I’ve wanted to write this post sooner but I’ve been pretty busy and since I am still seeing articles & tributes to Letterman two days after his final show, I figured it is still appropriate for me to write this. Like Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brian, and many others, this week’s final episode of The Late Show with David Letterman was tough for me. David Letterman has been an important part of my life since I was a little kid and even though I have not watched his show on the regular these past few years, I still made a point to tune in when he had a guest or music act on that I loved.
When I was still in a stroller, I’m going to guess for the moment I was 4, my parents took a day trip down to meet my Dad’s parents down in Atlantic City. On that trip we did a bunch of things, but only one thing has stayed with me my entire life. I remember my parents realizing there was not much to-do as a family of 3 in the 80s in Atlantic City shortly after arriving but while I was hanging out with my Dad in the lobby of Harrah’s a man in a suit and a giant bobble-head like mask came up to us. He wanted to shake my hand. I complied. You see this guy was part of Harrah’s roving entertainment for the weekend, a troop of people dressed up as celebrities with giant bobble-head like masks that their patrons could have their photos taken with. It just so happened this guy was the David Letterman character. I had no idea who he was supposed to be but I enjoyed his comical head. I remembered he had white gloves on too for some reason. Like Mickey Mouse, he did not speak, but I was entranced as if I was with Mickey. He motioned for my Dad and I to follow him over to the check-in desk. There someone handed him a red Harrah’s t-shirt with some slogan on it that said something to the effect of how great it was to be 21 again with two playing cards showing Blackjack. It was not my size at all. “Dave” also asked the person at the desk for a marker, and he proceeded to write me a message on the t-shirt. I wish I remembered what it said, but I remember vividly that it was made out to me and he signed it in big block letters, DAVE. I still had no idea who David Letterman was or what he did, but here was this man in a giant bobble-headed mask of him giving me an autographed t-shirt. You could imagine from that moment on I was a Letterman fan for life.
After “Dave” departed, Dad filled me in on who Letterman was, “He has a talk-show late at night, after you go to bed…” he said. For years I wore that shirt to bed until it literally fell apart from all the washes, the handwritten note from “Dave” lost to the bowels of the washing machine. But I still never forgot…
Fast forward to August of 1993, I’m 11 years old and about to go into 5th grade. School in Voorhees, NJ was starting to become a bit difficult for me. I had already adopted a sense of humor that adults found funny but kids my age did not understand. I was into politics, popular culture, I had read Rush Limbaugh’s first book in 3rd grade on my own, and I was very goofy. Kids didn’t relate to those things and they sure let me know it. My Dad had mentioned to me that David Letterman was starting a new show on CBS that Monday night and it was on at 11:30pm, a much easier time for me to stay awake for. I remembered the t-shirt from 7 or so years prior and was wanting to see what Letterman was all about. I remember getting my PJs on and firing up my bedroom TV; which my parents still have and still works by the way. It was a 9″ color TV with wood grained panels all around it and it had a giant antenna on the top which I would frequently have to aim depending on the channel I wanted to see. We had cable in the house but it didn’t make it upstairs to my room, I didn’t care as I usually just watched WWF and played Nintendo on it anyway. As I tucked myself into bed and tuned to Philadelphia’s CBS channel, I did not know what was in store for me…
I don’t remember much of that first episode, but I remember loving every second of it and getting most of the jokes. I thought Letterman was silly in a way that I was and he was on TV for it. Even though the kids at school didn’t like my silliness, Letterman showed me that one night that eventually kids would catch up to where I was. I know I never made it to the end of the show, I rarely did at that time. I fell asleep with the TV on for sure. The next day my Dad asked me what I thought, “I loved it” I said. As school started my Friday night ritual would be to always watch Letterman before bed and in the summers I would watch as often as I could. The Top 10 Lists and goofy sketches were tailor made for a young Sean Piotrowski. I was obsessed.
Back when Letterman joined CBS he would do yearly Prime-Time specials. Dad always would let me know when they were coming up and he’d say, “Don’t worry I’ll tape it for you!” because they were often on during the week when I had school and needed to be in bed. Over the years my Dad had amassed 3 or 4 of Letterman’s specials on 1 VHS tape for me. Much like the ALF tape he had made for me when I was younger, I watched the Letterman specials over and over and over again. The bits where Letterman would hide out and tell Rupert Jee from Hello Deli what to say, Dave working in drive thru windows and being a smart-ass to the customers, and my all time favorite driving around eating fast food with Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Letterman was the first real comedy that I got into. But he opened a door to SNL, Seinfeld, and the elusive MST3k (elusive because we did not have Comedy Central, only my Grandma Hahneman did). Over time, my love for Letterman was unwavering. Sure I knew Leno existed and that he took over for Carson, but that didn’t mean anything to me. Letterman had my type of humor!
