On February 1, 1982, talk show history was made with the debut of “Light Night with David Letterman”. It took us about four months to review the show, and here are our first impressions, posted on June 7, 1982.
What is this guy from David Letterman?
Here is a 35 year old apparently normal human being, born Indiana Hoosier, apparently bright, quite nice looking, clean who for the past four months has been doing some very strange things on network television, even network television late evening. (Monday-Thursday at 11:30 p.m. on NBC, Channel 5 locally.)
David Letterman is the kind of man who announces “Annie” star Aileen Quinn as a guest, then hops a male dwarf in a curly redhead wig onto the stage and sits in the guest chair.
“When my acting career is over,” he says, “I’d like to demonstrate power tools for Sears.”
David Letterman promises us a tour of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, which turns out to be an NBC store right next to the stage. Inside, he shows us some of the exhibits: a rotten tube-shaped piece of meat, which he calls the first hot dog ever sold at a baseball game in 1882. A small skeleton with a Yankees cap on it, which he describes as “the kid Babe Ruth” promised to hit the home run for.”
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David Letterman flies Milton Pitts to New York from Washington, where his duties include cutting President Reagan’s hair. And just to prove it, Milton has brought along some of the Imperial accompaniments, which he throws on Letterman’s desk. “That’s what network television is for,” proclaims Letterman.
“Late Night with David Letterman”, the official name of this quad-weekly madness, is the weirdest, silliest, weirdest, most unpredictable, sometimes confusing and funniest show on air. . Television hasn’t seen such a rowdy coming and going since Steve Allen stopped being original and started trying to convince the public that he was the liberal intellectual man of the American Renaissance and that his wife was talented. But enough of the past.
Letterman, his producer Barry Sand and his team of writers (led by his girlfriend, Merrill Markoe) are preparing an original comedy. It’s a comedy built, above all, on a healthy if paradoxical disrespect for network television in particular and everything else in general.
One of the brightest bits I’ve ever seen on a show, let alone a so-called talk show, was an interview Letterman did with a guy who had taken his family on vacation in their car. If that sounds boring, it was, and it was meant to be. During the interview, modest special effects created two David Lettermans, one of whom sat politely listening to the guest while the other stood and walked around, talking about how whose guy and his story were boring and stupid.
Letterman’s team had successfully used talk show and television technology to create cutting edge and inventive commentary on television talk shows.
Problems remain, even after four months, and they seem to stem from Letterman himself.
He’s a wise guy, a sharp guy, but a wise guy nonetheless. In a casual, down-to-earth, and not entirely innocent way, he makes fun of things. All. His opening monologue often denounces the show itself: “Boy, did we have an extravaganza for you tonight,” is a frequent prediction, uttered in such a way that you’re sure Letterman thinks it’s all really too much. silly for worth your time and his.
He still has a lot of trouble with the guests, even if he is better on some nights than others. In reality, I think the guests are fillers, used to provide Letterman and the writing team with some breathing space. Coming up with 45 minutes of really good stuff four times a week, I suppose, is impossible. The problem is that Letterman often treats guests like charges.
In all honesty, that’s not always the case. Jerzy Kozinski made some brilliant appearances, and a visit from Paul Simon became something very special, despite repeated and horribly timed commercial breaks. But poor guest management is the rule, not the exception.
Finally, it is quite difficult to tell when a sage is sincere. Letterman’s on-screen personality suggests a barely tolerant condescending attitude toward just about everything and everyone, even some of the ordinary people he meets and films during his frequent forays onto the streets of New York City. Some of his deadpan cracks seem tinged with cruelty, and audiences seem encouraged to ridicule people just for speaking with an accent.
If Letterman isn’t mean in real life, he seems like such a nice guy that he and his team have to find a way to communicate that without toning down or dulling the shine of his comedy. If he’s really mean, funny or not, eventually people will catch on and, I think, turn on him. In the meantime, watch the show. Comedy has rarely been more inspired.
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