Month: May, 2015
Editor’s note: A little bit of self-indulgence today and, I think, a gift to all of you. I asked my dear friend Matt Derrick to write a blog about his thoughts on David Letterman. Matt is a public relations and marketing pro from Kansas City, who sometimes works under the Smirk New Media banner. We bonded as teenagers over our shared love of Dave. That bond has lasted to this day as we see the way Dave has shaped the roots of the way we work, write and live. Thanks to Matt. Enjoy this great piece. – Mike Koehler.
BY MATT DERRICK
As we count down to the final hour of the television era headlined by David Letterman, there are countless tributes and accolades coming from every corner of the entertainment world.
Letterman inspired generations of comics, actors, writers and even everyday dumb guys like yours truly. Even though many others have delivered incredibly brilliant odes to Dave (check out Conan O’Brien’s salute to see what I mean), I think it’s worth telling my story.
I grew up as the child of a single mom, and fortunately my mom had a great job to help take care of us. On the downside, the job required her to travel a lot during my youth. I stayed with my grandparents during the week when my mom traveled.
From my earliest age, I was a night owl. My grandparents old farmhouse had three bedrooms for themselves, four of their kids and me. Until I graduated from a crib, I slept in my grandparents’ room, which meant I kept their schedule. Even when I moved up to a big boy bed, it was always a battle to get me to sleep. Everyone discovered the best way to get me to down for the night was to let me crash in the living room with the TV.
That’s where I first started picking up my sense of humor and appreciation for comedy. I would fall asleep to the sounds of Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” and even the occasional “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” Like many of you, I’m completely perplexed why my Ozarks grandparents ever watched “Mary Hartman.”
It was on one of those nights that I saw David Letterman for the first time. I can’t tell you the context. Dave was a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show” in those days, and even hosted the show himself 51 times. All I know is that I thought this guy was funny, and it stuck with me.
Flash forward to the summer of 1980. I was eight years old, and that summer my mom got a promotion at work. For some strange reason, her new job didn’t start for a few more months, so they told her she didn’t have to come back to work until the new job began. We spent a lot of time together that summer, and it was one of my favorite childhood summers.
That was the year that Dave hosted his ill-fated morning show. “The David Letterman Show” was one of the most wonderful TV disasters of all time. I think my mom and I were the only people to watch the show, along with a few thousand future comics and prisoners who had lost their library privileges. It was groundbreaking television that almost no one watched and even fewer people understood. But it was awesome.
In my fuzzy memory, my mom and I watched almost all 90 episodes. It probably wasn’t that many. We watched enough for me to remember bits featuring the likes of Edie McClurg and Rich Hall along with future late night staples Stupid Pet Tricks and Small Town News. Venerable newsman Edwin Newman was there for some reason, since we all need the occasional news update in the middle of a comedy show It was on just long enough to set me on a path for the rest of my life.
By the time Dave made the move to late night in 1982, I was still a night owl. But even my mom wasn’t crazy enough to let me stay up late enough to watch Dave. In Springfield, Mo., back then, the show didn’t even come on until midnight, due to reruns of “M*A*S*H” and other assorted syndicated sitcom reruns. It was a few years before Dave moved to 11:30 in Springfield and the show extended to five nights a week so that I could watch on Fridays when there was no school the next day.
Lucky for me, my mother was ahead of her time when it came to technology. We had a VCR, so I was able to record Dave for watching the next afternoon. Eventually even that was not enough; I would sneak out of bed and place a tape recorder next to the TV when Dave came on so I could listen to the tape on the bus ride the next morning.
I still have one of those tapes, and that tape is the Rosetta Stone to understanding my personality and sense of humor. The show is from 1986 and features guests Howard Stern and comedian Steven Wright. There was a tie at No. 1 on the list of Top Ten Cool Things About the Druids: they died out in the early fifth century and they partied like it was 1999.
In those early days, my obsession with Dave was a lonely pursuit. I didn’t have a lot of friends who watched the show and appreciated his brand of comedy. The first friend I made who loved Dave as much as I did was Mike Koehler. I met Mike our freshman year of high school, and we quickly struck up a friendship around Dave. We would make our own top ten lists, passing them back and forth during class. Mike had a copy of the “The Late Night with David Letterman” book, which I believe I borrowed and accidentally drowned when a pipe burst in the basement. (Did I ever make that up to you? I managed to later obtain a fully dry version for my personal archive).
Once I realized that I wasn’t alone, it was easier to show my love of Dave on the outside and express my humor outward rather than keep it to myself. I was never a class clown and I know even my friends thought I was goofy, but it felt better knowing I wasn’t alone. Liking Dave suddenly became a litmus test for me — if you like Letterman, I like you. If you don’t like Dave, I needed to dig deeper to see if I can trust you.
