Skip to main content

More than merely a show host, Dave Letterman was a noisy sentinel who pushed back tirelessly against an increasingly egoistic culture.DAMON WINTER/The New York Times

Twenty-odd years ago – and the years have been odd – Pierre Cossette (a dear, departed producer who brought the Grammy awards to TV) graciously invited ink-stained me to his Super Bowl party at Chasen's (a dear, departed West Hollywood eatery that smelled of equal parts chili con carne and Hai Karate). The shindig was a spectacular who's who of old-school celebs – I remember discussing the virtues of taquitos with Andy Williams – and the vast array of A-list big wigs, and B-listers wearing big wigs, meant that an army of gossip-rag shutterbugs loitered outside.

After enjoying the gridiron festivities and some compelling face time with Wayne Rogers of M*A*S*H fame ("Really? Gary Burghoff is a Gemini?") I filled my dungarees with any hors d'oeuvre that wasn't bolted down and bid adieu. As I pushed open the door to exit, I was instantly face-to-lens with the lead paparazzo, squinting at me through his Nikon. With a sigh, he lowered his camera, turned to his fellow photographers and bellowed a single word:


Which, and trust me I'm getting to the point, is a big reason why I worship David Letterman. Any sentient being knows that Dave is a comedy legend/cultural icon/TV visionary, but he has the added virtue of truly valuing nobodies like me. He wasn't big on applauding celebrities for their "accomplishments" – instead of congratulating someone on their Emmy win, Dave might lead with, "Did I hear you bought a riding mower?" His quest was to reduce luminaries to Regular Joe status by aiming the conversation toward children, dogs, the weather, ailments, deer ticks – if a guest told Dave they had bunions or a beagle they got two segments, but God help the action-movie star trying to plug his summer tentpole. Before Dolph or Jean-Claude could even mention the name of the film, Dave would have him up on the roof, raining cans of paint down on 53rd Street.

David Letterman was a champion of the innocent, making big shots cool their Gulfstream jets while he bullhorned his way through Manhattan seeking out delivery people and cabbies and disoriented tourists, asking common folk, "May we see your holiday photos, please?" and delighting in the spontaneous mayhem. His disdain for showbiz was palpable – ages ago, the Letterman show stopped providing tickets for industry weasels – and he sarcastically praised overblown talent revues like American Idol because such programs alleviated the nation's dire shortage of celebrities. He was a dog with a bone when it came to shining a klieg light on fakery (his obsession with "that thing on Donald Trump's head" is legendary) and he lived to lambaste the randomly eccentric – Dave's 2009 vivisection of a mute Joaquin Phoenix was Christmas morning for anyone fed up with celebs who cultivated attention by trotting out arbitrarily peculiar behaviour.

Paradoxically, Dave was a cynic with contempt for cynics, a late-night Holden Caulfield who wrote off any filmmaker or rapper or Paris Hilton who had already abandoned innocence and fallen off the crazy cliff. That bunch he would gamely humour – in every sense of the word – but he visibly preferred the company of three distinct groups: superstars who merrily bought into satirizing Tinseltown (Bill Murray, Martin Short, etc.), unadulterated middle Americans (military heroes, his mother, eighth-grade kid scientists, the "Stupid Human Tricks" bartender from Pennsylvania who famously used his tongue to stop a high-speed fan), and Rupert Jee, the earnest proprietor of the delicatessen directly beside the Ed Sullivan Theatre. (Rupert's selfless, confused obedience during a Letterman bit was always for the good of the show; Rupert never made it about Rupert and he never flinched when Dave incessantly implied that the Hello Deli was overrun with vermin. As such, he was far and away Dave's favourite recurring "civilian.")

The high-profile objects of Dave's mockery generally revelled in, and profited from, the attention (why else would Richard Simmons keep showing up after Dave blasted him in the face with a fire extinguisher?) but when Dave didn't show enough reverence as host of the 1995 Oscars, Hollywood did show its veneered teeth. Left coast observers, spellbound by profound issues such as "who" a movie star was wearing, didn't appreciate Dave's "Uma, Oprah" routine and gave his performance two manicured thumbs down. The fact of the matter is that emcee gig was, is and will always be an exercise in blind adulation, an evening where kindergarten teachers and weary ER nurses might exist somewhere, but the real heroes of the universe are the kale-chewing gods who make motion pictures. Letterman had raised cracking wise to an art form, he was the unquestioned king of comedy – obsequiousness wasn't in his DNA, nor was venerating disposable pop culture, and the Academy should have known that. Asking David Letterman to emcee the Oscars was like asking Rembrandt to paint your tool shed.

A noisy sentinel who pushed back tirelessly against an increasingly egoistic culture, David Letterman made us laugh out loud for three-plus decades. And now that he's retiring, while the rest of us post duck-face selfies and try to figure out our "brand," Dave will find a comfy chair, fire up a Double Corona stogie and leave us to our own rechargeable devices. Oblivious younger folks won't miss Dave any more than I miss Jack Parr or rotary phones, but they should appreciate the seismic nature of what Dave did, not merely to elevate television and reinvent comedy, but to keep the American ethos from becoming little more than a celebration of self.

Canadian screenwriter Chuck Tatham is an executive producer on Modern Family.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct