Letterman was once a religion . . .

It used to be a religion.

That’s right, late night started with Steve Allen, matured with Johnny Carson and ended with David Letterman. There are people on at 11:35 now, even 11 and 12:35, but they’re poseurs, inheritors of a throne no one pays fealty to anymore, despite a fawning press gushing in adulation, trying to divert attention from its own death.

Johnny was damn good. But what’s stunning is how he’s been forgotten.

It’s like Jay Leno never existed. He’s still around, but the show was wiped from our memory banks instantly. It’s almost as if Jay was a warm-up act for sleep, and once your eyes shut you couldn’t remember a damn thing.

But there was this period in the eighties, when Dave ruled.

It was a club. There was an occasional story in “alternative” magazines like “Rolling Stone,” but mostly Letterman was ignored.

Except by his audience.

First and foremost he was on at 12:35. In an era where there were VCRs but almost no one knew how to program them. You had to stay up to watch him. And what you got was the Little Rascals on steroids, a clubhouse full of hijinks that no one had performed before. Dave wasn’t stupid enough to take chances with his mortality, but the situations Merrill Markoe put him in were not only memorable, you couldn’t stop telling people about them.

Merrill Markoe. She doesn’t get enough credit. Dave’s the star, but Merrill created the show.

And that’s how I found out about it, from friends. That’s how you find out about all the best stuff in this universe, via the passion expressed. You just have to check out what people are on about, to give them crap if nothing else.

And what intrigued me about Dave was his irreverence.

That’s what the Jimmys are lacking. That’s why Jon Stewart is a star.

You see the baby boomers were brought up to question authority, to never feel comfortable in a ruling position, and that’s another thing that endeared us to Dave, his uncomfortableness.

And of course we had the SNL refugee Paul Shaffer on keys. But even more we had all the acts we could never see on television anywhere else. I’ll never forget Sinead O’Connor doing “You Made Me The Thief Of Your Heart.” I played it over and over again. As I did Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m The Only One”…

That’s right, I recorded Dave’s show, but watched it even later each night. I have no time for commercials. And I had a thousand dollar VCR that was easy to program.

And I know all about the famous moments, Sonny & Cher, ultimately Drew Barrymore and Madonna, but that’s not what the appeal was. The appeal was you felt like a club member, and we all want to belong.

And we’re all not cool, we don’t have famous friends. And Dave famously never dated nor hung with the stars. You seemingly couldn’t take him out of Indiana.

And then there was his mother. Most celebs leave their parents behind, unless they’re dieted down to nothing and have limitless panache.

But Dave’s mom was just like ours. And we loved her for it.

And I know all about the “Tonight Show” nonsense, the late night wars, but the truth is Dave got his 11:35 slot and changed his show and it was never the same. He wore fancy suits, the band was no longer “Dangerous,” but an “Orchestra.” The first couple of years were a victory lap and then Dave bombed on the Oscars and the stink was upon him, the audience fled, he fired Morty and Jay took over.

Dave recovered, but it was never the same.

Because it wasn’t new, and it was for everybody, not just us.

If you want to know why Dave is retiring listen to his podcast with Alec Baldwin. He just didn’t want to put in the extra effort anymore. Because he didn’t care.

But I’ll argue Dave left the building long before.

As we all did… When the internet was upon us and we had options, not only at 11:35 but alternatives to broadcast television itself, and then cable too! The format was old and stale, Conan lacked charisma and Fallon is so sugarcoated as to be icky. It’d be like having the media obsessed with British Invasion clone bands. The world moved on, late night TV did not.

But it was good to know Dave was still there. Even if I didn’t watch him. It was a link to the past. One where someone completely ordinary-looking could rally his brethren for success.

But now he’s gonna be gone.

Everybody’s doing his show, but he won’t be. That’s right, during Johnny’s days every guest didn’t do a bit, they actually had real conversations, it’s Dave who turned late night into pure comedy.

But the format’s stale, as I said above.

We’re always looking for someone to push the limits. Someone not like them but us, who we can trumpet and make successful and then bask in the stardom of.

