George Clinton on David Letterman's show, summer of 1989.

David Letterman retired this month. I didn’t watch his last show, or his last several, or indeed his last few years’ worth of shows. I did feel compelled to at least pay respects, on the final evening, so I did watch his very last entrance onto the studio floor as the Late Show host via the show’s website, simultaneous with its final television broadcast. That felt like enough; I didn’t stay up to watch the rest.

I could compare the experience to visiting a childhood home, the day before its scheduled demolition. I would want to stop the car and contemplate the view for a moment, perhaps, cementing my memories. But I’d feel no need to walk in the front door, as I’d fear that would feel a little too much like an attempt to stride into my own past, and I wouldn’t want to do anything like that.

I remember when and why I started watching Late Night with David Letterman, the show’s earlier, NBC-based incarnation. Justin, one of the only kids in my high school class at least as awkward about everything as me, recommended I watch it while we walked together through the yard behind the school. (Perhaps coming back from gym class, naturally the low point of the regular day for both of us.) I knew of the show by reputation, as by this point it had long since established its reputation through the same practical stunts that I would see people recollecting on Twitter in 2015: the velcro suit, the monkey-cam.

That night I set my VCR to record the show, since it aired long past my bedtime. (I tell you: awkward.) The one discrete bit I remember from it involved the guest, Steve Martin, performing some simple card tricks for Dave at his desk. When Dave asked how the tricks worked, they reviewed a (putative) slow-motion instant replay of the guests’s hands — which now could be seen scotch-taping colored flags to the cards, scribbling notes on them, and so on. I had never seen such a marvelous blend of scripted, surprising humor with relaxed, improvised presentation, and it hooked me immediately. I would watch Late Night faithfully until I went to college, and then for a little while after that, petering off around the time Dave took his act to CBS.

Because my high-school years contain the seed of my adult personality — a sheltered child and late bloomer in all ways, I had very negligible arable life experience before then — David Letterman’s television output circa 1990 suffuses the core of my own public persona, and my self-definition in general. At risk of sounding maudlin, I state it remained there even after I moved on from active membership with its daily audience, and it will stay with me for the rest of my life. Any time I approach life with even a drop of sanguinity, I draw from all those hours watching Paul and Dave and their guests and all the marvelous things they said and did on camera together.

Pondering the show’s ending earlier this month, I realized that, unlike other TV shows I’ve enjoyed over the years, a lot of the specific Letterman material that affected me most is likely lost to the public. While I expect that there exist voluminous stored Late Night and Late Show episodes in both the NBC and the CBS archives, respectively, we speak of a daily show whose history stretches back into the Reagan administration. I would expect that much of the show is lost, either literally — the master tapes long since recycled, say — or effectively, with a wall of DVD-Rs bearing labels listing dates and times and guests’ names, but providing no browsable index to the episodes’ deeper content or greater significance, and certainly nothing accessible to the public in any case. They’ll never show up as unabridged collections for public purchase, to say nothing of Youtube. (Granted, as this post shows, you can find some fan-preserved bits and pieces around the internet if you know what you’re looking for.)

We speak easily of the monkey-cam bits, because these have enjoyed a second life through much-circulated ad-hoc compilations of the show’s “best” moments. But the bulk of the show’s magic, I fear, will stay in the dark forever. (Or until some far-future mad archivist takes it upon themselves to watch and index this ancient entertainment in its entirety, or at least those portions of it extractable from whatever crumbling media or proprietary digital file-formats they manage to locate.)

In this vein, I’d like to share some of my own memories of the show, in part as an act of bearing witness. The semi-ephemerality of David Letterman’s shows means that my memories won’t quite match anyone else’s, and it’s likely that the bits of footage I describe, if they still exist at all, live only within private network archives, effectively outside of the world’s ability to recall and review it.

I’ve already described Steve Martin’s card tricks. Here’s an accounting of what else comes to mind when I challenge myself to recall the specific events from Dave’s shows that feature most prominently in my memory. I certainly don’t expect that reading these descriptions will carry more than the barest shadow of the experience of actually watching these moments on the air, but I hope they prove interesting anyway.

  • Summer, 1989: Early in the episode, Dave makes some sort of celebratory announcement, and the TV screen grows an animated, rotating border comprising likenesses of Dave and his band leader Paul. After a while of this Dave says “All right, that’s enough. Seriously, lose the graphics” and the border vanishes — but returns for just an instant as he takes his attention off the monitors to read from his notes. The audience titters.

    Later in the show, musical guest George Clinton bursts into the studio and straight into the audience after Dave announces him, demanding that everyone get up and dance. It takes some coaxing, but eventually, everyone does, to the best of their ability. Clinton ends up bringing much of the studio audience down to the stage to dance all around him, rather contrary to the show’s usual mode — and with Letterman completely distracted by all this, the animated border returns once more, just for a final few fleeting seconds.

