Elizabeth: Good Night, Mr. Letterman

(AP Photo/CBS, Jeffrey R. Staab)

(AP Photo/CBS, Jeffrey R. Staab)

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Persevere. Sometimes you just have to keep trying until you find what works, no matter how many false starts there are along the way.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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).
  10. 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?


9 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Good Night, Mr. Letterman

  1. I’ve been watching these last shows, too, and enjoying them a lot. I especially liked Tom Waits. And now with Bob Dylan on tonight, we’ve had a run on singers who basically can only growl. I also loved the skits where they tossed stuff off the roof, a skit my mom never got, so it was always fun to watch with her and listen to her tell me every time how she didn’t get it. This fact, I think, adds to your corollary about writing: you can be sitting in the same room with someone who’s a lot like you, but that doesn’t mean they’re your reader.

  2. Kay – funny, I was thinking about the “singers who basically can only growl” as I was listening to Bob Dylan last night. If not for the captioning, I’d have had no idea he was using actual words 🙂

    You’re right on target with your comment about someone who is a lot like you not being your reader/audience. I’m pretty sure my folks weren’t a fan of the “throwing things off the roof” segments either. I, on the other hand, had a fondness for the time they dropped a bunch of paint, followed by watermelons. It made very pretty swirly patterns. I did feel sorry for whomever had to clean that all up though. What a mess.

      • Kay – I’ve also found it interesting watching Dave and his guests age through all of the clips they’ve shown. Since I still (mistakenly) feel like a kid (though not nearly as flexible), it’s kind of eye-opening to see that others have aged and changed.

  3. All things come to an end. I was kind of sad when I realized this month was it . . . .

    On the bright side, they show Letterman on YouTube, so I hope you keep sharing your favorite final bits. I caught Tina Fey and her scary underwear (-: last week.

    (Random fact: I have been to Wahoo, Nebraska. I’m not quite sure what all the excitement is about (LOL — waaaahhhooooo!) . . . but it seemed a perfectly nice Nebraskan town.)

    • Michaeline – Good to know the clips live on YouTube. I’ll have to search and see if I can find any other favourite bits there. With Leno retired and now Letterman, both who were just starting out when I was a kid, it’s getting harder and harder for me to pretend I haven’t aged a bit.

      • I remember when Carson retired. I wasn’t normally allowed to stay up that late, and I was kind of mad I’d never get to see him regularly.

        This year has been a “let’s give it up” year for hosts, hasn’t it? Stephen Colbert, and then the Daily Show . . . both shows I would have liked to watch, but the buffering defeated me. Oh, and Craig Ferguson! I have been enjoying a lot of his British guests on YouTube, and I’m really sad I’ll never have him as part of my “must watch TV”. Not that I watch TV daily, anyway. YouTube has really changed a lot of things . . . . It’s like TiVo that I don’t have to think about.

        • Michaeline – I wasn’t allowed to stay up that late either, but the living room was right near my bedroom and my parents were obviously well on their way to “deaf as a post”, so I could hear the show, even when I was supposed to be sleeping.

          You’re right, this year certainly has been one of changes and moves for the whole late-night / talk show set. Probably good to shake things up a bit every now and then, though I have a hard time keeping track of who is where. I’m wondering if anyone is likely to have a 33 year run like Letterman in the future.

        • That brings back memories! Yes, the sound drifted upstairs. I couldn’t always stay awake that late, though, and missed out on a lot.

          Thirty-three years is quite a run! I think to some extent, success breeds success. If someone survives past 10 years, they probably (maybe?) can stay as long as they want to, because their bosses will like a known success. I think (might be very wrong) that when some of these guys heard so-and-so was quitting, they started thinking, “You know, I’d like a life, too. What am I doing here?”

          Johnny didn’t last terribly long after he quit the show, though, did he? Seems to me he died a few years later. Hope these guys have long and happy second (and third and fourth!) acts. And that the new ones prove entertaining and full of surprises!

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