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Laughter Midnight

David Letterman's talent was that he let us think we were smarter than the world around us.

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TELEVISION 1982


David Letterman with guest Bill Murray in 1980.   

Jack Paar brought the art of conversation to late-night television. And Steve Allen gave it a sense of humor. It was Johnny Carson who combined the laughs with the talk, and even though shameless self-promotion was the staple of the show, Johnny’s wit made it seem palatable. But it was David Letterman who put a spin on all that late night meant and tilted it in a new direction . . . the cynical. Casting a jaundiced eye on the world around him and with the aid of the unsung hero of the monologue, Bill Scheft, he sarcastically tore into the news of the day and turned it into bite-size morsels. With our ensuing laughter came the comfort that we were better than what was going on around us. And in case we missed the point, there was the Top Ten list. What was extraordinary about the humor was the speed at which it was produced and the quality that ensued. As much as it inspired me to get on the ball, as a comic it drove me nuts that I sometimes took weeks to come up with a take on things that he produced with his staff in an afternoon. (Of course, I have no staff, but I’m the kind of guy who loves to relish his own inadequacy.) When I finally had the honor of doing the show, my biggest shock was just how cold he keeps the studio. You could keep meat fresh in there. It’s an old axiom of comedy. You want your audience to be cold. I don’t know if it helped, but I do know that in no other performance have my nipples been so pert. But most important, Dave realized that his show was bigger than the stars it was hosting. You didn’t watch the show just because Madonna or Cher was going to be on. You watched it because they were going to be sitting across from Dave, and there was no telling what would happen. It wasn’t going to be just another sales pitch about an album or a film. He’d let his wry silences or sardonic responses put the overblown egos of our time in their place. He reminded us nightly that the emperor had no clothes. He turned late-night TV into an event. Sometimes it made it tough to get to sleep, but it was a whole lot easier to wake up.


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