Recently, I’ve been staying up late watching television. Not just random shows, but the final episodes of the Late Show with David Letterman.
With over 32 years at the helm of NBC’s Late Night and CBS’ Late Show, Letterman, who is television’s longest tenured late-night talk show host, will retire at the end of this Wednesday’s show. In recent weeks, the shows have featured a cast of A-list stars, musical guests, and even appearances by the President and First Lady, along with a look back at memorable interviews and segments over the years.
I grew up with late-night television, Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show to be precise. It had movie stars and musical guests and featured a number of up and coming young comedians – David Letterman and Jay Leno among others. There were also fun skits, like the Mighty Carson Art Players and Carnac The Magnificent.
Over time, Carson gave way to Leno, and Letterman got his own show over on CBS. I was an equal-opportunity viewer by then, watching whichever show had a guest I was interested in seeing. Then life and work and everything else got in the way and late-night TV watching went by the wayside.
“And now . . . a man who shouldn’t be up this late . . . David Letterman!” ~ Dave’s first intro line from 1982
At some point, I started watching again, lured by Letterman’s recurring segments like Small Town News, Stupid Pet Tricks and Dr. Phil’s Words of Wisdom, as well as his tendency to drop random things off the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theatre and blow random things up. I loved Will It Float, with the Grinder Girl and Hula Hoop Girl acting as the lovely assistants, but I think my favourite segments were when he had his mom on the show. Whether she was reporting on the Winter Olympics or showing how to make Fried Bologna Sandwiches (apparently his favourite), it gave the show a friendly, human touch, which was a nice counter-balance to Letterman’s dry, sarcastic humour.
I watched recurring guest stars like Drew Barrymore and Julia Roberts grow up over the years and got a fair amount of current-events knowledge from the opening monologues. Though I didn’t always have time to watch the whole show, I tried to at least catch the night’s Top Ten List, a segment listed on the TV Tropes site as Letterman’s best-known trope and one of his most popular bits.
It seems only fitting that a post about the Late Show should end with a Top Ten List of its own so, without further ado:
“. . . and now from the Home Office in Wahoo, Nebraska. . .” ~ standard Top Ten List intro
The Top 10 Things I Learned from Letterman
- Sometimes guests have a mind of their own. Whether it’s a silent Joaquin Phoenix or a foul-mouthed Madonna , you have to work with what you’re given. The same holds true in a story for characters that don’t evolve quite the way you expect them too.
- People want a story they can relate to. Letterman often asks his guests about their family or what they did on their summer vacation – little bits of information that allow viewers to make a connection. Things outside our realm of experience can be exciting and entertaining, but it’s also nice when there is something familiar to bond over.
- Secondary characters can make (or break) a show. It may be Letterman’s show, but it takes a host of other individuals – the announcer, the band leader, the cue-card guy, to name a few – to make it work day after day. It’s not a one-man-show, just as most books don’t feature just one character.
- Continue to grow. Over time, the tastes of the audiences changed, as did the world itself. To be successful, the show evolved, just as a writer might expand their skills or branch out into new genres or narrative styles to reflect changing preferences and interests.
- Know when to call it. Sometimes things just don’t work the way you thought they would. Whether it’s a joke that falls flat, a skit that doesn’t measure up, or a story that’s going nowhere fast. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and move on.
- Persevere. Sometimes you just have to keep trying until you find what works, no matter how many false starts there are along the way.
- Know your audience. There’s the Late Show. The Late Late Show. The Later than Late Show (or whatever its real name is). Basically, there are a lot of shows rattling around the late-night airwaves and they all have their own unique viewership. You can get away with things at 2:30am that you probably can’t at 11:30 and it’s important to know the difference. It’s a lot like knowing whether your readers are interested in vampires or Regency aristocrats.
- Give back to others. A host of new young comedians got their start on the Tonight Show and the shows that followed. Writers give back as well, whether it’s sharing knowledge at conferences or mentoring new writers. In both cases, it’s a way of passing the torch from one generation to the next.
- Know when to move on. Eventually you reach a point where you’ve done all you wanted to do or when you’re no longer enjoying what you’re doing. That’s a good time to call it a day, before someone drags you off the stage (or out of the bookstore).
- Keep them coming back for more. TV shows don’t want one-time viewers, just as writers don’t want readers to wander off after only one book. You want to provide content, in whatever form, that catches and keeps interest, so people tune in night after night or are eager to pick up your latest book.
So, are you a Late Show fan? If so, do you have any additions to the Top Ten list?