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Dave Con Edge

I was watching a vintage 1998 Letterman episode last night – further proof that one of the unforeseen dimensions of the writer’s strike is the opportunity presented to viewers to re familiarize themselves with a time when the writing sucked less. Or perhaps it was Letterman himself, as every ten years puts a notable dent in anyone’s ability to do whatever they do, be it professionally or otherwise. This is why I’ve never decided to strike, officially speaking, and stop writing this page. Oh sure, there have been a lot of behind the scenes, high level interventions when I’ve threatened to quit, but for the most part the decision to push on has been my own.

But back to Letterman and this ’98 show. It wasn’t so much that the words were better, but that the ideas and execution were both tighter and chancier. He did a remote segment from an LA rooftop featuring “Casey Kasem’s Countdown to Dick Clark’s Rockin’ Countdown to December 18th.” The piece worked well on several premises- both the ridiculousness of televised countdowns and the fact that, on the countdown ladder, Kasem is one rung below the once ageless Mr. Clark. (Dick was a spry 69 in ’98 and looked as well preserved as a fresh Christmas pear.) Dave also did an audience participation segment during which he began an anti-Disney rant that lasted the rest of the show. Even in apologizing for his remarks after coming back from the break, he showed hints of the Letterman of old, railing on how the corporate giant had ruined Times Square by converting it from an authentically sleazy, hooker-laden outpost to a Mickey Mouse themed miniature golf course. This willingness to bite the feeding hand seems notably absent in the post 9-11 Letterman as do any references to New York being anything less than “the greatest city on earth” as the refrain goes in every current Late Show opening. (It was once changed nightly and featured irreverent quips like “From New York, where it’s never a good idea to buy loose Milk Duds ..”)

The show wrapped with an Angelina Jolie interview and a musical segment. Where the current elder statesman and late in life father Dave would likely kiss Ms. Jolie’s hand and comment excessively on her obvious beauty, the younger Letterman was awkward, stilted and unprepared, making unwelcome reference to Jolie’s personal life and her showbiz father (from whom she’d been long estranged.) The 23 year old Jolie was visibly uncomfortable and didn’t wait until they cut to commercial to rise and walk away (Letterman: “oh-there she goes..”) But the segment had a certain brilliance and awkward sexual tension. It was this very discomfort that used to fuel Letterman, and often resulted in brilliant, risky improvisation. He still shows hints of it, as in a solidly edgy Paris Hilton segment from earlier this year where he pathologically refused to change the subject from her recent stint in jail. But the 2007 version of Letterman is far more inclined to make nice than he used to be. Truth be told, even the ’98 incarnation was noticeably mellower and Merv Griffinesque than ten years prior to that. If Letterman hadn’t switched networks, this would be reason alone to hope the writers hold out even longer: old NBC re-runs. As the young Tom Petty so aptly put it: “God it’s such a drag when you’re livin’ in the past.” (12/11/07)

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