Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Original Common Freshman Text: David Letterman and My Generation

Early in my freshman year of college, a couple of us decided that we would make Thursday nights Letterman night.  (This was right around the time NBC began to own Thursdays but had not yet come into full control of it.)  At about midnight, we'd more or less commander one of the upper floor lounges in our dorm (I lived in a high-rise, known as Tower B), bring the cheap pizza and pepsi that had been delivered to  the main desk, and settle in to watch Late Night.  We chose Thursday because that was Viewer Mail night.  After a few weeks, the numbers swelled, until one night I showed up and the lounge was packed.

(For those of you my kids' age: we didn't have tv's in our pockets, and we couldn't just push a few buttons and watch whatever/whenever we felt like. Though many of us had VCRs at home, few of us took them with us to the dorms, so if there was something we'd want to watch, we'd have to wait until the network actually broadcast it for us.) 

As the guests came around for one final farewell for Dave these past few weeks, I was particularly struck by the appearances of two guys who are basically my age: Norm Macdonald and Adam Sandler.  I'm not especially a fan of either of them, but that's not my point anyway. What struck me was not so much what they did (Sandler's song was cute, and Macdonald's standup tribute -- telling a joke from Letterman's standup material he remembered seeing when he was a teenager -- was amusing) as much as it was the evident display of appreciation and admiration they had for Dave.  But even to refer to that display of affection is not quite accurate.  It was a realization for me of what Letterman means to people from my demographic, born in the late sixties.  (Macdonald was born in '63, but I'll let that go for the moment.)

I think that Letterman is more important for us than for any other generation that came afterward.  I tread very dangerously on the path of narcissism akin to that of the Boomers -- no generation has ever been more full of self-importance, even in this Age of Kardashian -- but here's what I mean.  My demographic were teenagers when Late Night began.   At that age, we begin to fully define our identities, distinguishing ourselves from our parents, staking out a territory that belongs to us. (Unlike most animals that mark their own territory by pissing on it, we mark ours by pissing on Mom and Dad's.) We took to Dave because we'd never seen anything like it.  (We didn't have YouTube to remind us that before there was the Rice Krispies suit, there was Steve Allen's "human tea-bag." Don't let us old folks tell ya we knew our history better'n you kids.)  It wasn't just idle chit-chat between host and movie- or book-plugging guest. It was a guy who showed you how stupid the world could be, and how even more stupid show-biz was.  It was dropping stuff off the roof.  It was absurdist interventions from a Guy Under The Seats. It was Brother Theodore and Kamarr the Discount Magician.  It was Larry Bud Melman as Roy Orbison.  It was Prancing Fluids and Monkey-cams.  It was Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler. It was the G.E. handshake. It was heckling Bryant Gumbel.  It was Jane Pauley on helium during the custom-made show.  It's Dr. Ruth talking about cucumbers and making the host walk off the set, leaving the musical director to finish the show. And it was musical acts whose records you actually owned. 

Yes,  the late-night Jimmys grew up with all of that, too.  But people my age are just old enough to remember the world before Dave.  It wasn't a totally terrible place.  Johnny was a genius, let's not forget that, and the comics he brought out -- including Dave -- were great talents.  Dave didn't really bring us a vastly different world (at least, at first); he simply showed us that there was another way of looking at it.  By the time the next generation of talents came along, those were kids who'd always lived in Dave's world.  It's the difference between treating television as a new, transformative box, and treating it as just another appliance.  Veteran comedian Mort Sahl -- who never was part of the mainstream, but an influential genius nonetheless -- said it best when he explained Letterman's genius to Bob Costas: Letterman told us that this whole show-biz/celebrity thing is completely disposable and pointless, and even though I'm benefiting from it, that also is absurd.   In many ways, his show is a twisted response to Catcher in the Rye -- a novel I didn't read in high school, having sat through enough book reports and Billy Wilder movies to know its message -- but instead of the spoiled, "urbane"cynical child-hero, we have a midwestern kid with a public school education wearing a suit of alka-seltzer and trying very hard to give away a stereo tv to a guy in Lancaster, PA who probably thought it was a prank call.

In adolescence -- which, scientists are discovering, really lasts from the teen years to the mid-twenties (mid-fifties for Congressmen) -- our brains are rapidly re-wiring themselves as they prepare for adulthood, and our lives are felt and lived more intensely than they ever will be, and the culture we consume becomes the culture that remains lodged in our brains longest.  And there is where David Letterman's importance lies for me and all the members of the classes of 84-90, especially those who ended up in show-biz: it's not just that Dave gave them a place to show off their skills, but that their very sensibilities were informed greatly by the sensibility of Letterman's show.  (For better and for worse, I suppose, we are Dave's Children.)   He was for us what Steve Allen was for him.  

Because the way we consume television is so different from what it was when I was a freshman in college, I doubt very much that any one talk show host will capture the consciousness of such a large number of people.  As Dave's run neared its end on NBC, there were many different people getting late-night talk shows; cable and satellite exploded in the post-deregulation era; and now with people no longer tied to any set time frame to watch tv, even the term "late night" means nothing.  Those who attempt to carry his mantel will grab eyeballs in all sorts of different places, but they will not necessarily inspire people to go a public place like a dorm room lounge at the same time once a week to declare their loyalty and identity.  For me, it really was a Late-Night World.  Goodbye, Dave. 

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