I got into David Letterman young—like, way younger than one should get into a guy whose show didn’t go on until past midnight. But I’ve always been a bad sleeper, so as a little kid, after a few hours of lying awake, I’d walk into the family room, turn on the television, and pass out to whatever was on. That time of night in the mid-’80s, there weren’t many options.
I still remember my first time: 1986, a Late Night episode featuring Chris Elliott playing an exaggerated and pompous version of himself—smoking a cigar, making a cappuccino, wearing a puffy blue track jacket that made him look like a flashback-version of some low-level member of Tony Soprano’s crew. Letterman played along, acting the part of the straight man as best he could, but something about the scene, this irreverence or anarchism I was still at least a decade away from being able to define, informed kindergarten-age me that, as real as it seemed, what I was watching was a joke. Even if I didn’t know why it was funny, I understood that it was great.
That was the Golden Age of Letterman, produced by a Late Night staff responsible for some of the best comedy writing of that or any era (including Elliott, Adam Resnick, Merrill Markoe, and others), right alongside the legendary Your Show of Shows writers or the Saturday Night Live lineup of your choosing. It made me a comedy fan for life, but its impact was greater than even that: The combination of surreal skits, Stupid Pet and/or Human Tricks, absurd and cutting top ten lists, and a menagerie of guests rarely invited to most other shows (Tom Waits, Andy Kaufman) helped impressionable young me make sense of my disparate passions—and made me realize that I wasn’t just imagining brilliance and hilarity in what many other people might have considered strange, bizarre, or simply unfunny.
I don’t recall either of my parents ever sitting me down to watch a movie or handing me a book. Some people grow up that way; my parents, while hardly uncultured, just didn’t feel the need to share art with me. What they did do, however, was decline to enforce a normal bedtime; I was raised by David Letterman.
Among other things, Letterman inspired me to start keeping a running list of funny people and things I considered “punk”; anti-authoritarians and subversives that weren’t throwing bricks though windows to protest something—the ones that proved that being funny can be a revolutionary act, including the Marx Brothers, Mad magazine, Thomas Pynchon, The Fugs, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and The Simpsons. Letterman wasn’t the first person to embrace that approach, but he embodied it more than almost anybody else I could think of in my lifetime, slyly bringing it to the mainstream and the middle of America for a stretch of more than 30 years that will end with his retirement tonight. Sure, Pryor and Bart Simpson need no introduction, either, but Letterman didn’t swear, didn’t use slapstick violence, and if he was purposely trying to subvert the system, he didn’t let on. He was the Trickster dressed in the suits of a late-night television host beamed into millions of homes. You’re supposed to trust that guy, right? He couldn’t be playing some big elaborate joke on everybody, could he?
“Someone once described punk rock to me as, ‘not about violence or crazy outfits—it’s people asking why things have to be the way they are.’ I think Letterman is absolutely someone who does that in a comedic sense.”
Like me, Chris Gethard, comedian, author, and host of The Chris Gethard Show on Fusion, isn’t shy about the impact Letterman had on him. “We are definitely ripping off Letterman with TCGS. I will happily embrace that,” he says. Gethard’s version is a stripped-down, even more bizarre take on the model, but it’s difficult to imagine the show—which features a revolving door of audience members dressed up in costumes, punk bands, wrestlers, and famous Upright Citizens Brigade alumni such as Amy Poehler and Broad City’s Ilana Glazer (you might also know Gethard as Glazer’s boss on the show)—ever breathing itself into existence if not for the influence of Letterman’s brand of anti-comedy. When I mention the idea of Letterman as punk rock humor, Gethard agrees. “Someone once described punk rock to me as, ‘not about violence or crazy outfits—it’s people asking why things have to be the way they are.’ I think Letterman is absolutely someone who does that in a comedic sense.”
Gethard’s show and others, such as Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang! and Tom Scharpling’s Best Show, can all likely trace their descent from Letterman, though the roots of this weirdo comedy family tree certainly predate Letterman getting his own show. Monty Python, Laugh In, and of course, Johnny Carson (whom Letterman should have succeeded on NBC if not for Jay Leno’s Machiavellian machinations) were all influences—people who didn’t rely on standard gags or jokes for laughs, and rarely seemed to care if those laughs came at all. That’s a confidence you have to earn, though, and Letterman’s didn’t come easy—his first shot with NBC, a morning show called The David Letterman Show, was a critical success but a ratings loser, and was canceled less than six months after its premiere in June of 1980.