On June 7, 1991, I was driving up to Kansas City with my mother. The plan was to spend the weekend watching the Royals and do a little shopping.
Since Johnny Carson had announced his retirement for May 1992, the speculation regarding his successor was intense. I was a student of the broadcasting business, so I wasn’t ignorant of the case for Jay Leno. Leno was funny, and had handled being the permanent guest host on the show quite well. But Jay wasn’t Dave. To me, the decision was quite simple.
Carson was the King of Late Night, but by 1991 it was in name only. Carson’s earlier time slot delivered the bigger audience, but Arsenio Hall’s success had showed there were dents in the empire. Letterman’s audience was smaller, but his share of younger viewers craved by advertisers was much larger; as a result, “Late Night” was a bigger cash cow for NBC than “The Tonight Show.”
As we were driving along Highway 13 near Osceola, Mo., the news broke on our radio — NBC had named Leno as the new host of “The Tonight Show.”
I was perplexed and angry. This was long before we knew about the machinations behind the scenes that Leno and his team had pulled to get him the gig. It baffled me that Leno would even pursue the job knowing that Letterman was Carson’s rightful heir.
Long before they were network TV stars, Leno and Letterman were just another couple of comics on the standup circuit. Leno was the bigger name in the clubs, and many comedians coming up in the ‘70s owed a lot to Leno setting the tone for modern standup comics, Letterman chief among them. When Letterman got his own show, he didn’t forget who his friends were.
Leno appeared on “Late Night” more than any other comic, and his visits to studio 6A were must-watch events. Without that exposure, Leno never gets the guest hosting gig on “The Tonight Show.” In the ‘80s, Dave made Jay a star.
It was baffling that Jay would steal “The Tonight Show” chair from Dave. This was an act of betrayal. It was a life lesson for me. I learned that success in the business and broadcast worlds took more than just doing the best job. I learned that even among your friends, sometimes you have to watch your back.
Seeing Dave not get his dream job was a punch in the gut to me. It was another reminder that maybe I was outside the mainstream. Sometimes it’s darkest before the dawn. And what happened next changed my outlook for the rest of my life.
From the ashes of losing “The Tonight Show,” David Letterman went on one of the greatest streaks ever seen in television.
It took some time before things heated up, but once Dave took the heartbreak of his loss and channeled it into his art, amazing things began to happen. Dave had tested the chains of NBC before, but that had more to do with pushing the boundaries of television than with the restrictions of a stodgy corporate owner.
Dave getting free of the NBC leash was like seeing a flame-throwing pitcher going out for the 7th game of the World Series — there was no tomorrow, so he left everything he had on the field. The last year of “Late Night” was among his best, even compared to the groundbreaking early days when everything he did was brand new.
Letterman’s free agency also coincided with the early rise of online content delivery. It wasn’t exactly the Internet we know today, but through Prodigy, Compuserve and America Online along with Gopher and Telnet and whatever else we could use to connect online, more information was available than ever before. Every day had new rumors and reports. One week Letterman seemed bound for ABC, another day it was Fox. Rumors even began swirling that NBC was realizing the error of its ways and still might dump Jay for Dave.
The news that Dave would bolt for CBS was oddly bittersweet. The dream scenario was always that somehow Dave would get “The Tonight Show” back and have his name etched alongside Allen, Parr and Carson. But the reality was that “The Tonight Show” was damaged goods. It wasn’t Carson’s chair anymore; it was Leno’s. Since the Golden Era of Television, “The Tonight Show” had been the only franchise of late night. That era was coming to an end.
The move to CBS seemed like a Herculean task but one full of such incredible promise. For the better part of five decades, NBC owned late night in dominating fashion. The best CBS could muster had been the run of “Crimetime After Primetime” that saw the launch of “Silk Stockings,” which later helped bring the USA cable network to prominence. But Letterman, on Broadway, in the Ed Sullivan Theater? It was either going to be a runaway smash or a colossal failure, nothing in between.
In public relations-speak, there’s a phrase called “winning the press conference.” It’s largely a concept of the cable and Internet era, when press conferences stopped being aimed at the media and instead targeted consumers as well. I’m not sure anyone has ever studies the etymology of the phrase, but I think it’s safe to say the first person to ever win the press conference was Letterman.
Within the span of ten minutes, Letterman transitioned from the no-good punk kid always breaking the rules to the $14 million man ready to restore prestige to late night. Self-deprecating, confident, gracious and humble all at the same time, Letterman turned in a performance at the press conference that was one of a kind.
