Back in May 1992, I spent a couple of nights in tears. No one had died. I hadn’t lost my job. I wasn’t trying to sell a house in a slow market.
I was teary over Johnny Carson leaving the air.
Johnny had been such a part of my growing up. My parents watched him. Naturally, I started watching him. Johnny was sophisticated and debonair and yet still boyish and Midwestern. He was a master interviewer. He didn’t tolerate fools. And I adored him. When 10:30 rolled around, I knew it was time to cleanse the face, slip into PJs, and tune in to Johnny.
The appearance of his last guest, Bette Midler, pretty much tore me up. His last show had no guests—just Johnny doing a little reminiscing. And then he was gone.
David Letterman had been his heir apparent. Johnny loved Dave, really and truly loved him. All comedians knew a guest spot on Carson could be the key to future success. Dave’s star soared high after appearing with Johnny. Here a quirky Midwestern former weather guy rose through the ranks and seemed destined to take over The Tonight Show.
He didn’t. I won’t bore you with the long (stupid on NBC’s part) story. Suffice it to say that CBS snapped Dave up. After following Johnny’s show for over a decade with his own late night gabfest, Dave now played in the big leagues.
And play he did.
I don’t know anyone more childlike and acerbic than Letterman. The Late Show with David Letterman went on to be nominated 26 times for Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Series. It won 6 times. Johnny even sent Dave jokes for his opening monologue till his death.
I have laughed with Dave so many times over the years. The Top 10 List. Stupid Pet Tricks. Stagehand Pat Farmer throwing things off the roof of The Ed Sullivan Theater. Dave spraying water on unsuspecting passersby.
I enjoyed when Dave took the cameras out to meet his neighbors. Gift shop owners Mujibur & Sirajul cracked me up, but it was deadpan Rupert Jee of Hello Deli that stole my heart. The things Dave got Rupert to say and do astound me to this day.
I loved when Dave sent people on the road. Stage manager Biff Henderson has gone to numerous sporting events and interviewed many famous—and not so famous—people. Best of all was Dave’s mom. Not only did we get to guess what pies she was making for Thanksgiving, but her reporting at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer was a highlight for viewers.
Dave proved to be a skilled interviewer and made people look good. He blushed when Drew Barrymore performed a dance for his birthday. He flirted outrageously with Julia Roberts. He treated Oprah like a queen.
His segments with Jack Hanna were some of my favorite. Dave was great when things went well on the show, but he rose to genius-level when things went wrong. Times when Jack’s animals did outrageous things proved to be some of the funniest material he had to work with.
Dave could also move me. After he underwent quintuple bypass surgery, his recognition and salute to his doctors and nurses had me in tears. The same thing occurred when he returned to the airwaves after the terrifying events of September 11, 2001. The New York Daily News hailed that show as “one of the purest, most honest and important moments in TV history.”
Halloween won’t be the same this year without Dave answering the door to trick-or-treaters. Christmas won’t be the same without the ham on top of the tree. I’ll miss Paul Shaffer’s outrageous suits. The music of the CBS Orchestra—especially bassist Will Lee and guitarist Felicia Collins.
His first late night guest, Bill Murray, will be his last. I look forward to their last public conversation together, as Bill has provided some of the best comedic moments of the show’s history.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve dialed over and watched the 2 Jimmys when they’ve had a guest I want to see. I taped all of Kimmel’s shows in Austin. I love Fallon’s lip syncing competitions. These 2 men—and others—will pick up the late night TV torch and continue the marathon.
But after having to say goodbye to Johnny Carson all those years ago, it doesn’t seem right that I’m having to do a farewell again. Dave, I’ll miss you. Thanks for the memories.