I got my biggest laugh as a class clown in 8th grade.
The year was 1980. Mrs. Appleby was a cartoonist's drawing of a schoolteacher: silver hair in a bun, chained bifocals, a perpetual pucker.
Each morning she would ask us for an example of "earth science in the news" -- volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, things like that.
I was ready. I raised my hand. "Yes, John?" she said.
"There was a severe thunderstorm in Iran," I replied.
You see, in 1980, the American hostages were still in Tehran, and a pompous media treated every minor occurrence with grim gravity. Such as a severe thunderstorm in Iran.
At the time I didn't quite know why my joke was funny. David Letterman helped me figure it out.
No one was better at trampling tropes or clobbering clichés. Anchormen, admen and con men would pitch their spinning banalities at us daily. And nightly the slugger from Indiana would knock them out of the park.
"There's this headline in the [National] Enquirer that says, 'How to Lose Weight Without Diet or Exercise,'" Letterman joked. "So I think to myself, 'That leaves disease.'"
In college, I devoured Late Night with David Letterman on my black-and-white bubble TV. I read everything I could about him, including a Playboy interview in which he admitted to smoking "a really breathtaking amount of grass almost every night."
I even wrote a letter to the show -- not to get on "Viewer Mail," but to get on the writing staff. Our senses of humor are so similar, I argued. A packaged reply came back: one plastic Late Night flyswatter and one Late Night sponge. Not the famous collapsible drinking cup, mind you, but a decent haul nonetheless.
On most talk shows, you waited for the mindless chatter to end for the comedy to begin. On Late Night, the mindless chatter was the comedy.
Bill Wendell would introduce the host with an infomercial's flourish: "And now, strong enough for a man but made for a woman, David Letterman!" Dave would throw to his producer Hal Gurnee, mispronouncing his name as "Gertner," and ask him what he was wearing. "Blue shirt and tan chinos, Dave," came the answer, every single night.
Catchphrases were created and run into the ground for fun. I don't recall a single sentence of any foreign language I ever studied. But I do remember "too much lotion!" and "they pelted us with rocks and garbage!"
Letterman spotted the "listicle" revolution early and tried to snuff it out with "Top Ten Lists." Sample: "Top Ten Names for Robert Bork's Beard" (#6 was "Lunatic Fringe"). Ironically, the public became so enamored with the mock lists that the show couldn't kill them off.
Viewers latched onto his over-the-top stunts like "Stupid Pet Tricks" or throwing objects from a tall building. Truth be told, this formula was borrowed from another master showman, Steve Allen.
But the show's best bits reached beyond TV to the wellsprings of spoof comedy, Mad Magazine and National Lampoon. A Late Night gift catalogue advertised a Joe Theismann pencil sharpener with a 360-degree "broken leg" handle. A tourist attraction featured a man's face that looked like a mountain. A book by actress and spiritual huckster Shirley MacLaine was entitled, "There are Tiny People in My Salt Shaker!"
I laughed so hard I couldn't breathe.
Letterman wasn't afraid to pull back the curtain. When NBC's prime time ratings tanked, he attacked the "pinheads" in charge. He singled out the show Manimal for special abuse. And when he published a Late Night comedy book and the editors forgot to add photo captions on several pages, he ruthlessly skewered them for a month.
He was sharpest when presented with Hollywood hokum. And his celebrity guests knew it. You could see them squirm and shift in their chairs, hoping to still be standing at the end of the round.
On his CBS show, when Paris Hilton said she didn't want to talk about her stint in prison, his answer was deadpan: "See, this is where you and I are different." Then he asked if she made any friends while in jail.
There was a dark side. Letterman could stray from edgy to cruel. His "found comedy" often found ordinary people unready for the spotlight. His sidekicks were so odd you wondered if they were mentally all there. Imitators like Howard Stern would pick up the ball and run with it; Larry "Bud" Melman begat "Beetlejuice" and "Stuttering John."
When Letterman moved to CBS he lost me. The lights were too bright; the applause was too eager; the band sounded tinny and rushed, like a circus calliope. It was, God forbid, phony. It reminded me of what Jerry Seinfeld said about the much-panned Seinfeld finale: "We didn't really do big. Small was our instrument."
But Letterman's legacy was already set in stone. He changed what it meant to be funny in America. You can count his equals on one hand: Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Seinfeld. A comedy Mount Rushmore. If their faces looked like mountains.
As Letterman tapes his final shows, the critics who grew up on him lament the new late-night landscape. "It's just so much celebrity fawning," said Slate.com's Mike Pesca. I'm not as pessimistic. Watch Jimmy Kimmel, whose sleepy-eyed insouciance hides a killer B.S. detector.
Of course, Kimmel can never truly replace the gruff but lovable C-student from Ball State. Thank you, David Letterman, for showing this former class clown that the future still belongs to the wiseass, not the tight-ass.
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