    “I’ve never seen a funkier group of white people in all my life,” Dave says, when it’s time to break for a commercial.

    The whole adventure with the animated border was most certainly the single funniest thing I had ever seen in my entire life. I cannot say for certain if any comedy I have experienced since has surpassed it.

  • Summer, 1990?: As a regular feature, Dave directs a rig — a wheeled contraption involving a live camera attached to a monitor displaying a live feed of himself seated at his desk and watching the camera’s signal — to roll out into the New York streets around the studio to conduct spontaneous interviews with the late-afternoon crowd, as well as nearby business owners. (The show aired late at night, but made no illusions of its daily recording-time at around 4 PM Eastern.)

    Lots of great stuff came out of this; I remember a friendship that developed with an immigrant proprietor of a tchotchke shop, selling china emblazoned with the Statue of Liberty; I believe this culminated with the charming shop owner’s invitation into the studio as a proper guest on at least one later episode. But what I recall best is the time that Dave interviewed a smirking young professional in a suit, who answered “And where are you from?” with “My mother!” and Dave making noises suggesting that: oh, we have a live one here. They bantered in this vein for the remainder of this segment.

    A few days later, Dave had the rig roll outside once again, and the same guy stepped in front of it, greeting the camera and seeking to continue their conversation from earlier — and Dave grunted “all right let’s keep going” and just blew him right off! Did the guy laugh, as he drifted forever out of frame? Did the audience? I have no idea; I was shocked by both the unexpected continuity and Dave’s apparent brusqueness in the interest of making better television, making a judgment call that this dude had already had his moment with the show.

    I can only speculate as to the life lessons this may have taught me. Certainly, they didn’t sink in immediately.

  • 1991?: A running gag the show would pull involved Dave, or someone else, exiting the studio and then appearing to emerge into a clearly pre-recorded, scripted segment. In one of these, someone had reason to race into a back stairwell and proceed to run up or down, flight by flight, encountering weird stuff at each landing. One of these simply showed Larry “Bud” Melman sitting in an incongruously placed easy chair, laughing and laughing. When he finished laughing, he stood up and started walking towards the camera — representing the stair-runner’s point of view — a strangely expectant smile on his face. But the camera snapped back to the runner, who raced on and encountered something else, and of course nothing on the show made any further mention of this.

    I joined the show’s regular home audience after the tenure of several of the show’s memorable characters, most notably Chris Elliot’s career-launching “guy under the seats”. (As I write this, I have no idea how this character actually worked; I only recall mention of him from the fan-forums I read on GEnie and such during the height of my Letterman fandom.) Glad I was there for Melman’s stint, though.

  • 1994-ish: I watched the show’s opening segments with my dad. The Top Ten list was something like “Things Bill Clinton said during his recent hunting trip.” One entry was “Oh my, that is a lovely neglige. By the way, Hillary thinks I’m on a hunting trip,” and another was “Let’s shoot Gore in the ass and see if he flinches.”

    My dad laughed and laughed at all these, and would repeat the latter line many times in future conversation with me and with others. Invariably he’d misremember it, saying “quivers” instead of “flinches”, which I still recognize as a significantly less funny phrasing — but I hope that I never tried to correct him. Dave’s throwaway joke about shooting Al Gore in the ass would remain rare point of common laughter between by father and I throughout his latter years.

  • 2007?: Dropped by the show for the first time in a long while, perhaps with TiVo’s assistance, during my brief but happy usership of that device. This was one of the last Late [Night|Show] bits I can recall watching.

    Dave complains to Paul about a computer, at home or at work, that hasn’t been working well, and the camera swings to a man wearing a ridiculous superhero costume posing next to a PC. He delivers a short monologue promising to demystify computers, and then “beams” into the PC with a low-budget special effect. Cut back to Dave, paying this no attention at all; the show continues as normal.

    Later in the episode, the camera abruptly cuts back to the PC; the man “beams out” to proudly proclaim, with hands on his hips: “And that’s how computers work!” Dave very briefly looks over at him, wearing the expression of someone who has overheard a stranger having an emotional outburst in a restaurant, perhaps, and then he returns to hosting the show. I can’t remember if there was any followup shot of the guy stomping off, insulted, or whatnot. Either way: no further mention made of any of this, by anyone.

    This bit evidences timing, delivery, and subtlety that I know I could never hope to replicate myself, in any medium — and which I’ve never quite seen in other shows that meld planned comedy with unscripted interaction, like The Daily Show. And Dave Letterman and crew pulled this off, night after night, for years.

I’m sure more will come to me. But that’s enough for now.

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