It was a bleak summer day on the sizzling streets of New York City in 2009 when I watched David Letterman live for the first and only time in my life. I was wandering through the upper regions of the city on my single day off of work, when a wax-mustachioed hipster in a bright blue shirt approached me with a clipboard in front of the Ed Sullivan theatre. "What are you up to tonight?" he asked, and as soon as I told him nothing, he practically shoved the clipboard in to my hands.
"We've got free tickets for tonight's show," he told me, "You should come!"
He pointed upward at the marquee, its bright lights dimmed in the blinding afternoon sunlight, and offered a grin. It didn't take anything else for me to say yes; I signed up, took my ticket, and set an alarm for three hours later when I was due back for entry.
I've always known who David Letterman was, but being a product of my generation, I wasn't always tuned in. In fact, before I walked in to that theater, I can't confidently say that I'd ever watched a full episode of the show, but one of the many geeky qualities that was seemingly passed down to me from my father was my obsession with late night television. Leno, Letterman and the hosts that my father loved so much might not have been my bag, but I had my set of late night hosts -- Stewart, Colbert, Kimmel and Conan -- so while the show's format didn't surprise me, attending a taping of Letterman gave me an understanding of late night that I'd never really had before.
Here was one of the hosts that had defined late night tv for the modern viewer, and someone who wasn't afraid to hold on to some of the cheesier bits of his past. In fact, the corny segments and dad jokes were some of my favorite parts of the show. Watching Dave work his magic on stage, I honestly began to understand what had made so many viewers follow his work for nearly three decades before that.
Letterman's honest and even heartfelt comedy made him different from the average, cynical late night host: where one would usually laugh at the expense of a horrible politician doing something horrible (again), Dave spent his time playing off of pop culture and turning to everyday people for laughs. From kids with science projects to exotic birds, Letterman's guests were put at ease by a friendly, hilarious voice that guided them through their time on stage in the way only a seasoned host like Letterman could. That desk, that stage, and that audience were his from the moment he stepped out in to the spotlight and up until the very second that he left.
Even now, as he steps away from 6,023 episodes and over 33 years in the business, Letterman has a lasting legacy that will continue for decades to come. His on- and off-stage work has dipped in and out of the growing careers of so many stars, it is hard to recap them all. Thankfully, these comedians, actors, writers, directors, interns, and even cue-card guys came out in full force to talk about the impact that Letterman had on them.
Conan O'Brien, one of Letterman's late night time slot competitors, encouraged his viewers to change the channel and watch David Letterman's final episode.
A living comedy legend herself, Betty White left a loving and slightly coy message for the host:
Comedian Patton Oswalt, known for being about 18 characters on [Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.](tag:722469) and a hilarious talent in his own right, took to Facebook to write a heartfelt message about the impact that Letterman had on him:
I'd never watched much David Letterman in high school. I was aware of him, of course, but for some reason -- probably 'cause I felt like I had a better handle on the world when I was a high school senior rather than a college freshman -- his twilight circus of irony, sweetness, freaks and geniuses didn't call to me.
Now it was all I wanted to know. Up in that attic, pretty much from August of 1987 through May of 1988, I was a Letterman acolyte. I was watching a show where the awkward, outcast and un-confident seemed to be having the time of their lives. Harvey Pekar, Brother Theodore, Pee Wee Herman, Chris Elliott, Flunky the Late Night Clown and, yes, Bill Murray. Everyone had their own rhythm and they didn't care whether or not the world was tuned into it. It was a rebuke to my false idea that, once you were an oddball, you needed to punish the world for it. Letterman thanked his lucky stars for being out of sync with the smooth and beautiful. Smooth and beautiful was a terrific life if you lucked into it, but crooked and weird led to better adventures.
Letterman's first late night guest ever, Bill Murray (who is welcome to party at Moviepilot HQ any time, by the way) decided that the only way to properly honor the late night legend was to pop out of a cake in the middle of Letterman's final show.
The cake, for its part, had "Goodbye, Dave" written on it. Murray chatted with Letterman for a bit, then proceeded to run outside of the studio, covered head-to-toe in cake and singing "More Worldwide Pants" (the name of Letterman's famous production company) to the tune of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance."
This parade of heartbroken celebrities is more than just Hollywood pomp and circumstance, and the overwhelming love on screen was something so palpable, viewers at home could feel it.
I may not be a Letterman kid, but I am a fan of what he has created in late night television. The shows I watch now, and even later this year when Stephen Colbert takes the coveted Late Night desk, were all influenced by a quirky, charming, relatable host who may as well have trademarked the idea of Top Ten lists at this point.
Whether you tuned in every night, or stumbled on to the show once by accident, the legacy of David Letterman is and will continue to be about the refreshing spirit that he brought to late night. Bounding across the stage for his final entrance, the 68-year-old showed us resilience, hilarity, and an honest look at the world that created the winning formula for late night TV as we know it. So, from someone who can't even call herself a casual viewer, I can only say: I know where our roots are, and I'm glad that I happened upon to chance to see Letterman live, just once. Thanks, Dave, for everything.