The best bellylaughs. The funniest movies. Laughing till your sides hurt, laughing till tears come out of your eyes. Some of the very best moments in laughter, you relive again and again and they delight you still years later. So think of the funniest movie you saw. How great you felt, having laughed so hard for so long - for two hours. Now imagine such laughter for a whole day. What about a week? Or if it was possible, a month of pure laughter.
(This is me, outside the David Letterman Late Show and the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, NYC in 2005. I had lived on that street two blocks up from that point in a building visible on the back. I didn't pick the buildling because of Letterman haha, I moved there before Dave came to broadcast from this point. But I left NY in 1995. I had never seen Dave and while I always intended to write to ask for tickets, I never did, and I never saw the show live even as I lived just almost opposite the theater. I often did see the crowds lining up for the show. But this is my first 'selfie' ever taken on a smartphone, and I did that, knowingly in 2005, thinking on the occasional visit to New York City, that it might be my last time to walk by his theater, and that David might suddenly retire or have a heart attack or die, and the next time I was there, the sign might not be up. So I used my Nokia smartphone to snap that picture, which also did become my first-ever selfie picture taken, which I also discussed here on this blog in my picture essay of ten years of taking selfies earlier this year)
David Letterman did 6,000 shows. When I started my college studies in 1983 in the USA, Dave was only in his second year of his new nightly talk show, following the legendary Johnny Carson, on NBC. I was instantly hooked. When I moved 12 years later back from the USA to Finland, one of the biggest losses I felt, was that Dave would not be with me back home in Finland. Johnny had quit his show, and then died. I felt the pain of losing the great Carson of course, but if I was forced to select, which of the two I would watch (never a serious practical choice as they were on the same TV channel following each other) i did prefer Dave. And then very occasionally on some foreign trips, I discovered Letterman on some obscure cable channel in miscellaneous countries. But whenever I had business travel to the USA and Canada I knew I would always have Dave. And for several years I only had little brief snacks of his show. Then I moved to London and there he was, on British TV. My Dave! The Top 10 lists and all. And I knew before moving from London to Hong Kong that Dave was waiting for me also in Hong Kong. Sadly, eventually the broadcaster in Hong Kong discontinued the Late Show with David Letterman via CBS but by then he also was on the internet.
When he was on, I would watch. Every night. If something really 'important' was simulcast like say an NHL ice hockey game when I lived in New York, then I'd tape Dave and watch him after the game, and before going to bed. Gotsta have my Dave. So I estimated that of his 6,000 shows I've probably seen 4,200 or so. And it was an hour-long show, with TV ad breaks, thats a bit over 3,000 hours of actual content. If we say the average Letterman show had 15 minutes of comedy that succeeded ie was funny, then its 785 hours of laughter. If we put those back-to-back its a month of laughter. I mean literally 32 days of laughing with tears coming out of the eyes, and 32 days.. without sleep.
The 45 episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus isn't even in contention. Yes 22 and a half hours of brilliant comedy of the funniest TV show ever. But that would be less than one day. David Letterman made me laugh more than 30 times what the brilliant Pythons were able to. The laughter with Veep or Yes Minister or SOAP or even Saturday Night Live doesn't come close. 785 hours of laughter. For me the only one who would come close is probably Jon Stewart's The Daily Show but he had far less time and a shorter show as the competition. Of all the laughing I've ever done in my life, the most has been thanks to Dave. Now he had his last show. Thank you Dave, my life has been more enjoyable because of you.
So a few particular memories and thoughts. Early on, as a college student in the USA, when Dave himself was still new at it, and wanted to be irreverent and weird, there were some really weird things he did, that I found just incredibly entertaining. Much has been widely discussed, Stupid Pet Tricks was one of the classics but for me the really smart, 'Lettermanic' variation was the Stupid Human Trick. The kind of things that normal people would do, just to get onto TV, and the funny guests and such tricks, that then were shown on the show. And then the weirdest was, when some celebrities - who have no problem getting onto Dave's show, had prepared a Stupid Human Trick. The first I remember was Tom Selleck doing some weird 'motoroboat' noises, into a bowl of water, with his bushy moustache and all. So supremely silly.
