Thursday, May 14, 2015

Late Night, Late Show ... it's too late for me

A Letterman appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny
     Except for one month in 1994, I never watched David Letterman regularly. So what's all the fuss about these last few months?
    Was Letterman the greatest late-night talk show host ever? Ha! Are you kidding?
     Even he will tell you he's only No. 2 ... if that. Because it has been obvious over the years that he revered Johnny Carson -- the all-time King of late-night television.
     As I said in a blog piece almost 2 1/2 years ago, a year after I began this blog, Johnny was -- is -- my favorite entertainer ever.
     Shows how "old school" I am. Because Letterman, only two months and four days older than me, should have been my guy. But while I watched the Carson show as many nights as I could, and now I revisit the many Carson highlights out there (especially on YouTube), I don't often visit with Letterman.
      He was too hip for me, too contemporary maybe, too crazy, too weird. I wasn't into stupid pet tricks or throwing things off buildings, or his often sharp-edged comments and interviews.
      My bad perhaps?
      After Carson left, indeed, I watched Jay Leno on NBC, on The Tonight Show, much more often. Of course, Jay had become a semi-regular during Johnny's infrequent absences (yes, that's a joke).
      Then in the summer of 1994, I had nothing to do ... no regular job, just baseball and scorekeeping a lot of nights. And one night in the press box, the discussion turned to Leno vs. Letterman, which was then a hot topic, NBC having picked Leno to succeed Carson permanently (although Carson had publicly stated he preferred Letterman).
      So David went from Late Night on NBC to Late Show on CBS ... with a mega-deal, of course. The guys in the press box kept touting how much fun and how funny Letterman was.
      For the next month, the post-baseball routine at home for me was to watch Letterman. If baseball ran long, I recorded the show, then watched.
     I liked him, but not that much. The music was too loud, Paul Shaffer was too zany looking and acting. Doc Severinsen (loved him) dressed weird, but what a band he led, and I can't even tell you who Letterman's announcer was (or is). He was no Ed McMahon; that I can tell you.
     And nothing ever will equal The Tonight Show theme music. Period.
     I found Letterman's Top Ten lists funny at times, but too often a reach. Much preferred Carnac The Magnificent (but not necessarily Art Fern, Floyd R. Turbo or Aunt Blabby).
     I thought many of his stunts also were too wacky. And, yes, I know Carson had many skits that were duds.
     As for Leno, he was -- and many people still think he is -- a funny, witty stand-up comedian. I was not particularly impressed with his interviewing skills and he often was stiff/contrived doing skits. As he aged, I thought the humor in his monologues became too hard-edged.
     Eventually, I did not watch Letterman or Leno very often, except when I was aware -- through promos or TV listings -- of guests I wanted to watch. But I will say that I began to appreciate Letterman's poking fun at himself or being the butt of the jokes.
     His personal life, his flaws, his stalker, his health issues ... he didn't hide from it. Carson might've joked about his divorces, but we never really learned much about his private life and ways.
Our last live look at Johnny Carson on TV: A cameo, non-
speaking bit -- May 13, 1994 (
      Unlike Carson, who was almost always classy with his guests on the air but -- as we came to find out through stories and TV features -- could be dismissive with people he felt crossed him (good-bye, Joan Rivers), Letterman could be short with guests. But anyone who can put down Bill O'Reilly regularly or make fun of Sarah Palin is OK.
     One other comparison: Carson rarely, maybe never, turned serious about political and national matters on the air. I saw Letterman make some statements, after national tragedies such as 9-11, that were timely and inspiring. He hit the right tone.
      I think Letterman also is correct in making his exit. He realizes that the men in the 10:30 p.m. Central late-night spots -- Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon (our daughter's favorite) and Stephen Colbert (taking over for Letterman) -- are terrific entertainers and comedians ... and today's guys.
       Letterman has been humble as guests make their final appearances and offer tributes. And while the recent tribute show to him on CBS had many highlights, you can guess my favorite portion -- the Carson-Letterman relationship.
       Maybe we'll see more of Letterman in the future than we saw of Carson after his retirement. Johnny was on TV only a couple of times afterward, just cameo spots on the Letterman show. The audience response when he appeared unannounced on the May 13, 1994, show was one to remember.
       We kept hoping, but ... no more.
       So for those who'll miss Letterman, good for you. He had many, many great moments, and he was a great one, I suppose. He wasn't Carson.


  1. From Greg Pederson: Most people, either love him or loathe him; his humor definitely isn't for everyone. But what a lot of people don't realize is, back when his old Late Night show started, he was limited in a lot of ways in what he could/couldn't do by Carson, who didn't want the show following his to mimic his own in any way. So Letterman, who had an ironic, absurdist sense of humor to begin with, went as far in the other direction as he could, and in the process rewrote the rulebook on talk shows. I loved it from the first time I saw it, which was probably 1984.

  2. More from Greg Pederson: Nice piece. As you noted, Dave would be the first to say he revered Carson and will always consider him the greatest talk show host of all time. I really liked Carson too, but Dave's acerbic wit and sense of humor were more to my liking, and his zany stunts (wearing an Alka-Seltzer suit into a booth full of water, a Rice Krispies suit in a giant bowl of milk, a Velcro suit, etc) pushed the envelope of what somebody was willing to try on TV beyond anything Steve Allen or Johnny ever attempted. He was a hip, irreverent oddball for a new generation of late night TV watchers.
    And one of the main reasons I like him is (again as you noted) that he let his humanity show through, which is something you seldom saw with Carson, who was always an intensely private man. Dave brought all the docs and nurses who worked on him on the show after he had open heart surgery and thanked them repeatedly, and became good friends with many of them. The first show he did after 9/11 was raw and emotional, reflecting the way everyone in the nation felt; will never forget him taking Dan Rather's hand when Rather broke down during their conversation.
    I detest Leno and have ever since he and his sleazeball manager stole Carson's show away from Dave. Johnny always wanted Dave to succeed him. And Letterman had been a great friend to Leno, having him on his own show often and praising his talent. That was a lowdown, spineless thing of Leno to do. Beside, that, I don't find Leno funny and as a host, he was awful. Bad interviewer, fawning, very vanilla and "safe" in his humor. It always baffled and annoyed me that he beat Letterman in the ratings repeatedly after '96, but I chalk it up to the fact that most people want their comedy safe and harmless; they want to be spoonfed, which is the essence of Leno.
    Watching these last few weeks of shows has been very bittersweet, b/c all the weight that seemed to have accumulated on Dave's shoulders over the years, particularly the last 20 years, is gone and he's back to the carefree, happy guy he was when he started. I'm a big fan of Colbert and will no doubt watch him occasionally. But it just won't be the same.