Why David Letterman and Bill Murray Are Meant for Each Other

20 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Celebrities pay tribute to David Letterman as show ends.

I’ve shared a mammoth steak with Jimmy Kimmel, been gently mocked by Conan O’Brien during a dress rehearsal and been serenaded in concert by Regis Philbin.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.

He’ll be gone, and yet he’ll still be everywhere in our culture, not least of all in the hearts of the good people of Generation X, whose comic sensibilities he so perfectly defined. You’re so happy to see so many beloved old faces back together again, and yet. . . you know there’s a good reason for it, and God knows you can’t bring it up, but still — you miss Stephanie. 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.

The young woman often introduced into comic skits as “Dave’s assistant” — before she was revealed in real life to be Dave’s apparent mistress — Birkitt was an absolute comic highlight of Letterman’s third decade on the air. 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. We seem to say that a lot about our older icons these days, especially in light of their farewells; but Letterman, currently enjoying star-studded thanks and adulation in the final episodes of his “Late Show,” is truly up there with Oprah and Springsteen and Spielberg.

As part of a short-lived publicity stunt, CBS would fly in roughly 450 people from various metropolitan areas for a specially themed “Late Show” episode. Arguably, he has been even more socially dynamic than his mentor Johnny Carson, having set a particular tone — of sarcasm, self-reference, and heavy winking — for decades of entertainment. I remember catching her frequent appearances in the early 2000s and thinking this was someone special — a very young woman doing a subtle kind of humor at a fairly advanced level. On that Thursday evening, the guests were the recently retired Kirby Puckett, Soul Asylum and, via video from the WCCO-TV studios back home, Amelia Santaniello and Don Shelby, who kept breaking in with special reports about a gopher in his pants named Carlos.

And he has certainly left a bigger, more distinctive mark than any of his fellow hosts, including Jay Leno and the current ratings topper, Jimmy Fallon. He wears it well: On “Late Night,” Letterman donned a number of different “suits.” Most memorable was the “Suit of Velcro,” which he first wore on Feb. 28, 1984. Minutes after going off the air, Letterman, who had a reputation in the ’90s as TV’s greatest grump, said that the show was one of the most satisfying of his career.

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? Now 68, Letterman’s a Midwestern boomer who, in the 1980s, followed his own absurdist path and forged a new post-“Saturday Night Live” way to make great variety TV. The reigning comic actresses of the day — acerbic Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, bubbly Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker — were balls of fire, performers with a capital P.

Among his tools: weirdly compelling remote sequences, random real people, a grumpy aspect, and mundane inanities including sticking himself onto a wall wearing a Velcro suit and placing himself into a vat of dip wearing a suit of potato chips. More than any other figure in my lifetime, Letterman shaped and influenced comedy, not to mention introducing the mainstream to great musicians, many of them hailing from Minnesota. “I thought, ‘Maybe it’s time for me to make a change,’ ” said Letterman, who was then working in Indianapolis. “Then as I was going back to the airport, I saw these big fences down the median of the highway. 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. From his late-night perch at NBC beginning in 1982, on a stage that he sometimes abandoned for the streets of New York, Letterman became a driving force in the then-new age of ironic detachment, the era of air quotes and casual mockery. Other “suits” include: * Alka-Seltzer: Wearing protective goggles and an oxygen tank, he was lowered into a 1,000-gallon tank of water and his suit began to fizz and vaporize.

He was the Hawkeye Pierce of the world of entertainment, the sardonic guy sitting back and laughing at the predictability and ridiculousness of human behavior. Stupid things: Two of Letterman’s signature segments were Stupid Pet Tricks, which he started on his morning show in 1980, and Stupid Human Tricks, which began in 1983.

He constructed a talk show that matched his temperament; it was more like a deconstruction of talk shows, as he subverted the conventions of the genre by mocking them — pet tricks, top 10 lists, his own monologues and punchlines, celebrity interviews, and fame itself. It just wasn’t worth it to be that uncomfortable for the same amount of money.” Chris Elliot, writer and performer on Letterman’s old NBC show: He gave me my career. 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.

