When Dave broke into network TV 35 years ago, he was the young, subversive bomb-thrower. Now he’s the Establishment of late night, beset, in his words, by a sea of younger Jimmys. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
On the day of Dave’s final CBS broadcast I have one good Letterman story.
When his now-obscure NBC morning show was going through its rapid, quietly spectacular flame-out in 1980, a friend and I were desperate to go see it live. We loved it but sensed its time was short; I remember shaking my fist at TV GUIDE’s snide and dismissive review, which mocked Dave’s “weird satires” as an affront to the sanctity of network television. We wanted to support the show for as long as it lasted, which as it turned out was just four surreal months.
I was a newsroom intern at WBZ-TV in Boston. BZ was an NBC affiliate (this is important). I called in sick, faking a laryngitic rasp, and hopped a Greyhound to New York City, where I met my friend in the Letterman studio audience line at 30 Rock. Somehow we got inside.
The show was broadcast live, and I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember what happened afterward. Dave came up into the stadium-style audience seats to tape short network promos for the next day’s program. (“Join us tomorrow when our guests will be…”) As it happened he sat directly in front of my friend and me. We got to say hello, briefly. Nice.
We were a little more visible to the camera than I’d realized. When I made it back to my WBZ internship a day or two later (New York is full of diversions), the assistant news director greeted me with a quizzical smile.
He wanted to know how, if I was so sick, I had managed to show up on national television sitting behind David Letterman in the show promos everyone had seen fed downline from New York.
To his credit he let me stick around the shop, and I spent the rest of the shift trying to tell the staff what Dave was really like based on my fifteen seconds in his presence. Turned out everyone was a Dave fan. Laboring in local TV, harboring quiet fantasies involving dynamite, how could you not be?
When “The David Letterman Show” folded a few weeks later, replaced by a game show starring Wink Martindale, Dave thought his career was over. I, too, thought genuine, uncut guerrilla TV anarchy had been snuffed for good by network suits. (The show was a hit with college students like me who cut class to watch it — sadly, this wasn’t a demo NBC cared about on weekday mornings, having sold ads for laundry detergent and pantyhose — and crowded the studio for its chaotic final broadcast; some brandished big placards that said “KILL WINK,” which I found hilarious.) But we were both wrong. There’s a lesson in there, somewhere, too.
Dave was back within two years, following Carson in late night, and the rest was history.
Don’t be afraid to assume a spot at the head of the table as time and experience qualify you. Don’t ever assume you’ve had your one shot. Dave may be 68 years old and gray, but he didn’t discard anarchy; he made his point of view mainstream and stuck to his principles. We should all do as well.