Thursday, May 14, 2015

Top Ten Reasons I Have to Say, as of Next Wednesday: Thanks, Dave.

Next week, David Letterman will host his final show. And so, of course, there are numerous tributes to be found all over the internet. Do I have one? Well, I'm a 46-year-old white American male who was raised in (despite milking the cows and hauling the hay bales) essentially middle- and upper-middle class suburban surroundings. So, really, how could I not have one? So here it is, in appropriately Dave Lettermanish fashion:

1) The attached image here says it all: my David Letterman, as with so many others of my age, was the cynical--but usually not surly--and mocking--but usually not mean-spirited--Letterman of the 1980s. I've told the story before, how Late Night with David Letterman was my close of the day, my dose of perspective, my way to learning, night after night, how to take up the news and catastrophes and confusions of the day and see them in a skewed, ridiculous, and in that way a somewhat more truthful light. Dave was never political, not really, but his goofball, borderline-but-never-entirely bitter, always-winking, smart-ass sensibility was probably as important to my whole sense of the forces and structures which shape our social world(s) as any philosophy or theory I've ever read. Others made jokes about the news; Dave showed the joke that was in the news. And that mattered.

2) Was Dave an ironist? I'm not sure. I suppose, if smirking sarcastically and cracking wise about the affairs of the day passes for a poor definition of "irony," then I guess the label fits. But I see huge differences between the liberal or progressive court jesters of the past decade or two--the Jon Stewarts, the Stephen Colberts, the Bill Mahers, the John Olivers--and Dave, because Dave (as this magazine cover from 1990 brilliantly, snarkily conveyed) never even pretended to be engaged in critique: there was no authentic sincerity about his program at all, no structural seriousness, and thus no reason to see his nightly goofing on the televised world around us as in any way attempting to poach the sort of earnestness which a different, more critical kind of irony might involve (which has been one of the running debates about Jon Stewart for years, of course).

3) Of course, for all of the above reasons, those very, very rare occasions when Dave got actually serious were (despite the manifest artificiality of a freaking television show) moving and believable in a way that few things I've ever seen through the television screen could be. The most obvious example here is what I called "the greatest video text of 9/11"--but there have been other examples as well.

4) Speaking of the fact that Dave was hosting a "freaking television show," let's not forget that, long before internet virality became the measure of a late night comedian's success, Dave and his crew expertly mocked the whole gestalt of television. Let's put a tv show "in convenient book form!" (And, I can testify, an astonishingly cheap and shoddily produced book form at that; whole pages started to fall out only days after I bought my copy.) But that, of course, only scratches the surface. Let's do the show from an airplane! Let's rotate the camera! The possibilities were endless--and during Dave's nutty, borderline-UHF, 80s-phase, that's pretty much what the results turned out to be.

5) As best as I could tell from my read-the-New-York-Times-at-the-library-and-watch-Peter-Jennings-on-the-news-and-the-McLaughlin-Group-on-Fridays environment growing up in Spokane, Washington, most of those who entertained us and spoke to us with authority through the major media organs of the 1980s aspired to non-specificity, a kind of cosmopolitan condescension. Dave, on the other hand, or at least as he appeared to me in the mid- to late-1980s, was definitely, resolutely a creature of New York City, taking the camera to Grand Central Station and Central Park and seeming very much a part of a distant, mysterious, cool world, one that I was sure, at that age, that I wanted to be a part of. (One of the Top Ten lists from back then, involving cheap entertainment in New York City, included the suggestion "Throw rocks at Chrysler building and wait for old man Chrysler to come out and chase you away"--which was so farcically nuts that it has stayed with me and still sometimes cracks me up decades later.) So, given all this, why wouldn't the Avengers want to visit with David Letterman? I mean, they're all New Yorkers, right? (Though I think this issue was probably my introduction to Dave, since I think I didn't start actually watching the show until 1984 or so.)

6) I forgot to mention: I didn't just read the New York Times at the library and watch all those news and commentary shows--I also never missed 60 Minutes. Which meant the fact that those reporters could get in on Dave's jokes was just geeky delight to me.

7) Let's not forget, though: he was actually very good at the primary job talk show hosts have: setting up his celebrity guests so they can tell their funny stories to maximum effect. ("YOU'RE BENDIN' THE SHAFTS!! STOP BENDIN' THE SHAFTS!!")

8) He was also endless grateful to those who made his career possible, and the heroes of comedy who had come before him. His honoring of Johnny Carson bordered on hagiography at times...but it was deserved.

9) And as for making horrible (or at least unrehearsed and lame) material presented on bad nights pretty ridiculously hilarious nonetheless, the man was shameless master.

10) And...I can't think of anything else. Which means, I suppose, that the whole Top Ten format was a silly idea, don't you think? But Dave and his writers, of course, already knew that:

Top 10 Reasons to Discontinue the Top 10 Lists

10. Snide remarks overheard on elevator
9. Pressure from the big money boys
8. Movie deal not materializing
7. Provides grist for Soviet propaganda mill
6. Affiliates near mutiny
5. Pits brother against brother
4. Looks shabby next to "Soup of the Day"
3. Moving plea from Council of Bishops
2. Complaints of drowsiness
1. Angry letter from Lou Rawls

So thanks, Dave. I haven't regularly watched you in years, but you had me from the mid-80s until the early 90s, and that was more than enough.

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