A couple of nights ago, I caught up with David Letterman’s show for the first time since he announced his retirement, near the end of the victory lap he’s been running for the past few weeks. How could I not watch? Bill Murray, my favorite comedic actor, was his guest, and Bob Dylan, my favorite… um, person I’ve never met, performed. Last night, of course, was Letterman’s last show. It awaits me on my DVR.
I haven’t watched Letterman regularly in years. But for about 15 years, up until the time I started having kids, his show was an important part of my life. Even after I stopped watching regularly, I continued to root for him in his perennially losing campaign to dethrone rival Jay Leno in the ratings. While I preferred the quirkier edge of NBC’s 12:30 Letterman to CBS’s more mainstream 11:30 version, he was still a million times better than Leno. In fact, people like me who watched Letterman’s NBC show in the early days remember that Leno, then a young and hungry stand-up comic, would come on Letterman’s show and kill—which made us wonder how he became so bland and innocuous once he started guest-hosting for Carson in the late-’80s. Leno was a people-pleaser who fawned over his celebrity guests.
To Letterman’s great credit, no one could accuse him of doing that! In a recent interview, Howard Stern got it right when he said that playing second-fiddle to Leno “freed him up in some way. He probably could have dumbed it down and done a long meaningless monologue that would have made for better ratings, but he stayed true to himself. That takes an unusual strength.”
I began watching Letterman around the age of 14, when his 12:30 show was the hippest thing on television. The sole virtue of the snowy little rabbit-eared TV in my bedroom is that it had a earphone jack. I could plug in the earphone (in one ear, remember?) and my parents, unable to hear that 17- or 18-kHz buzz emitted by cathode-ray TVs, were none the wiser.
Everyone knows about Stupid Pet Tricks and Top Ten Lists, but I remember the early days being surreal at times. For instance, Chris Elliott’s “Guy Under the Seats”:
Or—perhaps my first Letterman-show memory—Andy Kaufman’s announcement that he had recently adopted three underprivileged kids?
Or who could forget the utterly bizarre appearance by Back to the Future‘s Crispin Glover, which prompted Letterman to abruptly walk off the set and break to a commercial?
You can read about many other highlights of Letterman’s 33 years in late night all over the internet this week. Two more highlights I’ll mention: His post-9/11 show was surely one of the best moments in television history. Even his on-air confession several years ago that a blackmailer was threatening to reveal that he had slept with staffers—which thereby disarmed the blackmailer—made for gripping television.
These moments and many others reflected a kind of honesty that we don’t often see from celebrities—which is surprising given how famously he guards his privacy. With Letterman, the distance between person and persona never seemed very wide.
But here’s why I mention him on this church-related blog: I owe Letterman a debt of gratitude, and not merely for the good times over the years. Years ago, my best friend from high school—like me a huge Letterman fan from back in the day—visited the worship service I was leading. He said, “Don’t think I didn’t pick up on your Letterman-esque mannerisms! The way you talked to your congregation… When you turned and spoke to your worship leader—it was like Letterman talking to Paul Shaffer!”
Was it that obvious?
In my defense, there is an emcee quality, at times, to being a pastor in worship and at other public events. You have to keep things running smoothly! Often, when I speak extemporaneously, make a timely quip or joke at my expense, apologize when something goes wrong—that’s when my Letterman shows through.
I’m proud to say so! He was a good teacher!
Even more, since Letterman is likely as insecure a person as I often am, I’m impressed, as Stern is, by his “unusual strength” to be true to himself. To his credit, he was about as authentic as the medium of television allows.
Like television but on a much smaller scale, the pulpit presents a potentially powerful barrier to authenticity. After all, will my people still love and respect me if they know their pastor is a sinner just like everyone else?
So that’s my struggle. I don’t want to be phony. I want the man in the pulpit to align as closely as possible with the man outside of the pulpit. I want people to say, “With Brent, what you see is what you get.”
I’ve got a long way to go, I’m sure. But inasmuch as I achieve authenticity in my public life, I owe at least small debt to David Letterman, whose own struggle in this area inspired me.
So, thank you, Dave, and God bless you!
Here’s Bob Dylan’s Letterman performance of a Frank Sinatra standard, “The Night We Called It a Day.”