Dave’s move to CBS added another phrase to the pop culture lexicon: intellectual property. In the drama and acrimony of Dave’s departure, NBC threatened to sue Letterman and CBS if any of his old NBC material was used on the new show. Boy meets girl, girl tells boy she wants to date other people, boy meets new girl, old girl threatens to boy for intellectual property theft. It’s a classic America love story.
Letterman’s good-bye at NBC was the late night talk show at its best. Tom Hanks delivered one of the greatest appearances by a talk show guest ever. Dave could barely contain his giddiness in introducing surprise musical guest Bruce Springsteen. The Boss and the World’s Most Dangerous Band jamming “Glory Days” was a mic-dropping moment.
In the fall of 1992 I transferred to the University of Missouri in Columbia to study broadcast journalism. At Missouri, my fandom of Dave was no longer a liability. I made friends who understood me and appreciated Dave like I did. Well, maybe not like I did. But close.
When “The Late Show with David Letterman” premiered in August 1993, I held a watch party in my dorm room with my closest friends. KRCG in mid Missouri continued airing a rerun of “M*A*S*H” at 10:30, so Dave didn’t come out until 11. I called and wrote the station repeatedly to complain, along with enough other people that they eventually caved and moved the show to it’s God-given time slot.
NBC made the genius counter-programming move of airing the first “Late Night” episodes as reruns in Dave’s old time slot. Ever the archivist, I wanted to tape both shows. My friends Beth Keithly and Laura Hammock helped me out by recording the old “Late Night” episodes on their VCR. I still have those tapes today.
One of my fellow Close Personal Friends of Dave was Bill Beustring. We found out how to send for tickets for the new “Late Show,” and requested seats for spring break 1994. Bill got tickets in the mail but I didn’t. We had made a pledge that we would go together but for a variety of reasons, Bill couldn’t go and our friend Beth got the other ticket. Beth was from Philadelphia, which meant I could drive to Philly and stay with her family. We would take the train to New York City for my trip to Mecca.
Episode No. 126 on March 15, 1994 was everything I hoped it would be. All-around great talk show Jay Thomas was on the show, followed by the soon-to-be-legendary Kevin Spacey and musical guest Crash Test Dummies. Thomas was great, but the highlight of the show was Spacey doing his Johnny Carson impersonation. It remains one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in person.
Beth and I (mostly me) desperately wanted to get some attention from Dave. Knowing he’s a big sports fan, we picked up a sweatshirt before we left campus celebrating the Missouri Tigers basketball team’s perfect 14-0 season in the Big Eight. During the train ride to New York, we wrote a note to Dave to go along with the gift. The general gist of the note was begging for a canned ham.
Upon arriving in the city we went to Broadway and scoped out the theater, checking in to see when we needed to get in line to get the best seats. We headed to lunch at the Hello Deli around the corner to meeting Rupert Jee and then hit K&L’s Rock America to meet Mujibur and Sirajul (Mujibur was off that day, but we got our picture taken with Sirajul).
Our next stop was the CBS gift shop at Black Rock for Dave mugs, t-shirts and other souvenirs, then we made the trek to the GE Building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza to take the NBC tour. With Dave-mania well underway, the NBC tour had turned into the Dave tour. The tour leaders knew the drill by now that almost every question was going to be about Letterman. “Did Dave every walk down this hallway?” “Did you ever meet Letterman?” “Is there anything of Letterman’s still here?” When we walked in to studios and offices, the tour guide would lead off with any Letterman-related trivia or sadly tell us, “David Letterman never came in here.”
When we got back to the Ed Sullivan Theater, the line had already started to form. We wouldn’t be in the front row, but we would get decent seats. The ushers and pages came out and told us that if anyone had any gifts for Dave, they would take them. We handed off our sweatshirt and the note addressed to Dave.
As we entered the theater, we were told new pages had started that day and the training and line setup was taking longer than usual. There wouldn’t be as much warmup as usual and we would need to quickly take our seats. The pages started filling up the theater on the right side (stage left). It looked like we would be in the first 10 rows for sure. As we were walking down the aisle, one of the pages came up to Beth and I and said, “You two follow me.” Instead of taking us down with the others, we took a left and walked to the end of the aisle near the end of the aisle closer to the band and behind the cameras.
I of course knew my theater geography. This was a prime camera position, a shot that was always on TV and where Dave would come when he entered the audience or Pea Boy would run screaming through. Thoughts of playing Know Your Current Events or Know Your Cuts of Meat danced through my head.
