candidate John McCain, global warming and Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and the lack of national leadership. His first broadcast after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was an almost oracular expression of what a nation was feeling and the best thing any broadcaster found to say in that dark period. “He even turned a post-jail visit by Paris Hilton political, in a sense, using her appearance as cultural critique, a riotous dismantling of the notion of unearned celebrity and blind adherence to promotional agendas.” Letterman is still funny, but where he has seemed most genuinely engaged in his show is in the interviews, in poking around at people and trying to figure them out.

Having undergone (and handled with relative aplomb) a sex scandal involving staffers he slept with, he’s also been a bit more willing to acknowledge his celebrity status and let his grievances show. Calling Jay “Big-Jaw Leno” over and over, in a monologue about NBC fouling up the Leno-to-Conan-O’Brien planned “Tonight Show” transition, will not make it onto a next Dave highlight reel. But his line in that same monologue about the people making those decisions was exquisite: “A lot of people criticize these executives at NBC,” Letterman said. “But don’t kid yourselves: If they didn’t know what they were doing, they wouldn’t be there.” In responding to O’Reilly’s insistence that Letterman answer an “easy” question about whether he wanted the U.S. to “win” the war in Iraq, Letterman was similarly pointed. “Have you seen how dumb things have gotten over on Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Tonight Show’? Have you noticed how it’s become a competition (literally) to see how well celebrities and a host can hang together and pay each other endless compliments? We look forward to Colbert’s new take on the program Letterman established, which will surely be more Dave than Fallon, and we await Jon Stewart’s next move after he departs “The Daily Show” this year.

For today’s college kids looking for something smart and edgy to coalesce around, the choices are many more than one late-night talk show on one network hosted by one upstart in a suit and tie.

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