At this writing we are about a week away from May 20, 2015, which will mark an event that many of us, I believe, secretly imagined would never come. Oh, we knew it would, time being well enamored of the whole “marching on” thing, and impermanence pretty much being the coin of the physical realm. But if you also remember where you were at 12:30 am, February 1, 1982, it may still be difficult to process that in less than a week David Letterman will no longer be a gap-toothed fixture in the late-night TV talk show firmament. Soon we’ll tune in after the 11:00 news and every late-night gab fest desk will be manned (not wo-manned) with hosts who would not have the comic voices they have, or the irreverent broadcasting platforms they enjoy, without Letterman’s pervasive, game-changing influence. But Dave won’t be around to kick around anymore, and despite the fact that his show’s CBS incarnation never had the caustic, anarchic, absurdist bent of that first, heady NBC decade (1982-1993) it’s going to be weird in extremis to have him go missing.
Not that he’ll be dead to us or anything. Johnny Carson enjoyed one last public appearance on television, a literal walk-on on The Late Show in 1994, before the ex-late night king disappeared from the public eye for good to enjoy a life of reclusive retirement that one would think impossible for someone so used to the limelight. But, as intimated in a recent Rolling Stone profile entitled “David Letterman: Happy at Last,” we shouldn’t expect a similar vanishing act from Letterman. One could, of course, be forgiven for taking that one with a horse pill made of salt. If anything, cranky, irascible Dave, however mellowed by surviving heart surgery and becoming a father at almost 60 years old, might just be the likeliest candidate to pull a Carson: heading for the plains of Montana (where he adamantly insisted to guest Howard Stern on Monday’s program he is not bound), never to be heard from again.
Yet Dave is nothing if not a paradox. As Slate writer Jessica Winter observed in her keenly observed piece “David Letterman Raised Me,” here’s a guy who was “a figure both accessible and aspirational, crackling with frictions of personality: a Midwestern loner-type yet somehow the hippest guy in New York City; a guy beset by self-doubt and self-loathing yet confident enough to build a late-night institution around himself; a guy palpably uncomfortable around people who made a stratospheric living by talking to people; a guy with a pathological aversion to embarrassment who pursued embarrassment of himself and others as a vocation.”
Who better, then, to do precisely the opposite of what most might expect him to do? The idea of a none-too-retiring Letterman hanging out on the lecture circuit, or developing other TV shows (like the one his production company, Worldwide Pants, ushered into existence, Everybody Loves Raymond), or even extending his late-night life as a frequent guest on all those other talk shows, as a constant reminder to all his whip-smart, virally connected descendants of just how it’s supposed to be done, this time from the guest’s chair, fills me with fizzy, possibly delusional glee.
Hell, if it were up to me, I’d hire him to host the Academy Awards again. That appearance was the ultimate extension of Dave into the “real world”—the people who hired him thinking he’d massage Hollywood egos in the Billy Crystal manner represented perhaps the comedian’s most ill-prepared audience. But for Dave the Oscars were business as usual. “Uma, Oprah, Oprah, Uma” might have made the gowns and tuxes inside the Shrine Auditorium nervous and uncomfortable, but why should anyone care about that? He might have been out of place, but that bit, and everything that followed on that fateful Oscar night in 1995, was Dave being Dave being funny and not giving a cuss whether or not he fit in. (He obviously did not.) Letterman brought a real edge to the Oscars that they never had before and certainly haven’t had since, and I’d love to see him give the hosting chores another defiant whack, despite there being absolutely no reason for him to take that kind of critical heat again. If I thought it’d jolt the prescribed path of future events toward making any of the above post-Late Show speculative possibilities happen, I’d make for the top floor of the nearest office building and chuck a watermelon to the sidewalk below right now.