Letterman had his weird regular guests like Larry Bud Melman who was such a total flop and you always hoped he'd finally have something funny but it almost never worked. Or Chris Elliott, with a series of ever weirder characters and that perfectly scripted contempt that Chris seemed to have of his boss, Dave. Or such weird celebrities as 'Super Dave Osborne' (not Letterman, this was public persona created by actor Bob Einstein. Super Dave also frequently visited Johnny Carson's show). There were the real serious celebrities like on 'proper' talk shows, but then there were these clear bogus guests, who made a clever mockery of the whole talk show, years before the Larry Sanders spoof of talk shows appeared on TV. And Dave (Letterman, that is) played these scripted guests with the same - ok, almost the same - level of respect as he gave his real guests further blurring that line. And still on the early guests, then as Letterman became a cult institution with college students, Saturday Night Live's then-current-cast's best mimic, Joe Piscopo suddenly created his David Letterman parody and it was spot-on. Suddenly we got a bit of 'extra' Dave on random Saturday nights, via Joe. Joe would later come on Dave's show and his first time he did the Letterman parody for Dave, Joe was clearly partly embarrassed, not knowing Dave utterly loved it. Piscopo visits on Letterman were always pure gold and you just HAD to have him do a bit of Dave every time. 'My oh, my, oh my' Joe even had a fake teeth-piece to show the early Letterman front teeth that had a pronounced gap between the front teeth.
Then Dave played with the tech. His show would play with the editing room techniques trying varying technical effects that really weren't meant to be done that way. One of the weirdest was an episode they did in mirror. Dave always sat on the right (to the TV viewer) and the guest on the left. So, they ran the mirror effect on the TV editing studio, and Dave seemed to sit on the wrong side. But it wasn't. The whole studio was now 'wrong' and each very well-known character including the guests that night, seemed slightly distorted (almost nobody has a perfectly mirror-image face, so if you see a flipped image, it seems just slightly off). A weird idea. But the best was the show that went the full 360. It was so perfectly Lettermanic. So the show starts, and Dave informs the audience that today we're going 360. And the show is all fine, normal. Then as his short monologue comes to an end, the picture on your TV set seems to be breaking somehow. You are afraid the TV is about to break. Except the ad break all ads are fine. Then you return to Dave and he's now tilted 30 degrees! We're going 360. By half-show the picture is literally upside down, and then the last part of the show the picture continues to rotate until it ends totally normal again for goodnight... Weird! Now, can you do that every night? No. Can Dave do it again, will it be as astonishingly weird a second time, no. But once? They went 360. And early on in that show, I thought my TV is about to expire, the picture tube is failing haha, Dave is on an angle.
Gosh then there was Penn & Teller, my fave magicians, and their rebel status, with the utterly bogus press releases that they had been kicked out of the Magicians' Guild of America, because they had revealed secrets of magic tricks. If you've seen Penn & Teller, you know they are truly gory in their magic and made the best of this too with their early visits with Dave. And then Dave had all those set pieces, from the Top 10 list to elevator races and sidewalk races, to 'I'm not wearing pants'. Dave would take a megaphone, open the window high on Rockefeller Center and call out to the public on the street, and claim to be some big TV celebity like respected news anchor Tom Brokaw, or some big-shot NBC boss (not himself, but his voice was obvious) and then end it with 'and I'm not wearing pants'. So with this recurring theme, what did he name his company when he went to CBS and produced his own talk show? Worldwide Pants, of course. The show is always an inside joke inside another inside joke, the more you follow the funnier it gets.
Kim Jong Il, and his dumb brother, Menta Li Ill. I still think thats funny today and Kim Jong Ill's been dead for ages haha. And the Top 10 list? It was a REALLY weird bit at first. It was a 'mashup' of two totally unrelated lists. Top 10 breeds of dog or Canadian provinces, number 10, Dalmatian. Number 9, Saskatchewan .And so forth. Weird, not really funny but just weird. And why not, the Top 10 numbers (of 1 to 10), at number 10, 8. At number 9, 4. Just really really wacky, wonderful, weird, totally Montypythonesque bizarre humor. But then they evolved the Top 10 list to do a theme and struck pure gold. Gosh I've collected hundreds of his Top 10 lists (and done many more of my own, on his formula). And if the episode didn't have a Top 10 list that night, you felt robbed. Something was missing, no matter how great the show might have been otherwise.