Watching the production of the show live enriched the viewer experience. Inside gags with the audience became crystal clear. Dave came out before the show and asked if anyone in the audience spoke Italian. A guy in the back raised his hand and Dave shouted some Italian phrases at him. Throughout the monologue, Dave would occasional say a word in Italian and we would laugh hysterically. During commercial breaks, Dave recorded promos for local stations.
Returning from one break, Dave said directly to the camera, “Sometimes during commercials, I read to the audience.” More laughter.
During the monologue Dave made a joke about the McDonald’s shamrock shake and the Whitewater scandal, then said, “Will the last Arkansas attorney leaving the White House please turn out the lights?” Then it happened. Beth and I were on national TV. It was just a few seconds, just a shot of us clapping and laughing.
What can I say. I choked. Out of the corner of my eye I saw myself on the monitor. I got self-conscious and flinched, straightening up a bit. My laughter turned to a slightly more serious pursing of the lips.
When the camera came back, Dave was staring at the monitor too. It looked like he wanted to make a joke about the dumb guy in the audience. He strolled toward the camera and after a moment started speaking Italian again. My moment was over. But the day lives forever in my heart.
Letterman’s first year at CBS was nothing television had ever seen. “The Late Show” was a streaking comet. Despite some affiliates still delaying the show’s start by a half hour or more and a weak CBS primetime lineup, the ratings were still through the roof. The first weeks and months saw ratings rivaling primetime audiences. I clipped a newspaper article about a study of the “The Letterman Effect,” which claimed that the number of people staying up later to watch Letterman was reducing American economic productivity in the tens of millions of dollars.
Suddenly, everything Dave was cool. As a Dave fan, I felt cool. It was great to be at cool kids’ table.
When you reach the pinnacle, there is unfortunately nowhere to go but down. First was the 1995 Oscars hosted by Letterman. I thought it was hysterical and classic Dave. But Hollywood likes their hosts less impudent and more one of their own (think Billy Crystal) I still don’t think Dave’s performance was as bad as they critics did, but I’m obviously completely biased. Oh, and yes, I still have the 1995 Oscars on VHS.
By the time Hugh Grant appeared on “The Tonight Show” in July 1995, the ratings race had gotten much closer. While Jay never had the DiMaggio-esque hit streak Dave had during his first 18 months at CBS, he consistently won the ratings war.
I’m not sure there is a definitive reason why Leno won out in the long run. Cable TV absolutely fractured the audience — Dave wasn’t competing as much against Leno as he was against a generation of performers, writers and comics he inspired. I like to think that in the long-run, America loves McDonald’s even though filet mignon is better. I liked Jay when he appeared on “Late Night” in the ‘80s, but I think he sold his soul to the devil to play to common denominator. I like that Dave never did that.
But while Dave maybe not have been the ratings champion he was once, he was still the once and future king of late night. That was never more evident than in the new century.
January 2000 was one of the most stressful months of my life. It started with great optimism — I landed a new job. I had been laid off in November, and was fortunate to find a great job that I would come to love. I was to start on Jan. 17.
On Jan. 13, my mom called me to let me know she was at hospital. She had been having abdominal pain and they were going to admit her to the hospital. I’m an only child to a single mother, so I’m a huge mama’s boy. The idea of my mother being in the hospital and not knowing what was wrong drove me crazy.
It was a fitful and stressful week. It took several days of tests and procedures before the doctor’s finally determined it was my mother’s gall bladder causing the problem. The lowlight of the hospital stay was when I was on the phone with my mother’s insurance company as they were rushing here into surgery to remove her gall bladder. The woman on the other end of the phone said they could not authorize the procedure without verbal consent from the patient. I explained that my mother was in severe pain and already heading under sedation. To make sure they would pay the tab, I had to put the phone to mother’s mouth and tell her, “Just say the word, ‘Yes’.“ It was mind-boggling.
It was in my mother’s hospital room when we heard the news. David Letterman had been rushed to emergency surgery for a quintuple bypass. I’ve never met Dave Letterman. He’s just a guy on TV. My own mother was in the hospital, and my priorities were clear. It broke my heart to hear about Dave, but my mom’s my mom. The two situations were not even comparable.
But yet in ways they were. My memories of watching Dave over the years with my mother forever intertwined the two. Today, my mother lives with us due to her health, and we still occasionally watch Dave together. Watching the Christmas show together is one of our favorite holiday traditions. It’s just not Christmas without Jay Thomas’s Lone Ranger story, knocking the meatball off the tree and hearing Darlene Love.
There was an eerie parallel to have my mom and Dave in peril at the same time. It rocked my foundation and was my first real face-to-face look at our mortality.
