Lunch, Laughs, and Letterman

Letterman column

I don’t stay up to watch his show anymore, and I haven’t been a regular viewer in several years.I’m catching up on these final shows via CBS.com.The whole farewell thing with Dave is reminiscent of what I went through twenty-three years ago when Johnny Carson left the Tonight Show after nearly thirty years as host. Toward the end of that historic run in 1992, it seemed to me that every broadcast of Carson’s was special.

While I’m a fan of Dave’s, I had a much deeper sense of generational change when Johnny retired.

But Dave’s departure from nightly television reminds me of how his career has intermingled with my adult life.

My wife and I sat in the audience of his short-lived morning talk show in 1980.We were on our honeymoon as my then television station bosses arranged for a special tour of the studios and tickets to this new live morning talk show.

The show was funny, the host was quirky, and practically no one watched it.After the live broadcast, Dave came up into the audience and sat in front of us to record some promotional announcements for upcoming shows.

We saw those promos when we returned and I believe it’s still on an old broadcast video tape now buried in a pile of stuff that has traveled with me over the years.

Dave’s morning show went off the air after only a few months in 1980.A year-and-a-half later, he began Late Night with David Letterman.The hour-long talk show followed the Tonight Show Starring, Johnny Carson.Thanks to our VHS tape recorder, I was a regular viewer.

When Johnny left the Tonight Show in 1992, Dave’s fans were disappointed that he was not offered the job to replace Carson.Dave remained with the Late Night program for another year until his contract expired and CBS hired him to take on Jay Leno in a true battle for late night television dominance. 

Jay won that battle, but it seemed to me that while Leno had bigger audience numbers, Dave had the better of the two shows. 

In the late 1990s into the first few years of the 2000s, a good friend of mine would join me in midtown Manhattan once a year for an afternoon in the city followed by being in the audience for a taping of either Late Show with David Letterman or Late Night with Conan O’Brien.Both were great shows, but I’m especially fond of the two times I saw Dave’s show from the audience inside the Ed Sullivan Theater.

One time was in the Christmas season.Tom Brokaw was one of the guests.Being a former newsman, Brokaw was a guest I always enjoyed.He was clearly one of Dave’s favorite guests.

Another time was in the summer when the movie Moulin Rouge came out.Actor Ewan McGregor was one of the guests.At that time, I never heard of the guy.The musical guest that night was Moby and I recall being impressed at how quickly the crew could set up the stage during the commercial break right before he took to the stage.Thanks to Google, I now have learned the day of that show was June 21, 2001.

Those trips to New York City to meet my friend for a day of lunch, laughs, and late night show tapings were quite a test of endurance for me.I would get up around four AM, and then drive about six hours to a train station in Tarrytown, New York.

Following about an hour of travel on the rails, I’d emerge from Grand Central Station and walk to an agreed upon destination to meet up with my buddy.After a quick lunch, we’d do what I call the “poor man’s” tour of the New York City by taking in such iconic locations as the Dakota apartment complex where John Lennon lived and died, the restaurant where exterior scenes were shot in the television series Seinfeld, and my favorite venue: inside 30 Rockefeller Plaza where such iconic shows as Saturday Night Live are produced. 

We’d have to get in line for the Letterman taping around 3:30, and after being moved from a gathering area in a building across the side entrance to the Ed Sullivan Theater, we’d take our seats inside and were coached as to how to behave while in the audience of a national television show.We were ready for a brief audience welcome by Dave and then the magic that is live-on-tape television was underway.

Live-on-tape means the show is performed as though it was being done live with no stops of the recording machines unless a major problem occurs. 

When the taping was finished around 6:30, my friend and I would shake hands and depart:I would head to Grand Central while he headed to Penn Station to catch our respective trains.Barring any train delays, I’d get to my car in Tarrytown around 8:00 PM, and then head on back to either a hotel or a relative’s home for a well-appreciated good night’s sleep.

We did those trips annually for about four years, and then my friend moved to the west coast.My wife and I followed with our own west coast adventure a few years later.

While I’ve been to Hollywood to see a couple of television shows in production, I still have a longing for the days when I embarked on an annual endurance test to travel several hours to see David Letterman’s show

David Letterman began his late night television career just a couple of months prior to my becoming a father.He leaves television as I enjoy the privileges of being a grandparent.I remember watching that very first show on CBS in 1993.

I remember the night Johnny Carson did a walk-on to hand him the Top Ten list and symbolically “hand off” the late night throne- without saying a word.

I remember the broadcast a week after 9-11 and how in some satisfying way, he helped bring back some normalcy.

I remember the night he returned from heart surgery and nearly cried as he thanked his medical professionals that were brought on stage.

Thirty-three years have passed.

Thank you David Letterman, for entertaining me through fatherhood and for keeping the laughs coming as I became a grandfather.

You deserve to retire with all the accolades and all the memories.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced