Whether you put him on when you couldn’t get the kids back to sleep or simply have fond memories of staying up past your bedtime when you were a kid just to watch the Top Ten List, chances are the retirement of David Letterman has you feeling a little nostalgic and maybe even a little sentimental. The team here at Relevant Dad wasn’t sure how to properly say goodbye so we enlisted the help Jack O’Brien, a former Page-turned-Coordinator for Letterman, to articulate why we’ll miss him so much.
When I was 22, I moved to New York City to clap for David Letterman.
Every afternoon before the taping, as the CBS Orchestra would warm up the 500 people in the audience, I would stand in my designated spot to the left or right of the band and clap along to the beat, beaming and bouncing, trying to whip the audience into a frenzy of laughter and applause.
I was a page at the Ed Sullivan Theater. I ripped tickets, I stood in the cold for hours, I had a signature “this is the last call for tickets” shout that would echo across Broadway. I worked with two dozen other 22-year-olds, most of whom were as smitten with this gig as I was. I never had a more fun job.
Along with most of the television industry, I lost that job for a few months during the Writers Strike of 2007. During the break, I got a better paying, more respectable job with a real future in the television industry. I had my own desk and assignments and real responsibilities. But the first night Dave came roaring back after the strike, I quietly walked out of that office job and up the street to the Ed Sullivan Theater to clap again.
To this day, I’m not sure if I quit or was fired. Maybe it was both. Regardless, I was a page again. At least for a few months. Shortly after that strike, I got promoted from page to audience coordinator. I followed the staff to Hollywood when the show was nominated for several Emmys, I was the second Alien to fit into the Jamba Juice and I looked on helplessly as the Late Show Christmas Tree became sentient. I was lucky enough to submit jokes to Dave’s monologue, and have been doing so for the last five years.
I’ve learned a lot about David Letterman and a lot from David Letterman, and when I was asked to write a short piece about him for Relevant Dad, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write up anything but: LOOK UPON ALL THAT THE LETTERMAN HATH ACCOMPLISH-ED AND WEEP. WORSHIP HIM AND YOUR LIVES WILL BE SPARED AT THE ALTAR OF THE BLOOD GOD. That’s how strongly and deeply I love this man.
And my love for him doesn’t make me special, exactly. Right now, just a matter of hours before the last ever Late Show, you could make a Top Ten List out of all the great think pieces and interviews looking back at Dave’s career. So what do I have to say that others don’t?
If I put aside the altar of the Blood God for a moment and really thought about what makes Dave special, I found something running through my favorite clips. Authenticity. Here’s what I mean:
In 2011, Letterman was interviewing Julia Roberts, and said something that made the audience say in unison, “awwwwww.” That spontaneous sound a crowd makes when you show them a puppy. Letterman, no fan of being “awww”ed, sneered at the audience and raised up two middle fingers towards the camera. Julia guffawed and the interview continued, but the you could feel the audience being perplexed.
Maybe Julia didn’t appreciate the gesture – after that appearance, she didn’t return to the show until Dave’s ongoing grand finale, four years later. This is the kind of risk you take when you decide to be yourself on television – which is what David Letterman has done for 32 years.
David Letterman is not an actor. It’s hard to even call him a stand-up comic, since so many of his jokes depend on him wincing with disdain after telling them. He doesn’t sing, doesn’t do impressions and doesn’t wear costumes. He despises sketches on his show that call for him to be anything but cool, calm and collected.
This is because Letterman doesn’t trust in his own abilities to sing or do impressions or act. He is so unsure of his own talent that he doesn’t trust himself to do anything but be himself.
Jimmy Fallon is fun to watch, but his bubbly persona comes at a price. It isn’t real. He does a lot of lip synching contests, but I tend to feel like the whole show is a lip-synching contest. Do you feel like you know Jimmy Fallon? If you bumped into Jimmy Fallon on the street and asked him how his day is going, would the answer be anything but “Fantastic! Oh my god I love today, I love it!”?
Ask David Letterman how his day is going and you’re likely to get a very different answer.
Letterman taught us that with enough wit and the right attitude, a television personality can be authentic. On any given day, Dave could practically derail his own show by being grumpy, mean, bitter, morbid, sentimental, or silly. That kind of inconsistency didn’t always make for good television.
I had a few friends come to a taping the night White House Press Secretary David Axelrod was a guest. It had been a dense, informative interview, which went on for a long time, because Dave was genuinely interested in foreign policy. But afterwards, my friends were bummed out. Dave wasn’t funny like they expected him to be. A similar incident happened on a larger scale in 1995, when Letterman hosted the Oscars and befuddled a billion people.
Watch Dave roll his eyes and shake his head no after a dumber than dumb comedy video plays during the monologue. Watch him grill Paris Hilton about her time in jail as she pouts and desperately tries to change the subject. Watch him harass Rachael Rae about obesity. Watch him tell a Chilean miner that he really wants a hug. Watch him bitterly explain the origins of his famous Superbowl commercial to a confused audience member.
These weren’t scripted moments. These weren’t meant to go viral. But these moments are TV magic – all borne out of that same instinct that threw up two middle fingers to the camera. The instinct Dave had to be nothing but himself.
This is one of the many things I’m taking away from Dave’s career. Next time someone asks you how your day is going, answer like David Letterman would. Don’t say “fine” or “good” automatically. Let your audience see your real self. Anything else is just a lip-synching contest.
Finally, one last example of Letterman listening to his unpredictable gut, one of my favorite clips of all Letterman history:
One evening, Dave saw a live feed of the street outside the theater covered in litter, he stopped in the middle of his Top Ten List and went outside to “pick up the damn trash.” That’s exactly what he did. As a bewildered tourist approached him trying to shake his hand, Dave bent over, picked up the trash, and greeted the tourist’s outstretched hands with garbage. “Throw that away for me, will ya?”
For that one moment of gleeful anarchy, and for a long, distinguished career of staying true to himself, I’m still clapping for Dave.
Jack O’Brien tweets at @jackoapostrophe