Just like every other American, I’ll always remember the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I was driving on Interstate in Kansas City heading to work when the local talk radio station cut to live updates regarding reports of a small plane hitting one of the World Trade Center towers. I was on Interstate 435 driving through Baytown when a reporter was interviewing an eyewitness of the earlier crash. Suddenly the witness cried out, “Oh my god!” The second plane crashed and it was clear the world had just changed.
We all walked around in a fog for a week. No one knew what to do. Going about our jobs seemed pointless. Even as we fatigued from the news coverage, it seemed impossible to move about with life as normal since nothing was normal anymore.
I was never more proud to been a Dave fan than the night of Sept. 17, 2001. That night, Dave made it OK to go to work again. He made it OK to watch TV again. He made it OK to laugh again.
Dave’s conversation with America that night was one of the most critical performances in TV history. America is resilient, and we would have recovered without a guy hosting a late night TV show telling us how he feels. But it’s exactly what we all needed to hear. It was what I needed to hear.
Throughout the first decade of the new century, Letterman was the elder statesman of American culture. Nothing was significant without Dave’s input. “The Late Show” even played a pivotal role in two separate presidential elections.
Even for Dave fanatics such as myself, we know the man is not perfect. Some of his imperfections I understand. In some ways I think we are similar people. In other ways we are quite different.
The criticisms of Dave as being prickly or mean spirited never bothered me. The prickly part I understood because I appreciate from where it originates. By all accounts, Letterman is incredibly self-critical. I’m the same way. Nothing I do is ever perfect or good enough. I can find fault with everything I do. I’ll be sending this blog to my friend Mike for publishing soon, and after that it will be hard for me to read again. I will find errors and thoughts that could be expressed better that will embarrass me to the point that I won’t want anyone to see them. It’s just the way I’m wired.
Where we differ is that my inner critic attacks only me. I think my friends and colleagues would generally describe me as likable and respectful, and I take pride in that. While Dave may have influenced my sense of humor and how my creativity works, my family had a great influence on my temperament. It’s important to me to respect others.
In 2009, Letterman found himself in a situation I could never understand and I wish had never happened. Letterman announced on his show that he was the victim of a blackmail scheme centered on threats to reveal his inappropriate relationships with several women who worked on his show.
The revelation hurt for many reasons, chief among them the pain this had to inflict upon his family. It also hurt because Dave had disappointed me. For the first time, I couldn’t condone or defend what he had done.
But there were two takeaways from the the incident that made an impact with me. One was how Dave handled the situation. In his position, it would have been easy and perhaps even tempting to pay off the blackmailer and deny what he had done. That’s the preferred PR play of the American celebrity. But he didn’t do that. He went to the authorities, he did the right thing, he came clean and he apologized. I couldn’t exactly say I respected it, but I appreciated he took responsibility for his actions.
The other takeaway was how I judge my family and friends. I have friends who have cheated on their spouses. I have friends who have engaged in inappropriate workplace behavior. I have friends who have made mistakes. I may not love what they did, but I still love them. I wouldn’t be the person I want to be if I did forgive them and find a way to support them. That’s how I felt about Dave too.
I entered denial about Dave’s retirement a few months ago. Life is busy, and things happen, so I have been as regular a viewer in recent years as I once was. I still DVR the show every night, but I don’t watch every episode.
You would think I would be watching every episode with baited breath as Dave says goodbye, but I haven’t. I don’t want to say goodbye. I’ve been watching clips posted on Facebook and reading about the show, but I haven’t been watching. I’ve been recording all the shows so I can watch them in the weeks to come. I don’t want to wake up Thursday morning and realize I’ll never watch Dave again. I want to put off that feeling as long as I can.
I will watch the final episode Wednesday because I want to share the experience as we all say goodbye to Dave. A few weeks ago my friend Lori Collier sent me a copy of the cookbook by Dave’s Mom, and I’m going to make a meal inspired by Dave. I’ll watch the show and let it sink in.
As I mentioned before, I’ve never met David Letterman. But he’s been one of the most influential people in my life. The last 35 years watching Dave have been a blast.
As the ride comes to an end, I have only one regret, which is why I’m writing this.
Thanks, Dave. Thanks for everything.
A while back, we published a series of cheat sheets for graphics on different social media sites. Because, frankly, I was tired of Googling it. But in the time warp of the internet, anything more than a few months old is inevitably outdated. Change marches on – and with it the formatting of our favorite platforms.
So here are the latest and greatest cheat sheets for social media graphic sizes, courtesy of Smirk New Media. Provided today: Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. Coming soon: Pinterest and more.