Two years before Letterman even got the chance to fail nobly at a network, though—when he was still appearing frequently at Los Angeles comedy clubs—there was TV Party, writer Glenn O’Brien’s New York City public-access show that frequently featured downtown luminaries from Debbie Harry to Jean-Michel Basquiat. Described by O’Brien as “the television show that’s also a cocktail party but which is also a political party,” TV Party was punk rock Lord of the Flies, black and white anarchy that could and often did fall apart during the show’s live tapings. Often maddeningly madcap and always unscripted, the sketches (if you could call them that) were like Mad magazine comics on LSD, supplemented by feedback-drenched, rambling, incoherent phone calls from stoners watching at home who just happened to be up and, looking for something to do, decided to try to prank a live television show. It was crude and unabashedly strange, the very definition of a cult hit—the sort of thing you could count on record collectors and stoners and stoned record collectors to be interested in. Letterman has called it one of his favorite shows ever.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a few years before Letterman would banter from behind his desk with his bandleader Paul Shaffer, the musician Peter Ivers—possibly better known as the songwriter behind “In Heaven,” the eerie tune sung by the Lady in the Radiator from David Lynch’s Eraserhead—somewhat bombastically proclaimed that his own show, New Wave Theatre, offered a glimpse into “the direction television and film will [hopefully] take in the ’80s.” Watching videos on YouTube today, Ivers might not look like a contemporary of Letterman’s, with his weird suits and rambling, political monologues, but he wasn’t far off. Featuring a number of Los Angeles punk bands, including Fear, the Angry Samoans, and the pre-45 Grave, post-Bags death-rock band Castration Squad, New Wave Theatre was a precursor to MTV, but also featured strange sketches and comedy bits that were probably more influenced by Dada than Saturday Night Live. Too avant-garde for any big network, looking more like a post-punk version of TV Party, the show was initially broadcast on an independent television station, KSCI Los Angeles. The format differed from Letterman’s early days, but there seemed to exist a kinship nonetheless.
If there was anybody trying to push new or weird artists from his small slice of late-night television, it was Letterman. Whether it was giving R.E.M. their television debut in 1983, or probably confusing plenty of viewers by interviewing Captain Beefheart more than once, it has always seemed as if Letterman felt more excited to be talking to the underdogs and the freaks than the biggest celebrities in the world. You saw it in his genuine excitement, last March, over a performance by the band Future Islands, which he followed by yelling, “I’ll take all of that ya got!” Just over a year later, Letterman had the indie band on a second time. There are Oscar winners who weren’t invited to appear on the show so frequently.
Still, despite his relative risk-taking, Letterman’s show wasn’t TV Party or New Wave Theatre—shows you couldn’t imagine following Carson or surviving in any network television time slot. He isn’t a cult comedian; he’s been watched by millions of people since the early 1980s. But his sense of humor was and is strange, stranger than many of his peers in any era, strange enough that his ascent to mainstream stardom would be unlikely today, never mind decades ago. He would repeat jokes over and over even if nobody laughed, and looked more like Alfred E. Neuman than a TV idol. He even had his own brand of pre-Internet viral content, spread by people asking their friends if they’d seen his Stupid Pet Tricks or Top Ten Lists. But he was still on late at night, and when people caught him before his tenure in CBS’s 11:35 slot, it was likely at least a little serendipitous.
The first time Gethard saw Letterman, he tells me, he was camping in Cape May, New Jersey, in a small trailer with his whole family, when a brutal storm hit. “And afterwards,” he says, “I guess my mom had a lot of adrenaline and couldn’t go to sleep, because I woke up in the middle of the night and she was dying laughing watching Letterman on this little black and white TV we kept in that trailer. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her laugh that hard.”
There’s a Leonard Cohen quote I like about how “the last refuge of the insomniac is a sense of superiority to the sleeping world.” For a long time, late-night comedy was for the weirdos, the stoners, the insomniacs, and whoever else was up when the rest of the world had gone to bed. Watching a show like Letterman’s when he was on NBC made you feel less alone—as if there were other people out there like you, too. Today, with the ability to watch the best things from the night before on the web, the dynamic is different. Conan O’Brien and Craig Ferguson, when their shows aired after Leno and Letterman, occupying the same time slot Letterman once had, were maybe the last of the truly great late-night weirdos. O’Brien hasn’t lost it, but, after proving too unpredictable during a short stint in the Tonight Show seat, had to head into the uncharted waters of TBS for a shot at another show; Ferguson, passed over for Letterman’s briefly vacant chair, walked away. And all due respect to modern masters of the form such as Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, but it feels counterintuitive to measure the success of comedy anarchy in YouTube views, impossible as it seems to imagine those shows going gloriously off the rails as anything other than an engineered bit.
“I didn’t know if the stupid stuff would alienate people,” Letterman said in a recent New York Times interview with Dave Itzkoff. “I didn’t know if the traditional stuff would be more appealing. And then, when I look back on it now, of course the answer is, you want to do the weird thing.” And the weird thing, ultimately, was what made Letterman who he’s been for the last three decades: a rarity who did pretty much what he wanted, and was paid handsomely for it—the establishment-backed comedy revolutionary whose brilliance warped countless impressionable minds while the rest of the world slept.