I must confess. I was in a cult. Not some religious, mind-control sort of a cult. It was in the early 80s, I had become a member of the small, but devout audience of the legendary and ground-breaking TV talk show Late Night with David Letterman on NBC.
Late Night first aired in February, 1982 in the time slot directly after the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the time slot that had been previously occupied by the Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder.
Now, I wasn’t part of the cult at the very beginning. I don’t recall when I started watching Dave (that’s what we cult members call him), I think it was probably sometime late in that first year, maybe the second year, but when I did start watching it quickly became the show I could not miss.
I knew who Dave was before he got that late night gig. He had been on the Tonight Show numerous times as a guest and he had also done stints as a guest host covering some of Johnny’s frequent nights off. I liked Dave. I thought he was very funny.
Some NBC executives also thought he was funny and offered him his own talk show. In the morning. Weekday mornings. When I found out I was quite chagrined. I was still in high school and going to class when Dave’s show was airing. This was before DVRs or TiVo, and the VCR was still a new innovation that was just beginning to invade every home, so there was no recording the show. What was I to do? Should I quit school?
Fortunately for my academic career, the morning show only lasted 18 weeks. Despite it having been awarded two Emmys, it was just a little too strange for a daytime audience, so it was cancelled. I’ve only seen a few clips on YouTube, but from what I know of the show it got more and more outlandish as it went along. Dave and his crew probably knew it wouldn’t last, so why not get as strange as they wanted?
So, Late Night begins airing and the oddness of the morning show was expanded on, but this time the show found an audience. It was small. Well, small for those days. Today’s cable and streaming shows would love to get that kind of “small” audience. Anyway, that small audience was expanded by one when I joined the cult.
There’s something wonderful about being in such a cult. You feel a certain ownership of the show. “This belongs to me and only a few other special people.” You feel as though you are in on a secret, something a select few people understand much less know about. And you get it. All of it. And this kind of cult doesn’t require members to shave their heads, give up all their money, and leave their families. Losing a bit of sleep is about the only cost to being a member of this cult.
And Late Night was such an unusual show. The cast of characters included Larry “Bud” Melman, Flunky the Late Night Clown, and all the oddball creations of the very funny Chris Elliott. Paul Shaffer bought his own style of comedy to the show. There was his song Bermuda (it’s a koo-koo place, nutty kinda place), his send up of the hip Vegas attitude, and his acting during the actor/singer gags was fantastically funny. We also got to meet some of the more unusual creative types of the day, including the furious Brother Theodore, the innocent-yet-kinda-creepy-but-funny Pee Wee Herman, and the always bristly Harvey Pekar.
There were the regular bits: Small Town News, Dave’s Record Collection, Fun with an 80 Ton Hydraulic Press, Fun with a Steamroller, and Dropping Items from a 5-Story Tower. And that’s just a few.
He would take the camera outside and interview everyday New Yorkers. Dave even spent time working at a fast food restaurant. He would also call people at random from the phone book. It was doing that in which he discovered Arnie Barnes, a young man who worked at a meat-packing plant in Omaha, NE. That was a special night.
Then there were Stupid Pet Tricks, Stupid Human Tricks, and the various suits made of unusual items (magnets, Alka-Seltzer, sponges, and, my favorite, the suit of Velcro). I later learned the suits gag was something Dave lifted from Steve Allen when he was hosting the Tonight Show.
And, let’s not forget Viewer Mail. Each week Dave would dip into the voluminous Late Night mailbag to read and answer real letters from real viewers. “If they weren’t real, could I do this?” (Other cult members will understand.) When the segment first started the number of letters varied, but it eventually settled on five letters answered each week. I remember being disappointed when Dave went to just answering four letters. That meant the Pyramid of Comedy would have no top. (Again, other cult members will understand.)
Yes, there were the Top Ten lists. I’m a little ambivalent toward those. Some were pretty funny, most were a little lame. But it became a staple of the show.
By the way, much of the zaniness of Late Night can be found on YouTube. This is as good a place to start as any.
Late Night was the anti-talk show. And Dave was the anti-host. He wouldn’t necessarily be rude, he just had a way of cutting through the celebrity BS that would be featured on other talk shows. He’d ask odd questions, which could throw a guest off a bit, but the good guests would roll with it. And Dave could be very acerbic when he wanted. He gained a bit of a reputation for that. So much so that Cher avoided appearing on his show for a long time. When she finally did, Dave asked why it was so difficult to get her on the show. Cher bluntly answered it was because she thought he was an a–hole. That was a special night.
In those early days, I worked nights at Wendy’s and I made certain when closing everybody’s work was done quickly. All employees had to leave at the same time so that everyone got to their cars safely, so, if I was to get home in time for Dave, I helped my coworkers finish up. I had to get home to watch Dave.
Dave has had an influence on me. I guess that shouldn’t come as a surprise. In 1988, while still working at Wendy’s, the store manager took a week off. When he returned he told me that he was able to stay up late and catch some of the TV shows he’d been missing. He then gave me one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He told me he’d been able to watch Late Night and that he could see a lot of Letterman in me.
Not many people know this, but I do a podcast called Dimland Radio. And, just last month, a friend who listens to my show was describing it to someone. I was listening in, too humble to describe it myself, when my friend said I was a bit like David Letterman.
Wow! I guess it still shows.
However, as you must know, Late Night didn’t stay a cult show for very long. More and more people began to take notice and the show grew in popularity. That’s good in that the show would last, but it lost its special appeal. The show. Dave. They weren’t just mine anymore. I had to share him with a much bigger, less cool audience.
This was something that hit me when I watched one of his anniversary shows. Each year, Dave would do a special clip show with some special guests, reviewing the best moments of the previous year. The first few of these shows were still recorded in the same studio. (One year the anniversary show was recorded on a plane while in flight. That was a special night.) Then, for the 5th year anniversary, NBC decided to move the show to the larger venue Radio City Music Hall for the special.
It was then that I realized I was no longer a member of a select group. The tumultuous cheers that erupted when Dave walked on stage told me the cult was over. Now the riff raff liked him, too. I was crushed. I never looked at the show the same way after that.
I still liked it. I still liked Dave. But it just wasn’t the same.
I stopped watching as regularly as I had before. And when Dave moved to CBS, I watched even less.
But it was awesome while it lasted.
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Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on iTunes.