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Late nights were bolder, brighter during David Letterman’s reign

Comedian Stephen Colbert, formerly of Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report,” is taking over “The Late Show” in September after David Letterman retires.
Comedian Stephen Colbert, formerly of Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report,” is taking over “The Late Show” in September after David Letterman retires. Jeffrey R. Staab

When Bill Clinton sat with David Letterman last week on the “Late Show,” the former president talked at length about the philanthropic work being done by the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative. As the interview drew to a close, Letterman observed that sometimes it’s easier to accomplish things once you’re out of office.

To which Clinton shot back: “You’re about to find out.”

Yes, Letterman, 68, is leaving office. After the May 20 show, he will walk away from the late-night talk-show world, leaving behind a landscape that looks nothing like it did when “Late Night With David Letterman” debuted on NBC in February 1982.

Back then, “Late Night” followed “The Tonight Show,” starring one of Letterman’s heroes and biggest influences, Johnny Carson. Letterman’s show offered an alternative to Carson’s more formal presentation.

Like “The Tonight Show,” it featured a house band and a band leader, a monologue and desk-side interviews with celebrities.

But Letterman used his late-night spot — it started at 11:30 p.m. locally — to mock the institution that was network TV.

He instituted gags, high jinks and recurring skits such as Stupid Pet Tricks (a carryover from “The David Letterman Show,” his short-lived morning gig on NBC); then Stupid Human Tricks. He started a series of “suit” experiments: suits made of Velcro, Alka-Seltzer, magnets, marshmallows and suet-and-bird seed, in which a menagerie of farm animals were imported into the studio to feed off Dave, literally.

On April 15, 1985, he launched the top 10 list: “Words that almost rhyme with peas.” That list included “moss,” “needs,” “nurse” and, the No. 1 word, “meats.” He has presented more than 4,600 top 10 lists since.

Many were topical, like “Top 10 Signs Your Amish Teen Is in Trouble,” a response to a news story about teens and drugs in an Amish community. Among the signs: “Sometimes stays in bed till after 6 a.m.” and “In his sock drawer, you find pictures of women without bonnets.”

In 1987, an episode was broadcast via a camera that rotated 360 degrees, so that by 30 minutes in, the picture was upside-down, on its way to being upright again by show’s end. It annoyed lots of viewers, which was kind of the point.

Unlike Carson, who inhabited characters in his skits (Carnac the Magnificent, Art Fern, Floyd R. Turbo), Letterman never stepped outside his mostly crotchety and dour on-camera personae. Instead, he brought in characters and usually played the set-up man to their schtick, guys like Calvert DeForest, who played the frumpy Larry “Bud” Melman, and Chris Elliott, who played a variety of characters.

Stage hands and staffers and neighbors around the Ed Sullivan Theater also made cameos in skits, like stage manager Biff Henderson, voice-over announcer Alan Kalter and delicatessen owner Rupert Jee. Letterman also regularly featured his mother in skits, and he mounted a head-cam on a dog.

The show at its best cast a spirit of irreverence and defiance, showed a disregard for the conventions of the format, an appreciation for the humor in the inane and the willingness to take bold risks and to fail. The show was often funniest when it did fail. But it was typically unpredictable.

Maybe Letterman would put on a sponge suit, dunk himself in water and see how much weight he’d absorb. Maybe during Pete Rose’s chase to overtake Ty Cobb in all-time hits, Letterman would focus instead on the Royals’ light-hitting shortstop with a daily “Buddy Biancalana Countdown.” Maybe he’d make toast at his desk and toss it into the crowd. Maybe a guy would come out and eat four hot dogs whole or stop a high-speed metal fan with his tongue. The more absurd or low-brow the better.

Even his celebrity interviews held an element of danger. From Drew Barrymore flashing Dave while standing on his desk to Cher calling him an a-hole (after she shot the middle finger to bandleader Paul Shaffer as he played her onstage with “I Got You, Babe,” her iconic duet with ex-husband Sonny Bono). “Back to the Future” actor Crispin Glover nearly kicked him in the face, and Harvey Pekar’s uncomfortable appearances eventually led to the dyspeptic comic book creator being banned from the show.

As much as it deserves praise for its off-kilter comedic bent, his show should be remembered for its music component. The list of music guests included many of the usual titans and heavyweights (Bruce Springsteen, U2), but even more impressive were the up-and-coming acts who got a shot at “Late Night” and then “Late Show With David Letterman,” including some Kansas City bands: the New Amsterdams in 2005; the Republic Tigers in 2008; and Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, who performed in February, three months before their debut album was released.

Letterman occasionally exposed his softer side and his more serious one. He showed it in 2000 upon his return from heart surgery and in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

And he showed it most memorably in his deep friendship with Warren Zevon, who filled in several times for Shaffer.

Zevon appeared on “Late Show” for the last time in October 2002, when he was dying of cancer. He told Letterman, “You’re the best friend my music ever had,” lamented his refusal to see doctors despite the health warnings and then famously advised all those watching: “Enjoy every sandwich.” It was raw and powerful.

Letterman would lose “The Tonight Show” and then the TV ratings to Jay Leno. He moved to New York and forged on as “Late Show,” but things had changed. And then Comedy Central started throwing its weight around, offering alternatives to the networks’ late-night lineup and drawing the college-aged viewers seeking cutting-edge humor that had been so vital to Letterman’s early success.

And, frankly, over the past several years, he seemed tired and uninspired the few times I bothered to switch over from “The Daily Show” to see what Dave was up to.

In 2015, there are more network late-night shows than ever, too many to keep track of. Stephen Colbert will take over Letterman’s slot in September. CBS is hoping his clout on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” will carry over, though he will reportedly abandon his “Colbert Report” character.

Colbert will be among a crowd that includes Conan O’Brien; two “Saturday Night Live” alums, Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers; a Comedy Central alum, Jimmy Kimmel; and James Corden of “The Late Late Show.”

Most of those shows owe some debt to Letterman’s legacy, though none of it seems as unpredictable or “must see,” the way Letterman was, especially in his earliest days. “It’s hard to imagine late-night TV without him because he revolutionized it,” Fallon said on his show recently. “He made it what it is today.”

Fallon then read a list: “Top 10 Reasons David Letterman Is Retiring.” It was amusing but not especially memorable, much like the late-night landscape Letterman is leaving behind.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

Where to watch

David Letterman’s final episode of the “Late Show” airs at 10:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 20, on CBS.