I haven’t been on staff there for a while, but I’ve always sort of thought David was kind of a safety net for me, and now that safety net is gone. Recently, Letterman asked guest Julia Roberts why he was compelled to frighten young actresses during his heyday. “Because I think stupid people annoy you,” she said. In Letterman’s self-aware talk show-about-a-talk show — with cameos by the petulant cue-card guy (Tony Mendez, also sadly written out of “Late Show” history) and jokes about failed jokes — Birkitt wasn’t an actress playing a smart-aleck page mouthing off to the boss. Her answer was right, and it simultaneously explained the essence of his long-term effect on entertainment, which, before him, was wont to automatically celebrate the superficiality and stupidity of the fabulous world of showbiz. The answer is always, “Yes.” Martin Zellar, frontman of Minnesota band the Gear Daddies: The night we were on [in 1991] was the day they announced that Jay Leno had gotten “The Tonight Show.” Everybody tuned in to see what Dave was going to say or do.

There is a formal informality, if you like, to his approach in dealing with you, and I felt so supported by him when we went to commercial or whatever. Meta-awareness became the bread and butter of hip TV, from the news spoofery of “The Daily Show” to the self-referential jokes of “Arrested Development,” “30 Rock,” “Just Shoot Me,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Scrubs” — the list is endless. 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. Think of Greta Gerwig, Lena Dunham, the broads of “Broad City” — actresses whose brilliance is the ability to convey a very naturalistic and youthful self-consciousness.

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. These past few weeks, we’ve seen the scope of his popularity as A-lister after A-lister, from George Clooney to Bill Clinton, has sat next to him and paid homage. Jon Cryer, “Two and a Half Men”: The first time I went on, [producer] Rob Burnett scared me by saying I’d better have my pre-prepared stories in line, because Dave will kill you if you don’t. Letterman has been at half-mast for years now, a slow decline in energy and motivation that started not too long after he moved to CBS and the large Ed Sullivan Theater.

His latter-day battles with Leno, and his investment in the years of competition between them, showed him in an unflattering light — and they dated him, too, since the younger hosts such as Jimmy Kimmel and Fallon avoid such ego-driven clashing. Over the years, he has allowed himself to rely on that talent to become the relaxed, but penetrating interviewer one would expect from the senior statesman of late night.

He seemed more focused on the contest than on creative renewal, and he became increasingly willing to sit while his guests blathered out prefabricated material. But Birkitt was no movie star, and their dynamic was one you could relate to: It was great office chemistry, like the fun table in the employee break room, trading inside jokes with your favorite cubicle-mates.

This ordinary young woman was cracking up this titan of comedy, and letting us in on the joke — and it made the edgy, aloof Letterman seem relaxed and fun. 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. But it’s also nice to have an adult in the room, a person who has been through plenty publicly and is still standing, a host with enough earned gravitas — after 9/11, after his own quintuple bypass surgery, in the face of the coming death of his friend Warren Zevon, upon getting caught in a sex scandal — to sit at his desk and talk to America vulnerably, and even movingly. 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. Literally, it was so cold that the [show’s] band had hand-printed letter jackets with leather sleeves that said on the back “World’s Coldest Band.” Letterman would typically introduce us as “those nice kids from Seattle” and Paul [Shaffer] would correct him.

Like the time he cajoled her into demonstrating her ex-boyfriend’s dance moves for the audience, heaving her torso around to the riff from Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” He’s not mock-ogling her, we realize now. It’s even tricky to find bootleg clips of her nearly 300 “Late Show” appearances; the only ones that remain on the Internet are a few postage-stamp sized QuickTime videos that a dedicated superfan started collecting long before there was a YouTube, and a few others that are so unusably blurry they must not have been worth the copyright complaint. She appears to be living in Los Angeles, a member of the California bar. “I appreciate it,” she said when I called to tell her I was writing a tribute to her, “but I don’t have any comment right now.” What did Birkitt mean to the “Late Show”? Maybe she wasn’t a great comedic talent in the end — maybe she really was the gawky assistant just being herself, rolling her eyes at the host for real, not as an act.

We chatted for a couple minutes after and I told him, “I’ll probably never meet you again in person, but I’m glad to have met you two times, and thank you for letting us play on your show.”

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