Ah, the watermelons. Being the slightly demented, benignly destructive sort that I always was as a kid (and am still), those moments when Dave or one of his minions started chucking shit off the roof of his Manhattan offices—the more colorfully explosive on impact, the better– were always among my favorite bits. Like most of the great bits that Late Night did in its ongoing innovation and transformation of the format that Carson perfected, the appeal of the watermelon toss (or whatever else happened to be taking the plunge) was twofold. This unjustifiable nonsense appealed both to the giddy kid who suddenly had permission to do something which would normally guarantee lots of trouble, as well as to the adult who had supposedly long since given up childish things, who might, at least for a moment, try to claim some sort of scientific or even artistic rationalization for such antics, when really he just wants to see the rainbow exclamation point at the end of gravity’s sentence.
And as much as I felt I’d found a kindred spirit in Dave’s absurd sort of Everyman against the World comic perspective, I loved his little rogue’s gallery of stock players and frequent guests just as much, those actors, crew members and seemingly found-on-the-street players who circled 30 Rock like warped satellites within the Letterverse.
I bought my first Betamax in 1982, and one of its first regular chores was taping the Late Show so I could catch it once I came home from my overnight shift on a Medford, Oregon radio station. It was during these days that I realized my favorite guest was Teri Garr. The testy, sexually tinged rapport/flirtation she had with the host loosened him up like no other guest could– her appearances here made me recognize similar friendships with women in my own life and realize that Teri Garr had become some sort of dream personification of them for me. (She’s #10 on a recently published list of Dave’s favorite guests, continuing the trajectory she’s always had as an actress—that is, one of being highly underrated.)
And I’d never laid eyes on the great Brother Theodore before Letterman introduced him to me. The almost otherworldly (yet recognizably Germanic) deadpan hostility that this comedian/performance artist set against his determinedly unflappable Midwestern host was pure Late Show catnip.
As for Letterman’s own “creations,” it’s difficult to imagine a luckier guy than stage manager Biff Henderson, whose career wrangling productions like To Tell the Truth could hardly have prepared him for a 30-year stint as Dave’s greatest straight man. And no one who ever passed through the doors of Studio 6 in the NBC years ever captured my grizzled heart quite like Calvert De Forest, a.k.a. Larry “Bud” Melman. De Forest’s was the first face to appear on the very first Late Show back in February 1982, parodying Edward Van Sloan’s memorable introduction/warning to James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein, and if ever a proper, disorienting tone for a 30-year reign of comedy was set, it was set here.
DeForest’s every appearance thereafter felt like a high-wire act, where the viewer was never sure just how in on the joke Larry “Bud” ever was, and where every microphone-based malaprop played out in a man-on-the-street interview added to the sense of psychological combustibility, like the whole bit could go haywire on any unexpected, fractured whim. In 1990, when I scored tickets to see the taping of Late Night’s eighth anniversary special, which was staged at the Universal Amphitheater here in Los Angeles, I was probably as excited to see Larry “Bud” Melman, who testily bumbled his way through two or three tries at opening the program before he got it right (Yee-e-e-es!), as I was to see Dave himself. (Letterman’s tribute to DeForest, on the occasion of the actor’s death, was a typically wonderful moment in the show’s history.)
But perhaps Dave’s greatest comic foil, the weirdest fella ever to emerge out from under the stairs to gain prominence on a nationally televised talk show, was Chris Elliot. Elliot, the son of radio and TV star Bob Elliot (he was Bob to Ray Goulding’s Ray), matched even Brother Theodore for inexplicable hostility toward the host, but Elliot’s bizarre appearances—including his twisted Marlon Brando impersonation (“Bananas!”), which featured no attempt at replicating any of the actor’s persona or mannerisms– were always tinged with a poisonous parody of talk-show unctuousness and self-promotional grabs for attention which leavened, or perhaps made even more unsettling, Elliot’s attempts at being ingratiating.
