Kenneth Burns: Letterman marks second decade at the ‘Late Show’

Sep. 07, 2013 @ 11:46 PM

I’ll never forget the Monkey Cam. Or Network Time Killers. Or “They pelted us with rocks and garbage!”

All are highlights of the long career of David Letterman, the television comic whose “Late Show” just celebrated 20 years on CBS.

A lot has changed on TV since 1982, when Letterman began his long evening reign with NBC’s “Late Night.” Cable television became ubiquitous. DVRs changed viewing habits.

But Letterman is still on the air. He has influenced a generation of broadcasters, and a generation of comedians.

And he has influenced me. Truly.

I watched a lot of Letterman when I was a teenager in the 1980s, and his humor had a big effect on me. His impudence. His quick wit. I’ve been told that sometimes I even talk like David Letterman.

I’ve been a fan since I was 13. It was 1984. I discovered Letterman’s show, and I began staying up to watch. Before long my dad, worried about my sleep habits, made me stop.

So I taped the broadcasts and watched them over and over. I laughed as hard as I’ve ever laughed at comedy segments like the Museum of the Hard to Believe, and Camping With Barry White.

Here’s a story about my Letterman fandom in those days. In eighth grade, my science teacher divided the class into groups and had us perform skits about the material we were studying. I staged my group’s skit as, yes, an episode of “Late Night With David Letterman.”

I played Letterman and wore his trademark blazer, khakis and running shoes. I used a portable stereo to play the “Late Night” theme, and I interviewed my classmates on some scientific topic or other. Mitosis? I think we got an A.

I enjoyed Letterman’s NBC show throughout high school and college. I admired his irreverence. He was withering on many topics, including television itself. He famously mocked the medium’s pretensions, as when he used a bullhorn to heckle a segment of the “Today” show.

I was fascinated by the late-night wars of the early 1990s, when Letterman and Jay Leno vied to replace legendary “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson. When Letterman debuted on CBS, I avidly watched the new show. It retained elements of the NBC era – the musicians, the Top Ten List, Stupid Pet Tricks.

Even so, in the earlier time slot, Letterman seemed somehow less alienated, more mainstream. He looked newly confident in his natty suits. He invoked television history as he began broadcasting from the Ed Sullivan Theater.

During his 20-year run on CBS, Letterman has created great television moments – hall of fame stuff, including the early 2000s episodes about his heart surgery.

Then there was the “Late Show” broadcast of Sept. 17, 2001, the first after the attacks of Sept. 11. Letterman’s heartfelt monologue was a graceful response to the pain and uncertainty of those awful days. It was authentic and tasteful. It was Letterman at his best.

The CBS era also has seen Letterman at his worst, when the news emerged in 2009 that he had been unfaithful to his wife. With his apparently candid on-air statements, he handled the scandal better than some celebrities might have. But it was a lurid episode, and I was disappointed. I know people who haven’t watched Letterman since, and I don’t blame them.

I don’t watch Letterman all that often these days, but I still tune in from time to time. He is 66, and he is not the innovative broadcaster he was in the 1980s. At some point he will step down, and when he does, I will gratefully salute him for a distinguished entertainment career.

I was glad to see the Ed Sullivan Theater up close in 1998. That’s when I joined a big group of Chicago university students who were flown to a “Late Show” taping. I can tell you that the theater is beautiful, especially the exquisitely detailed model of New York City. It was a lovely time.

Kenneth Burns is Community News Editor of The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 212, or send email to kburns@themountainpress.com.