Ooh, me first! I’m up! Dibs! Now that the first (and only?) valedictory interview with David Letterman has been published, I wanna be the first writer-type person to attempt - and fail, in the most obliviously self-aggrandizing way possible - to explain how much Dave has mattered to me, in a way that’s super-different from the way he’s mattered to everyone else, over the years.
Has anyone beaten me to the punch? I want to get my Lettermanalysis out there before the rest of the tributes start rolling in. Seriously: within a fortnight, you’re going to be so tired of reading in-praise-of-Dave encomiums and Dave-the-cultural-iconoclast think pieces that you’ll seek solace in the understated commentaries of Nancy Grace. It’s going to make the attention lavished on Derek Jeter’s retirement or Renee Zellweger’s brow look like our reaction to humanitarian crises in places that aren’t here.
But me, I’ll read every commentary, even the ones that prompt my cerebrum to make a dash for the light at the end of the ear canal (“his was a comic legerdemain that proffered genial goofiness and ironic detachment in equal measure, that tickled as it pushed you away”), because I am a Dave Guy. I’ve always been a Dave Guy; I’ve always found him as much an inventor and an alchemist as a mere funnyperson. I love his interactions with adults (of both the actual and celebrity variety), children, animals and Velcro. I love the way he lacerates, that he’s constitutionally incapable of sending us to bed on a puffy cloud of gentle jabs. I love the rare instances he pulls back the curtain, even when he doesn’t come off looking too big in the process. I love his singular ability to speak to us and for us.
(Did writing the preceding paragraph lead me down a Late Night/Late Show rabbit hole? Of course not. I’m a professional who’s incapable of distracti… “David Letterman’s Amazing Stories”! “Dress Cool”! Come on, take a shower! There’s more. Heavens, there’s more.)
Ordinarily I don’t worry myself much about what other people like - if you derive satisfaction from the pop-cultural stylings of comic-universe movies or Mumford & Sons or Cameron Diaz, all the power to you - but I’ve never understood how someone could not be a Dave Guy/Gal. It puzzles and angers me, frankly. I took Dave’s thrashing in the ratings by Jay Leno more personally than I do targeted affronts to my intellectual and/or hygienic fitness. Do I want to raise my children in a country that made abundantly clear its preference for Jay Leno over David Letterman? These are the hard questions that come with being an adult.
Anyway, this seems as good a place as any to share my theory that David Letterman is the last of the giant media personalities/brands/whatever, on TV or anywhere else, that we’re likely to see. Who’s left? The current late-night hosts are astoundingly talented, but there are like 75 of them - and that’s before you factor in Comedy Central murderer’s row of talent showcased in the 10 p.m. hour. Our news figureheads may soon be required to submit to on-air lie detector tests. Oprah doesn’t do much besides confer the legitimacy that comes with being Oprah to projects and personalities she admires. Once Dave goes, the fragmentation will be final and irreversible.
Like many others reared on Dave’s sensibility, I haven’t watched consistently in some time. I didn’t marry a Dave Gal; I married a Read-Before-Bed Gal and had two kids whose sleep habits make 11:35 p.m. attainable only with chemical enhancement. And as Dave himself admits in the Times interview linked above, the current version of his show doesn’t translate well to day-after watching in YouTubeable slices. The aimless banter with Paul, the distracted pencil-tapping, the high-pitched whee-hee! after a monologue joke soars or tanks - these and the show’s other tiny joys have an expiration date of precisely two nanoseconds after they air live.
Mostly I find comfort in knowing that he’s still there, still smirking his way through bits and interviews alike, still not bothering to hide his occasional boredom. After he leaves us on May 20, it’ll feel like something massive and permanent has been rendered ephemeral, as if you woke up one morning to find that the venerable oak in the yard blew town under cover of darkness.
In the few opportunities I’ve had to meet people whose work or deeds or personality I admire, I’ve fired off a quick “thank you” before freeing the individual in question to go about his or her business - to finish filming that cancer PSA, say, or to proceed unimpeded into the bathroom stall or ambulance. Should I ever happen upon Dave, I don’t think I’d permit myself even that small indulgence. I feel like I know him; I don’t. It’s in everyone’s interest to leave it at that safe distance.
So thanks for it all, Dave. Here’s wishing you many happy and healthy years being left the hell alone by people like me, as I suspect you’d want it.