It ain’t late night stars anymore.

Maybe YouTubers, or Viners.

But no, they’re stars without talent. Dave had something. He was sharp. You could see his brain working. He was there to entertain us. But he maintained his dignity, except when he intentionally sacrificed it.

So, so long Dave.

Maybe you can come back once a week wearing your boxing shoes and sport jackets and make fun of what once was and continues to be.

But I’m thinking you’re gonna fade into the woodwork. And after the hoopla of the expiration of your show the media will move on.

But there are some of us who will never forget you.

The same way you never forget that guy in class who didn’t date either but had no problem pulling pranks and risking retribution.

Dave criticized his bosses.

He was TV’s Bob Dylan.

But unless you were there when it happened, primarily back in the eighties, you’ll never understand.

And for those of us who were, THAT’S POSITIVELY FINE!

Sinead O’Connor “You Made Me The Thief Of Your Heart”: bit.ly/1JYamcm

Melissa Etheridge “I’m The Only One”: bit.ly/1PyHJAO

“Here’s The Thing With Alec Baldwin”: bit.ly/1PyHxRZ


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  1. save_the_rustbelt commented on May 16

    I was working a weird schedule which allowed me to watch some of Letterman’s daytime shows. Crazy good, but too much for daytime.

    I grew up in a small town and Carson introduced me to a wider world. Letterman introduced me to the sort of craziness that rules the world. Both terrific. Never caught on to Leno.

    So now I’m too old to stay awake, so I will leave the late hour to the kids. They will never know what they missed.

  2. milbank commented on May 16

    I know you think you’re cool Bob but, “TV’s Bob Dylan” was already playing the electric guitar by the time you “found” him. That is if Sonny and Cher, Drew Barrymore and Madonna are your touchstones for his “early” shows. Sinead O’Connor wasn’t even around until the ’90s. The “club” I immediately took to wasn’t the “Little Rascals on steroids,” shows of the late ’80-’90s you are going on about but, the shows of the early-mid ’80s. Then it was “Fight Club” with guys like Bob Einstein, Chris Elliot and Larry Miller being the “marquee” guests along with REALLY alternative acts years before Sonny and Cher, et. al. You probably don’t know about them because the first rule of “Fight Club” is, well . . . .

  3. xnycpdx commented on May 17

    he was dull on late night – now, his daytime show, before that…….. my friends and i would ditch school to watch it. we were almost as baked as the letterman cast, and even stoned it often made no sense. massive high weirdness lobbed at what was primarily the day-time soap crowd.

    we were surprised they gave him another chance.

  4. Leeskyblue commented on May 17

    Carson was worth watching per force of the superb craftmanship of his performance.
    “Johnny was damn good.
    But what’s stunning is how he’s been forgotten.”
    –Well said, but the point is that for all of his style there was a lack of something that made him forgettable.

    The adulation of Letterman here and elsewhere, I just don’t get it —
    All this time thought that band leader of his was there just to make Dave look a little less insipid by comparison.

    On the whole, I think 40 years of Jack Paar reruns would have held up well against most of Carson and certainly against all of the rest.

  5. flocktard commented on May 17

    “That’s right, late night started with Steve Allen, matured with Johnny Carson and ended with David Letterman. ”

    Rubbish. But I personally find Mr. Lefsetz nauseating.

    I think Jimmy Fallon has successfully remade the late night show, taking it to a new place AND the audience demographic late night needs to stay viable. Watch his shows: he is putting on a better product FIVE NIGHTS A WEEK than Lorne Michaels does for ONE night. His comedy works, the Roots are great, and they’re an integral part of the show, and I think Fallon is far more talented and versatile than most people give him credit for. Fortunately, I can catch him On Demand which means I can skip the nightly dose of murder and carnage being portrayed taking place in New York City- which doesn’t seem to be happening in real life.

    Oh, and there’s this guy Colbert…… That could make things real interesting.

    R.I.P. Bud Melman. You made me laugh.

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