Tonawanda News

April 11, 2014

ADAMCZYK: Letterman was on my side

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The announcement that Mr. Letterman is retiring from his groundbreaking television program, sometime in 2015, is already old news, but it gives opportunity to ponder a few truisms about history and modern life.

I have the good fortune of possessing whatever warped perspective comes with age. I’ve seen ‘em come and go and I’ve seen plenty of television, and when recent newspaper and online articles compare Letterman to Steve Allen, the progenitor of the talk-and-humor show, I know what they mean. I understand exactly what they mean.

“Late Night With David Letterman” hit an unsuspecting public in 1982. The local NBC affiliate did not carry it for the first year or so. A tiny enterprise called International Cable piped the show into Western New York from WICU-TV in Erie, Pa., and I can still recall, as well as I can remember the jingle of any annoying commercial, a baritone voice announcing “Double-you I See You…Eerie” before the show began.

Letterman, in his 30-plus years on the air, popularized an elastic and useful form of insight into the American psyche. Talk show hosts and hostesses, stand-up comedians and men and women in the street use it with aplomb these days; it’s that civilized, polite disgust with everything. Government, law, geopolitics, the complex relationship between people and the world they behold and with which they scrap; it is not parody, as the original bomb-throwers of “Saturday Night Live” offered (and that pterodactyl of a show was only on the air for seven years before Letterman arrived). It is hearing some information, muttering some loathing variation of “yeah, right” and then it’s on to the bitter wisecrack.

You did not need Letterman to tell you that life was preposterous, to keep your guard up, to, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, trust but verify and then expect disappointment; you needed him to validate your view, more or less every night.

This guy was your suspicious older brother, lending advice, reminding you that you should trust no one more than you trust yourself. Like anyone, over thirty-plus years some nights were better than others; when he returned from five weeks off to deal with quadruple bypass surgery in 2000 he brought on his surgical team for the most real and earnest show of appreciation American television has ever delivered.

Then there was the night in 2003 musician Warren Zevon, dying of peritoneal mesothelioma, came on to talk of life and death. Could you interview, for an hour, a friend who knows he can see the finish line? Would you expect compassionate brilliance from a professional wisecrack artist like Letterman?

This program influenced comedy, sure, but I submit Fox News and MSNBC, broadcasters with virulent and opposite political slants, would not exist if Letterman did not popularize the thesis that it was all right to be fed up with everything.

If you get the idea I expect to miss David Letterman, you’re right. I don’t get all the jokes about Twitter his current competition, Mr. Fallon, tosses. There is one thing I will miss, a lot, to wit:

Everyone likely has holiday traditions, especially those of Christmas, no matter how humble or unaware you are of your own. In my family, an important one is watching Letterman’s program on Christmas Eve to hear Darlene Love sing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” a joyful, secular carol about holiday loneliness and performed onstage in the Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” style. It is a riveting and jubilant moment on my holiday calendar, and I hope Ms. Love, who is 72 years old and belting it out better than in 1962 when she was among The Crystals, will be invited elsewhere. My Christmas won’t be the same without her.

It has been an enduring joy to have David Letterman on my side since 1982. The way Johnny Carson offered a few laughs before bedtime, the way local newscasters try to end their cursory explanation of the day’s events with something uplifting, Letterman provided a nightly absolution for those fed up with the way the world was turning.

As far as I know, he never had Eddie Lawrence, who died last week at 95, as a guest. In the guise of “the Old Professor,” Lawrence the vaudevillian would offer a monologue like this, taken from his New York Times obituary: “Hiya, folks. You say you lost your job today? You say it’s 4 a.m. and your kids ain’t come home from school yet? You say your wife went out for a corned beef sandwich last weekend; the corned beef sandwich came back but she didn’t? Is that’s what’s troubling you, fella?”

He’d then advise you never to give up, never give up, never give up the ship.

Letterman matured into something of a cranky old professor himself. I’ll miss him.

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident whose column appears weekly in the Record-Advertiser. Contact him at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.