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The genius of David Letterman

Letterman Show on Broadway

I’ve been a David Letterman fan since I first saw his shows in the late 1980s. I loved the irreverent send-ups, self deprecating humour, the sharp quick wit. It was New Yorker wise cracking, stand up delivered with a huge smile. It was fresh. David was having as much fun as everyone else.

In January 2010, I had a week in New York at a tech conference, and one of the things I had on my list apart from the Empire State, State of Liberty and pastrami on rye was a taping of the Late Show with David Letterman, filmed at the iconic Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, just a few blocks up from Time Square. So a few hours after touching down and making it to my hotel, I went to walk off some of the jetlag and found my self outside the theatre, and noticed people walking inside (it was a dark wintry Sunday evening, so I was amazed to see the doors open). There were people with clipboards ushering people in, so I walked in and was quickly told that if I wanted to see a taping, there would be two shows tomorrow, one at 2pm and another at 4pm. They asked me a couple of easy questions about the show, and said they’d leave a message at my hotel if I was on the list. By the time I got back to the hotel, a message was there. ‘Turn up tomorrow at 1pm’, which I did. Again, they asked me some questions about the show, and seeing I was a bit keen, told me to go to queue A inside the theatre. There were about 30 others there, and once there were about 50, we were told we had been chosen as we “looked nice” and were “big fans” so were going to be in the front rows. About 30 minutes of what I can only describe as “whipping us up into a frenzy” ensued where we were told to laugh and applaud at everything David says, but no calling out or taking photos.

Ed Sullivan theatre

Into the theatre we went and down to the front seats, I was in the second row left by the aisle. The set was as you’d expect, with people milling about, and then a local warm up comedian came on to get us all in the spirit of things, then they played us the famous 1996 Taco Bell bit, and finally the band came on, and played 3 or 4 songs. By this stage the whole theatre was full and clapping along, and finally, about 2 minutes before filming, out walked Dave himself, took one quick question, and as the theme music was started (all music and effects were played live) he ran off and we were into it.

As it was, the show went for 60 minutes as if in real time. During the ad breaks Dave would wander off to the side to talk through something with the producer. It all flowed like clockwork, perfect every time, first time. Well, the gang had done the show over 5000 times up to that point (and over 6000 times in all after Dave retired the show this week). There was Paul Shaffer leading the band, which included Tom “Bones” Malone (of Blues Brother’s fame). At the time Letterman rival Jay Leno had left the Today Show about 6 months earlier and Conan O’Brien (who’d started his career as a writer on Letterman’s Late Show) had taken over, but Conan had been sacked that day, and Leno was set to return. Dave (who everyone had expected to get the Today Show from Johnny Carson back in 1993) nonchalantly walked out to begin his monologue with “Agh well, looks like I didn’t get the Today Show again!”, with a pretend annoyance that turned into his signature beaming tooth-gap smile. It was an incredible experience and an amazing start to my week in New York.

Letterman’s late night show ran for 32 years (he’d had a morning show before that for a few years before switching to late night) and after Leno was given the Today Show, he regularly beat Leno in the ratings for years. While Leno was all smarmy establishment and slick one liners, Letterman was the edgy risk-taker. You were either a Leno person or Letterman. I was Letterman. Leno finally retired (again) a few years later, and Letterman, having gone past his good mate Carson’s 31 year record a couple of years ago, and aged 68 decided this was the moment to go. Everyone else in late night was in their 30s and using hash tags. His first guest on Late Night Bill Murray was there on his last show, as were all living Presidents, Foo Fighters and a cavalcade of stars who had guested many times for one last Top Ten list. Dave had survived major heart surgery (his Dad died of a heart attack in his 50s), blackmail, a stalker and 4 decades in the industry. There was not much more to do, except spend time with his wife and Harry his son. In the end, as he said farewell, “family is the most important thing.”

Letterman mugI sit and look at my Late Show mug on my desk every day, and smile. Thanks Dave. You’re a legend. 12 Emmys (more than any other chat show host), 53 nominations (more than anyone), producer of prime time shows, a real entrepreneur and raconteur, paid $20 million a year to entertain us (his $14m starting salary at CBS was 3 times that of Leno).

I reckon Dave had the last laugh.

Happy retirement.

P.S. Last Weds, Conan O’Brien, in an act of selfless admiration, even implored his own audience to turn over and watch Dave’s last show “You have to watch Dave; we will never see his like again.”

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