One of Dave's bits back in the NBC days was 'Sidewalk Races'. The show was broadcast from Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan (one of the tallest buildings of the city) and they would point a camera down to the street, to a sidewalk, while the traffic light was red. Then Dave and band-leader Paul Shaffer would try to guess which person on the sidewalk, waiting for the light to turn green, would 'win' the sidewalk race. Of course the pedestrians on the street had no idea they would be watched from far above, and given no feedback. They were not even identifyable mostly. But then the light would turn green, and they's see which of often several dozens of pedestrians would 'win'. And there are some type of people who do seem to want to get across the street, kind of 'first'. Well... if you know me, you know I'm competitive. Immediately after I saw Sidewalk Races for the first time, I have played that game in my head, and I am almost every single time the first person across any random street crossing haha, usually reminded of Letterman's long-forgotten bit from the 1980s..
After the show moved to CBS, Dave added again new bits, one of the funniest was 'Fun Facts' or as Dave would often call it, its like the Top 10 list but without the math. Weird one-liner jokes, often hilarious, and with tons of inside jokes thrown in. And then something that was just totally weird but not a joke, to further mess us up in the audience, like a weather report or something, which Dave then seemed to be upset at his staff, for allowing that item into the set of jokes. I have dozens and dozens of the Fun Facts sets collected onto my Letterman videos..
Dave had great guests and interesting guests and great musical guests. From very early on, most guests wanted to also shine on their visit to his show, and they would prepare special material (or work with Dave's writers, we'll never know). Often a guest might want to bring their own Top 10 List for example. But the most 'prepared' of any of Dave's regularly returning guests was Martin Short, who not only did his funny bit sitting with Dave, but then he'd pretend like he had an idea for a song, and then Martin would grab a microphone and do a big show tune - to new words - and serenade Dave, with the band in on the whole joke, so this has been obviously rehearsed - and Martin might have a whole choir of backup singers, and gorgeous show dancers, hiding backstage to bring onto that extravaganza supposedly just 'by accident'. So Martin would sing for example about all the big Hollywood stars who hate Dave and refuse to come do his show.. That kind of thing.
Much of the show was clearly scrpted, but there were also plenty of moments of Dave improvising, and those were always highlights. He really has a razor-sharp wit. He was often called the smartest comic on TV and those moments of when things went wrong or unscripted or a guest went off-script etc, thats when his mind was always there. Instant, and spot-on. Johnny Carson was like that too, but nowhere near as fast. Johnny might have a quip. Dave always had one. Some rivals like big jaw Jay Leno had no chance in such situations, if it wasn't on the que card, he'd just give his silly laugh. Dave pounced.
Talking about Johnny, Johnny wanted Dave to take over his show but NBC ended up giving it to idiot Jay Leno. So after Carson retired, Dave took some of Carson's popular gags and continued them on his show, probably the most popular being 'Stump the Band'. In that bit, the audience suggested songs to the band, asking if they knew the song. These would be weird, local, utterly unknowable songs. And the band would claim to know the song, and they used the title to put new words to a popular song, and say thats the song. Dave (originally Johnny) would ask the audience member is that your song. They'd say no, and they'd sing the original song. Beer drinking songs, high school marching band songs, army songs, that kinds of things. So finally, after decades of running this gag, Dave finally had at one moment an audience member listen to the silly song created by the band, and when it came his turn to sing his version, and Dave asked, is that your song - the audience member guy said yes, and promptly sat down. It was a set piece joke with a final punchline which Johnny and Dave had set up literally for more than two decades.. How's that for commitment to a premise. And my fave of Johnny's set pieces that Dave took over was Carnac the Magnificent who would give answers, before hearing the question.
