Bill Shanks

Shanks: Looking back on David Letterman

On February 1, 1982, I was six weeks shy of my 12th birthday. Today, I’m two months past my 45th birthday.

That’s a span of 33 years – a third of a century. I wish I knew how many shows I’ve watched with David Letterman. It’s likely in the thousands. I watched his first on that February night when I was only 11. I’ll watch his last one Wednesday a much older man.

Some people may have believed in the early days that Letterman was silly – an overgrown juvenile delinquent who loved throwing crap off tall buildings and interrupting the Today Show with a bullhorn. They may have later simply preferred Jay Leno.

But I have loved David Letterman. If you’ve watched him as long as I have, you likely do as well.

Back in the early-1980s, I was fortunate that my mother allowed me to stay up late once in a while. The Atlanta Braves were in the National League West back then, with three trips per season to Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. She allowed me to stay up to watch those great late night games.

That made me a late night person. And there was another reason I loved to stay up past the dreaded bedtime.

I was also allowed to watch Johnny Carson more than the average kid. I adored Johnny. He was television. It was an event every night. If Don Rickles or Buddy Hackett were on with Johnny, I could stay up even if it was a school night.

But then this guy named Letterman started coming on. I had actually seen his morning show attempt in 1980. I don’t remember why I watched it. Not many people did. But when he started coming on, and even before that when he would sit in for Carson, I thought Letterman was really funny.

I watched Bill Murray come out on that first show. It was on my 13-inch black-and-white TV, the type kids were given back then. But I watched. I watched when Letterman would interrupt “Live at Five” with Jack Cafferty and Sue Simmons, with a much-larger Al Roker acting as the weatherman. I loved it when David roamed through the hallways of NBC.

I watched as Letterman put a monkey on a moped and attached a camera to the top of his head. I watched as he made Bryant Gumbel mad as all get out when he interrupted the ‘Today Show at Night’ by screaming from a floor high above 30 Rock. I watched when they put David in a bowl and poured milk on top of him, and I watched when he had Velcro on and jumped on a Velcro wall.

I watched as Jane Pauley sat with Dave in a dentist’s chair and talked with helium. I watched as people who would never, even be on with Johnny – Sandra Bernhard, Andy Kaufman, the Amazing Kreskin, etc. – came on with Dave and shined.

I watched when David called Terry Forster, a relief pitcher on my favorite team, a “fat tub of goo.” Then when Forster came on, I was watching.

I loved when Dave walked around New York and found weird shops like “Just Bulbs.” Then he would ask the people if they had anything else in the store besides bulbs. Then he actually found a place called “Just Shades,” which surprisingly just had shades inside.

I watched as this short old fat guy named Larry “Bud” Melman walked around a bus depot handing out doughnuts to arriving tourists. He had no clue he could barely be heard every time he moved the microphone from his mouth. David laughed, and so did I.

I watched when Cher called Dave a bad name, and when she reunited with Sonny and sang “I’ve got you babe,” I watched that too.

I hated it when NBC aired music videos on Friday night instead of Dave. We had “Night Tracks” on TBS for that. We needed to watch Dave.

I watched as strange people would come on Dave’s show and do strange things. I’ll never forget some weirdo who actually came on and swallowed light bulbs. He then swallowed coins and gave Dave change. You don’t forget things like that.

I watched every time Letterman would go on with Carson, and when the time came for Carson to leave I knew who deserved the job. I couldn’t believe it when Leno was the choice instead, and it just didn’t seem right. You know Johnny wanted Dave to be his replacement, but NBC wasn’t smart enough to ask.

When David bolted for CBS, I was thrilled. I would follow David wherever he went. So when he ended his show on the Peacock Network, I never watched a late night show on there again.

And when Melman popped through the CBS eye logo to open Dave’s new show, I watched. I wanted to see Biff Henderson, to hear Bill Wendell’s intro and to see how long it would be before Dave would make fun of director Hal Gurnee.

I watched when Drew Barrymore showed Dave something special for his birthday, when Madonna kept on using the F-word, and when Julia Roberts would come on and flirt with Dave and make him blush.

I learned who Mujibur and Sirajul were, and if you have to google those names, you obviously weren’t watching.

I watched when Dave took Richard Simmons around a New Jersey neighborhood knocking on people’s doors. I watched when he ran Simmons out of the studio with a fire extinguisher.

I watched when Dave went to Los Angeles and went through Drive-Thru windows with Zsa Zsa Gabor. I watched when Johnny Carson walked out on that Friday night to David’s set and made his last TV appearance.

After 9/11, when the country was healing, I watched as David made us feel okay to laugh again. I watched as he told us about his son and when he told us he had finally gotten married.

The first time I went to New York, I had to go to the Ed Sullivan Theater. I didn’t get tickets, but we actually saw Paul Shaffer and had our picture made with him. Then we ate a sandwich at Rupert’s Hello Deli. It was really pretty good.

Then three years later, in 2005, I got tickets and watched an episode in person. I saw Dave in person. I was like a kid in a candy store. I didn’t stop smiling for days after being in there for just one tremendous hour.

I loved watching that monkey sneeze. I loved hearing Paul’s music. I loved when that music would start and the show would begin, each and every night.David Letterman was what I call a “reactionary comic.” He could react to something someone did and make it funnier than anyone. That’s a gift. That’s a talent. That’s why he was so good.

Dave is a broadcaster. So am I. I’m honored to be in the same business, but no one is in his class. No one will ever be Dave. No one should ever even try. If Johnny Carson was Frank Sinatra, then David Letterman was Dean Martin. Johnny and Frank were the ones we were scared of because they were God-like, but David and Dean were the ones we wanted to be around. We wanted to be hip like those two, but what’s the point of even trying?

I have laughed for 33 years. My God, have I laughed. I don’t know what I’ll do when he’s not on TV Thursday. That’ll probably make me cry.

But you know what? I wouldn’t give my troubles to a “Monkey on a rock.”

For those of us who have watched this man over and over and over, there are only three words that fit.

Thank you Dave.

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