Elliot eventually ended up making appearances in movies like CB4 and There’s Something About Mary, usually (depending upon the MPAA rating) doing even more virulent versions of that same, patently unstable character. And in 1990 the actor, in collusion with fellow ex-Letterman writer Adam Resnick, created one of the most unlikely sitcoms in TV history, Get a Life!, which ran with the premise of Elliot’s increasingly repellent (and hilarious) narcissist, who lives at home with Mom and Dad (Elinor Donahue and, of course, Ray Elliot), for two full seasons during the early days of the Fox Network. The twisted, unctuous creature that the Late Show had unleashed into the world was beginning to take its act on the road, at hours much, much earlier than 12:30 in the morning.
Elliot would get only one shot at a lead in a movie, and he (and Resnick) did it Elliot’s way all the way. Okay, show of hands. How many of you saw Cabin Boy when it was released theatrically in January 1994? (Crickets…) I thought so. There were about six people in the auditorium when my wife and I saw it on its very brief run at a theater in Westwood, and I remember stumbling out of the theater thinking that this movie could seriously be in the running for Strangest Movie Ever Made. Of course it was pitilessly reviewed but I suspect fans of Elliot’s squirm-inducing appearances on Letterman liked this story of a horribly arrogant and entitled “fancy lad” and what happens when he ends up on a merchant ship, the Filthy Whore, packed with nasty, hateful seafaring bastards, just fine. (It has amassed a bit of cult film cachet in the 21 years– ! – since its release.)
And what better way for them (us/me) to settle into the movie’s downright bizarre and unpredictable world than with a taste of the familiar. About 10 minutes into the action, Elliot, still dressed in the powdered wig and lace jacket uniform of his exclusive fancy lad prep school, saunters through a coastal village looking for directions to the dock where he will board the Filthy Whore. And who should he encounter but a bum in a wool cap, smoking a cigar, who looks and sounds a lot like David Letterman. A quick check of the credits afterward reveals that the actor’s actual name is Earl Hofert… but I’d almost swear…
Of course Letterman would take no credit for the performance, and the only other time he has appeared in a feature film to date, as Motley Crue Roadie #1 in Beavis and Butthead Do America (1996), Hofert got the glory as well. It’s clear Hofert felt at home in Cabin Boy, surrounded by familiar talent from Letterman’s past and current shows, and the star probably wisely deduced that such a level of comfort wouldn’t be so easy to reproduce on other sets. So we have very little of Earl Hofert to appreciate, but what there is, is choice indeed. As Old Salt in Fishing Village, Hofert taps the heady brew of goofiness that made Elliot’s appearances with Letterman on the NBC show so prickly and hilarious. And for such a brief cameo during a relatively brief, 80-minute movie, almost every line that escapes from between those gapped teeth is golden. Go ahead, shout ’em with me:
“Come over here, little girl! Oh, you’re so cute. You’re just adorable!”
“You wanna buy a monkey?”
And the immortal: “You want some advice? Forget that flank steak horseshit. Try the London broil!”
Hofert eventually sees Elliot’s clueless Nathaniel Mayweather off to an uncertain fate, watching as the bewigged twit pads off into the distance. He gives him a glance, chomps on his cigar, and finally the absurdist glad-handing gives way to the contempt underneath. “Man, oh, man, I hates them fancy lads,” he grumbles, squinting into the sun.
On May 20, 2015, we’ll watch Letterman take a walk too. There will be some sadness, some sense of loss, but it’s sort of comforting to know that any sentiment we might secretly harbor would go the same way as that which has been expressed by the endless train of celebrity well-wishers who have sat in the guest chair over the past couple of months—uncomfortable dismissal and deflection, perhaps a murmur of thanks. The hippest guy on television for 30 years, the guy who really did change the system of safe comedy from within the system, is about to take a walk. Time for me to forget the flank steak available on all the rest of the channels, the stuff that is seasoned like the Late Show and garnished with bits of Late Night, and settle in with my memories of a really good London broil.
Other great recent pieces about David Letterman and his exeunt from the national stage: