Steve Rushin on How Not to Work for Letterman

20 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

David Letterman countdown: Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart, Keith Olbermann sing praises; CNN special pays tribute.

Tom Hanks made his final “Late Show with David Letterman” appearance Monday night. RETURNING SHOW: Forty of America’s best home cooks present Gordon Ramsay their signature dishes for a spot on “MasterChef” (Fox at 8 p.m.) Season 6.”That was fantastic,” gushed David Letterman, moments after Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder delivered a powerful solo version of Better Man on the Late Show on Monday night. My initial hunch was no—I mean, who among us hasn’t been guilty of a laughably grievous and humiliating misjudgment based solely on a show’s premiere episode?—until I actually went back and watched the very first episode of Late Night and was reminded just how weird and wonderful and obviously groundbreaking it was. FINALE WATCH: With $1 million at stake, the castaways spend their final days on the “Survivor” (CBS at 8) island before facing their last tribal council.

If, as has been argued persuasively elsewhere, you can find the seeds of a show’s ending by returning to its beginning, this seems an opportune time to revisit Letterman’s late-night debut, which aired way back on February 1, 1982. As the host of the show, Letterman has also bid farewell to numerous greats over the years: Warren Zevon made his last public performance on Late Night, while Sammy Davis Jr. and Lou Reed delivered some of their final television performances in front of their friend. And, reader, I’m here to report that it’s not only the most refreshing thing you’d be likely to find on TV 33 years ago, but the most refreshing thing you’d find on TV if they aired it again tonight. As a nod to Letterman’s Top 10 skits, we’ve compiled his top 10 most-watched episodes, using same-day viewership data from Nielsen, a market research film specializing in TV.

And for all the famous comedic moments during that period, there were also many outstanding musical performances over the last three decades – and like Ed Sullivan, many of the acts who appeared on the show used it as a springboard for success. All right, carrying on: As his “Late Show” retirement draws near, Letterman is being saluted by other late-night TV hosts, as well as frequent guests.

SERIES PREMIERE: A game show for self-described “geniuses,” “500 Questions” (ABC at 8) features highly difficult questions for its players from across the country. The night Dave came back from his heart surgery, he enlisted the Foo Fighters as the band to give him a rockin’ return. “My favourite band playing my favourite song,” he said emphatically, before the band ripped through their hit Everlong.

I’ve always appreciated his astounding influence on the world of television comedy much more than I’ve appreciated his actual televised comedy. (Though I did once laugh so hard while reading a collection of “Top Ten Lists” in a bookstore that I basically started hyperventilating and had to leave the store. Shoe-gazing Weezer frontman singer Rivers Cuomo, wearing pants four sizes too big for him, led his band (including founding member and bassist Matt Sharp) through a sizzling and energetic performance of their staple, Say It Ain’t So. On Monday night’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” the host — who so often comes off as an overgrown kid, heaping praise on anybody who appears — was articulate and sincere as he saluted Letterman. FINALE WATCH: The “Law & Order: SVU” (NBC at 9) Season 16 (it’s been renewed) closer has Noah’s adoption in jeopardy, and Benson fearing for his future. The Beasties use the sidewalks of New York as the backdrop to the first half of their performance of Ch-Check It Out, eventually strutting into the studio to finish it off, and serenading Dave at his desk at the end.

FINALE WATCH: On the 10th season closer of the renewed cult favorite “Supernatural” (CW at 9), Dean makes a stunning decision that not only affects his life but Sam’s as well. The episode opens with Calvert DeForest as Larry “Bud” Melman, intoning like Alfred Hitchcock and paraphrasing from Frankenstein: “We are about to unfold a show featuring David Letterman, a man of science who sought to create a show after his own image, without reckoning upon God. They may be signature now—that chest pound, that wistful point to the furthest row, that bent-knee-side-shuffle-slide-thing—but when lead singer Samuel Herring performed his dance-rock exorcism during the group’s Letterman debut, he blew everyone away—especially Dave, who greeted Herring with, “I’ll take all of that you got!” Sonny and Cher were a husband and wife duo and bared their love for each other on “I Got You Babe.” While the two divorced in 1975, they reunited on occasion to sing their classic ’60s hit, including this emotional performance on Letterman, which, particularly when Cher flubs her lyrics, comes off like the greatest karaoke performance ever.

Frequent guest Warren Zevon sat in with Paul Schaffer and his band for an entire show following his cancer diagnosis, with Dave begging him to sing Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner. FINALE WATCH: Two ABC comedies that will be back for more episodes, “Modern Family” (ABC at 9) and “Black-ish” (ABC at 9:30), wrap up their respective seasons with Phil using a robot to Skype himself into Alex’s graduation party, and Jack and Diane digging into family history.

It’s one of the strangest tales ever told.” I’ll venture that Late Night is the first talk show ever to include the words “without reckoning upon God” in its premiere. The debut episode then proceeds in what can only now be called Lettermanesque fashion. (At the time, the New York Times, without access to that adjective, declared, “The program’s overall mix often strains for the unpredictable.”) The post-Melman opening features a group of Rainbow Grill showgirl dancers in ridiculous peacock-feather headdresses. Episode/guests: Marv Albert; Sinead O’Connor; illusionist Ricky Jay; Dave’s mom Dorothy from the Winter Olympics with Norman Schwarzkopf and Katarina Witt Episode/guests: Brett Butler; Don Imus; Linda Ronstadt; “bowling on 53rd Street” with Dick Weber; Dave’s mom Dorothy at Winter Olympics with Nancy Kerrigan Episode/guests: Stupid Human Tricks; Wynonna; Laurence Fishburne; Dave’s mom Dorothy at Winter Olympics with Norwegian athlete Arne Hansen and Calvert De Forest RETURNING SHOW: On the fourth-season opener of “Celebrity Wife Swap” (ABC at 10), Emmy-winning actress Jackée Harry trades lives with John Waters muse Traci Lords. But one of their best (and loudest!) appearances was their network television debut, where Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Steve Shelley, and Lee Ranaldo stormed late night with their ear-drum-bursting single “100%,” released right around the time of grunge mania.

Herring’s soulful voice and funky chicken dance moves, made them a viral sensation the next day, with the clip for Seasons (Waiting on You) garnering over 4 million views on YouTube. “How about that!” a thrilled Letterman said. Olbermann contrasts Dave with his fellow late-night hosts, Jay Leno and Craig Ferguson. “Craig would have said hello to you three times and hugged you twice by the time you came out onstage, which was warm and lovely. The first and only celebrity guest is Bill Murray, doing Bill Murray, circa 1982. (Dave’s first show on CBS featured Murray, circa 1993, and later this week we’ll get to see Murray again, doing Bill Murray circa 2015.) The other guest is Don Herbert, a.k.a. Zevon had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer around this time and with no plans to tour for his then in-progress album The Wind when he visited, he and Letterman likely knew his performances of “Mutineer,” “Genius,” and Letterman’s favorite, “Roland the Headless Gunner,” would be his final in public. Jay would come in to your dressing room and sit on the couch and talk to you for half an hour, which was also very generous (and entertaining; a producer once literally pulled him out of my room).

A repeat “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (ABC at 11:35) (because who wants to compete with Dave?) brings out country star Tim McGraw and actress Patricia Heaton. A very shy Stipe refused to take part in an in-between song interview, leaving bassist Mike Mills and guitarist Peter Buck to do the chatting with Dave.

When I started going on in 2006, for all I knew he was actually built into the desk like Captain Pike from the Star Trek pilot and they threw a tarp over him after the show was over.” But, over time, Olbermann says, Letterman let down his guard, talking to him during the commercial breaks about “my dad when he was in the hospital, and we talked about his mom, and we talked about our respective cases of shingles — all the stuff Dave supposedly never talks to anybody about.” Olbermann also lavishes praise on how Letterman handled the show in 2008 when then-presidential candidate John McCain did a short-notice cancellation, supposedly to return to Washington, D.C., in response to the economic crisis. It’s Letterman announcing that his fresh take on television will be informed, above all, by the fact that he simultaneously loves television and finds it ridiculous.

This sentiment—that you can both love something and find it ridiculous, and one need not cancel out the other—not only became the dominant mode of TV comedy, it became a dominant mode of consuming popular culture, and persists to this day. Writhing around the stage, breaking guitar strings, even taking a breather on the guest-couch, it’s all there—Letterman begging for an encore, included. Letterman is often accused of/credited with fomenting the culturewide triumph of cold, arms-length irony, but more accurately what he did was give us, the audience, permission to love the ridiculous and recognize the ridiculous in what we love, starting with TV. The L.A. punk legends straight-up slayed with their raucous performance—but this clip is another classic example of Letterman getting candid with the bands on-air in his early days.

The sensibility evident in Letterman’s first episode is now so familiar as a mode of entertainment—not just from Letterman’s subsequent run but from nearly everything else, post-Letterman—that it’s not surprising to revisit, exactly. The Swedish singer made a triumphant return to Letterman when she came by and performed her essential track—perhaps that summer’s most beloved pop song. And then the startled humor of ‘can you believe this is happening now'” turned into poison blowpipe darts.” CNN is also honoring Letterman, with the Tuesday night special report, “David Letterman Says Goodnight,” an hour-long celebration hosted by Jake Tapper, and featuring guests such as Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Myers, Conan O’Brien and more. The rec-room, can-you-believe-they-gave-us-a-TV-show décor harkens to a time when actively undermining the artifice of TV still felt not just irreverent but borderline seditious. In one of Lou Reed’s final televised performances (the Velvet Underground rocker died from liver disease in 2013), he performed alongside the Grammy-winning Blind Boys of Alabama in support of their duets album—that they covered Velvet Underground was a perfect send-off.

Letterman’s debut, in hindsight, still seems miraculously revolutionary, largely because Letterman had the singular advantage of never having had to follow himself. Their Letterman debut may have been overshadowed by Madonna’s f-bomb-filled visit that same night, but looking back, Adam Duritz and his backing band’s moody visit stands the test of time.

She touted her performance on Twitter with characteristic sarcasm saying, “whoring myself on letterman tonite americaa, see you there” but that couldn’t prepare audiences for the trippy experience of watching nine doppelgangers performing her brash single behind her.

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