Growing up, there were three shows my dad watched. The first was All Creatures Great & Small, a quaint PBS program about a veterinarian in the U.K. countryside. To my sister and me -- then elementary school age, at best -- it was gruesomely dry.
The next was The Rockford Files, starring the recently deceased James Garner. Buoyed by Garner's wry charisma, the show was acceptable to us kids; if we were denied to watch Sesame Street, the casual swagger of Jim Rockford was a reasonable substitute. (I also remember my curiosity that Rockford's father -- Noah Berry Jr. -- was in real life the nephew of Wallace Berry, aka Long John Silver and The Champ. In hindsight, it was a strange thing for a kid to take interest in, but then again I watched those old adventure movies on AMC.)
Finally, my dad loved David Letterman. It's been at least a decade since DVDs, Netflix and On Demand definitively made VHS obsolete, and yet my childhood home still is filled with lingering tapes marked "LETTERMAN". Back then, it was common to open up the VCR-looking to watch Batman or Little Mermaid -- and find one of my dad's Letterman tapes, having been programmed to tape last night's show. Naturally, technology has evolved so much that a person today would never go through the process of setting a VCR to record a program, or leave the television set to a specific channel. It's one of those things lost to time, but I will always associate David Letterman -- retiring Late Night legend -- with very specific memories of growing up in the early 90s.
Having watched his shows throughout my entire life, I've been reflecting on his legacy, like many others. As Senator Al Franken points out, mawkish sentiment is undoubtedly the last thing on Letterman's agenda. Still, like Garner's passing, the conclusion of Letterman as a public figure reminds me of what these men meant to my dad, and by extension, me.
Both were wise asses, although while Letterman -- in his heyday -- could be mean, Garner rarely was. While Garner grew up in Oklahoma, Letterman embodies Midwestern droll; I think both men's geography informed their personas and made them such wonderful outliers in the world of entertainment. Ironic yet relatable, Garner and Letterman typify the kinds of qualities I saw in my dad: approachability, expertise, calm.
Letterman was also my gateway into a number of performers and interests I still value. Like The Simpsons, watching Letterman elevated you with silly, referential knowledge. Without Late Night or the Late Show, there's a universe of talented folk I simply wouldn't be familiar with: Andy Kaufman, Chris Elliott, Harvey Pekhar, even Paul Shaffer. These are men I learned about watching clips of Letterman. Regardless of his broader cultural impact, there are particular people I will always associate with watching Letterman on VHS.
I think that's kinda cool, and special.
It's mostly nostalgia, but there's something to be said about losing figures like Letterman. Although his prickly moments have been well-documented, there's also a workmanship and basic integrity he's come to represent. People have pointed out his major achievements, and most iconic interviews -- Cher, Drew Barrymore, Joaquin. They've talked about how his sensibility changed the comedy landscape, and ushered in a new ethos. That's all true and fine although to me misses a fundamental and personal point.
When you're little, you have no clue how mundane moments compound to shape you into the person you are to become. Ordinary rituals and little memories like those VHS Letterman tapes mean so much more now that I'm an adult, especially with my dad having been gone ~18 months. Watching Letterman (and the Rockford Files) at the time felt like something to passively endure and -- maybe -- enjoy when the TV was commandeered. Now I recognize their true value: as unlikely vessels to bond over with my dad.
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