As I grew older, my parents bought me these books of Letterman Top-Ten lists. I read them over and over. I studied them. While in 7th grade in Toms River, we began to learn about the Revolutionary War, and I had already learned it in 5th grade back in Voorhees. I was a bit bored. I was reading the Top-Ten book in class and discovered a Revolutionary War themed list and I thought it was hilarious. After class, I showed my teacher, Mrs. Yoder, and asked her if she would read it to the class tomorrow. She read it over and agreed. The next day she announced that she was going to read this Top-Ten list found by me. As she read the items on the list, one by one, the kids in my class laughed. The next year in 8th grade, still a student of Letterman and the Top-Ten lists, I took some time and wrote my own: “The Top-Ten Signs Mrs. Schutzer Has Lost Her Mind”. I wrote it up and printed it out. I showed some of the kids in my class and they thought it was hilarious. I showed it to a teacher I trusted very much at the time, Mrs. Diorio, she thought it was hilarious too and that I should share it with Mrs. Schutzer. So I did. She loved it and read it to all her classes that year and for years to come! I was so proud of myself.
As time went on, I still watched Letterman. But in high school I discovered Conan O’Brian. I could clearly tell that Conan was heavily influenced by Letterman and it was cool that he even had Dave’s old time slot on NBC. By this time in my life, I was a student of Late Night TV. I had watched the Late Shift movie a bunch of times and learned why it was such a big deal for Dave to come to CBS when I was just a child. I also learned how he got screwed out of the Tonight Show and how much of a jerk Leno was. My Grandma Hahneman and I would talk about the late night shows a lot when we got together and we still do from time to time. She always liked Leno more, was OK with Letterman, and couldn’t stand Conan. We would debate the merits of each for hours over the years. I always enjoyed that and still do.
As I went to college, 11:30pm wasn’t such a convenient time for me to be watching TV. 12:30am and Conan worked better. It bummed me out because I still loved Letterman but it gave me a chance to discover Conan even more. But after college, I watched late night TV less and less. I would watch Conan when I remembered to and Letterman if someone was on that I liked. As we entered the “YouTube era” I found myself being able to watch more Letterman in the viral clips from the night before or entire episodes thanks to CBS’ wonderful website. I felt more in touch with Dave then I had in a long time. However, when I knew someone like Bill Murray or Howard Stern was making an appearance, I would make a point to watch it live.
These last few weeks of Letterman’s show have given us some really amazing moments. I was also glad to see the emotional tributes from Norm McDonald, Jimmy Kimmel, and Conan O’Brian leading up to the last show. (If you haven’t seen them, track them down.) His last episode was great too but not as emotional as I had hoped, but I shouldn’t have been surprised given how incredibly private Dave is. As my wife, Crystal, and I watched that final episode we got to watch some of our favorite bits one last time. We got to see Rupert Jee putting his thumb down in the woman’s water and him not having enough to pay for all the McDonald’s he ordered while Dave spoke to him from a radio in a car. We also got to see Dave working the Taco Bell drive thru too. We laughed as hard as we did the first time and it made me miss my VHS tape of Letterman specials. I wish they were on DVD or something. After Taco Bell was over, we both lamented about how we wished it was the McDonald’s drive thru bit as that was our favorite.
As the Foo Fighters played “Everlong” one last time for Dave and they showed the montage of footage from Dave’s entire career, I couldn’t help but think how surreal it was that Dave was ending his show. For years I’ve lived an hour away from the Ed Sullivan Theater, but never went to a taping. I always assumed he’d be around forever and I’d get there one of these days. I don’t regret not going but it just goes to show you how I thought he’d do this forever. I can’t imagine a world without Dave doing something entertaining and I am sure we will see him again. (Podcast hopefully?)
As I wrap this up, I just want to say #ThanksDave for teaching me about comedy. Thank you for inspiring the comedians I love just as much as you. But most importantly, thank you for showing a goofy kid from New Jersey that it was OK to be silly even though his classmates gave him a hard time about it.