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column was inspired by Tuesday's spirited installment of
"What's the Deal with Old Guys and Enormous Glasses."
It was great when Dave was confronted by a goofy twenty year old
publicity photo of he and Paul with enormous specs. I always love
it when Dave riffs about the time NBC 'fired' him and how, back
then, he and Paul were 'happening guys' who knew "how to get
LATE NIGHT DAVE VS. LATE SHOW DAVE
For the past several months, I've been in my usual frantic, manic, 'go to' guy mode. But a few days last week, I took time off from the rat race, just to decompress. Instead of being Xander the overachiever, I reverted into my much preferred state, that to Xander the misanthropic fop.
To be honest, it's been a while since I could stay home, sleep in, and hang out. And I used my vacation time in the most constructive way possible: I watched tons and tons of TV.
Back to back eps of NEWSRADIO, you say? Cool! Don't mind if I do. VIVE LE ANDY DICK! Comedy Central's showing CONAN reruns during the day? Damn! Keeping my fingers crossed for another appearance from the Masturbating Bear Hey, you gotta love the bear.
A friend of mine gets the Game Show Network and periodically she will send me a CARE package of old MATCH GAME tapes. My appetite for Brett Somers is quickly sated but somehow it seems disrespectful and just wrong not to watch all six hours.
To my surprise and obvious delight, included in this comfort food TV CARE package were vintage episodes of LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN from Trio's recent all-Dave marathon. First of all, it was startling to see how young and fresh Dave look back then. And more importantly, I was amazed at originality of the comedy and how well it holds up over the years.
Now this was the Dave that I grew up with. The wry, goofy, smartass, eighties era Dave who presided over an amiably ramshackled, anything can happened funhouse of a show, simultaneously amazed and appalled that NBC would give an hour of television to the likes of him. Because of it's late hour, it seemed more DAVE'S CRAZY CLUBHOUSE rather than big time 'show bidness' and you got the impression he relished the fact that he was flying below anyone's radar.
In many ways, this was Dave's golden age. With characters such as Larry "Bud" Melman, Chris Elliott as the "Fugitive Guy," "Marlon Brando," or more frighteningly, as himself. Memorable concepts like the Monkey Cam or competitve dog racing at 30 Rock. This was all pretty heady stuff for a kid like me, growing up gaptoothed in the Midwest.
James Downey was the head writer for both LATE NIGHT and for SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and he made an important distinction regarding what made both shows ticked. The operating principle at SNL, he said, was that they wanted the writing to be hip. With Letterman, they wanted to the writing to be smart.
It's Dave's genius to make something low concept like tossing watermelons off of a roof or squishing things in a hydraulic press and turn in into not only comedic gold but into compelling television.
And he made it look so darn easy. There were plenty of us kids who learned at the feet of the master. Scott Dikkers, editor of THE ONION, explained it was Letterman who made the world a more sarcastic place. "Because of Letterman, everybody I know is sarcastic all the time. in everything they say...never genuine."
That may very well be Dave's most lasting legacy. That all pervasive irony that informed every second of LATE NIGHT. And I'm sure it's that irony that really get on Letterman's nerves nowadays.
The Letterman of 2002 really isn't the same 'Dave, your tv friend' from the eighties. He's grown and I think his comedy is even more precision sharp.
He knows he can no longer be television's most unlikely anarchist anymore engaging in some form of comedic guerilla warfare. Because to some extent, LATE SHOW really is big time 'show bidness'.
Immediately after his heart surgery, Paul often said Dave "didn't give a damn" anymore. Of course, the opposite is true. But I think a giant weight was lifted off of Letterman's shoulders. With his legacy assured, he seemed to become more comfortable in his own leathery skin. It gave him license to be as twitchy and as blithely cranky as he wanted to be.
He's been able to engage in his favorite comedic persona: that of the middle aged, midwestern goofball. And when the quality of his show is high, as it has been for the past couple of years, there is nothing better.
And he's no longer afraid to show his heart. He allows himself to be unironic on occassion. His hour with Warren Zevon was absolutely superb, a dignified, relaxed, darkly humorous farewell to a friend whose relationship to the show goes all the way back to LATE NIGHT.
My first exposure to Warren Zevon was through his appearances with Dave. I fell in love with his music in large part due to Dave's own affection for it. But over the years, Dave has remained loyal to the veteran troubadour whereas the CD buying public has not. So devoting an entire hour of network television to someone who is less than a household name is certainly subversive. To do it with unironically but with class, understated emotion, and with no loss of his darkly comedic sense was truly astonishing.
As much as I enjoyed LATE NIGHT Dave, I marvelled at how David Letterman has grown as a broadcaster, as a comedian, and yes, as a person. The fact that he is just as funny and original now as he's ever been speaks volumes. And that he does so on his own terms makes him the true king of late night.
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