If you’re under the age of, say, 30, many of you may be viewing last night’s retirement of David Letterman the way the previous generation viewed the retirement of Johnny Carson. We understood that Carson was revolutionary; we understood what he meant to the late-night landscape, but it was more difficult to understand why he was so beloved. From our perspective, Carson was a very amiable often very funny guy, but his show was very traditional: Monologue, bit at his desk, guest, guest, stand-up act/musician. When Carson retired, his format seemed staid because of Letterman. He had taken Carson’s framework and subverted it, flipped it, poked it, shook it around, and spit out something refreshing and new and exciting.
If you’re someone who grew up on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report or Conan, you might also wonder what the big deal about Dave is. If all you really know of Dave is the last 22 years on The Late Show, I don’t blame you, because Late Show Dave is a very different animal than Late Night Dave. Late Show Dave has had Regis Philbin on 150 times, and while Late Night Dave liked and respected Regis, he wasn’t the kind of guest that Dave was going to have on every other night.
Late Show Dave was more palatable, more friendly, less sarcastic, and more traditional. Late Night Dave was a snarky wiseacre, which is a euphemistic way of saying that Late Night Dave was a prick. I say with the deepest admiration, but there’s a reason that Cher was afraid to go on on Dave’s show, and a reason that Cher thought Dave was an “asshole.” Because he was, and that’s what we loved about him.
Late Night Dave gave zero f*cks. He was punk rock. He was anti-establishment. In fact, he bad-mouthed his bosses so much that it was ultimately part of what cost him his Tonight Show gig (more on that in a moment). He hated show business. Yet, it was his job to interview those in show business. If he didn’t like a guest, though, you knew it immediately. He didn’t pretend to like your movie. He kissed no one’s ass. He’d harass and heckle and mock some of his guests, and he’d give the audience at home a look that said, “Who is this dweeb?” At 12:30, he also didn’t get the caliber of guests he gets on The Late Show. Instead, he’d bring on these strange people, like a guy who’d been struck by lightning, or a guy who flew 15,000 feet in the air on a lawn chair (and was nearly killed by a Delta airplane), and he’d often just screw with them. In fact, he screwed with a lot of people; he asked the questions that we at home wanted to know the answers to, but that other hosts wouldn’t dare to ask.
And while that era of Dave is best known now for things like Stupid Pet Tricks and Small Town News (which Leno basically reappropriated as “Headlines”), there was a lot of off-the-wall weird stuff going on, too. Like Chris Elliott taste testing dog food; or Larry “Bud” Melman, who was just a very strange old guy who did unexplainably bizarre things; or he’d bring out the Late Night Thrill cam. He did Viewer Mail on Fridays (because that’s when we all stayed up to watch it live), and during that segment, everything was unexpected. One time, he got a letter from a woman who was “concerned about his image,” so he went to that woman’s house, met her family, snooped around in her room, and then tracked her down at her place of employment, gave her a hard time, and then asked her out to lunch. That was vintage Dave.