So here's another tidbit about Johnny and Dave. When Johnny Carson retired, he never went to visit with Jay Leno's show and almost no other TV appearances but he did come visit Dave a few times. But Johnny was funny and creative. He would continue to think of jokes for the opening monologue. Johnny would fax a joke over to Dave, and often it was that good, that Dave would use it. Sometimes if it really worked, Dave would do the 'golf swing' or other such recognition for Johnny watching at home, that we viewers had absolutely no idea was going on. This went on for years. Then when Johnny died, Dave had of course the show where he remembered his mentor and friend, and that show whole monologue, seemed totally as funny as any others - and seemed exactly as TOPICAL as all others, and only after he finished the monologue, Dave confessed that all the jokes he just did, had been written by Johnny Carson and faxed over to the show only in the past few weeks and months. And Dave clearly missed Johnny like the rest of us, and from thereon, whenever any guest had a good Carson impression, Dave would ask the guest to do it. the best Carson impression was no doubt by Kevin Spacey (of House of Cards).
There were many moments that you really WANTED it to be Dave that you shared that moment. Like after the World Trade Center terrorist attack. Dave was 'Mr New Yorker' and we wanted his show, his comedy and his guests, to know that life was going to continue. His first show after the attack was legendary. Or when Jay Leno quit, and then came back to steal the show from the very funny Conan O'Brian, it was another moment when you just HAD to see Dave's take. Dave did one of his best 'musings' moments, obviously enjoying how troubled Leno was about the whole situation. You could see how delighted David was to be able to poke fun at Jay, after all the years, having no doubt been quite bitter that Leno kind of 'stole' the NBC Johnny Carson Tonight Show from Dave before. I carry that video clip on my phone among my all-time funniest videos (for random airport delay situations etc) and its just classic Dave. For me, personally, a hockey fan and living in New York City at the time, when the NY Rangers, our home town team, finally won the Stanley Cup in 1994 after a 54 year interval to their previous Cup, then that again, was the moment you wanted to see Mark Messier and gang on Dave's show to celebrate. Oh and the recurring joke recently was about New York City's current Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, whose been the Mayor since 2001 and has visited the show many times, but Dave pretended to have forgotten his name, so its Mayor Bloomberger (or something similar) to which of course Paul Shaffer would then act exasperated and correct Dave, its Michael Bloomberg, not Bloomberger. etc.
Politics is the other area where Dave was exceptional. Most talk show hosts were very easy on their political guests, with totally soft questions. Dave asked also about the serious issues, but of course still in a light, talk-show manner. He clearly knew what was going on and wanted the politicians to be honest and open up a bit. Then by the time of John McCain and Sarah Palin's run against Barack Obama in 2008, McCain made that fatal error of cancelling on Dave out of a promised and already publicized visit. That turned into a recurring and funny bit of Dave skewering McCain for being afraid to come on his show. Eventually he did and apologized. But things like, Dave said Mitt Romney is so good looking, he is like the picture that comes with the picture frame. And now, after Dave retired, he came back to visit his good friends Steve Martin and Martin Short on a live stage performance as an unannounced guest, to deliver one more Top 10 list.. this because Donald Trump had joined the Republican race for President and is obviously, irresistatble comic material. So one of the typical Letterman jokes within that Top 10 list referred to Steve Martin's and Martin Short's movie with Chevy Chase, called The Three Amigos. After Trump insulted the Mexicans, Dave said Trump now has No Amigos, to huge laughs and applause of the audience that had paid to come and be entertained by obviously Steve and Martin. And that brief visit, exactly like Johnny Carson's brief visits to Dave's show two decades earlier, reminded us very briefly, how incredibly funny he was, and how much we miss him.
So on the last day of the year when David Letterman retired from hosting the Late Show, I wanted to take a moment and one blog, to just say thanks. If laughter is the best medicine, then Dave is the biggest reason why I am still healthy today. If those who laugh hardest live longest, its thanks to Dave that I am still alive and living onwards. But yes, from watching his show most years between 1983 and 2015, the cause of more laughter for me than anything else throughout my life, was Dave. Thank you David Letterman for making my life more enjoyable. You are a genius and your show was unmatched brilliance.