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Indiana Nights

Not to play the hackneyed “boy am I old” card, (in the words of the immortal Hank Kingsley “fuck it, let’s face it — I am“) but I remember when David Letterman had a morning show on NBC. It spanned the summer of 1980 lasting just four months, but was a precursor to his best work starting two years later on the same network: Late Night With David Letterman. He was just starting to cut his teeth on what would become some of the best improvisational bits on ‘Late Night,’ and the failures were as compelling as the hits. I can recall him taking a camera into the hall at NBC and riffing on the choices in one food vending machine, including a suspicious looking hot soup called “Beefy Mac” That was as much of a set-up as he required. Letterman had a genuine air of danger — hard as that is to imagine today and as much as any gap-toothed Hoosier might. It could have gone either way at the end of those four months. Luckily someone at the network saw fit to giving him another shot. He came on after Carson; well past most of middle America’s bedtime but prime viewing for college kids and other folks inclined to burn the midnight oil. He also ran parallel with the rise of the VCR (‘Video Cassette Recorder’ for those of the Jimmy Fallon set) making it possible to check the show out the following day. This was something Johnny didn’t have for most of his career.

We all fight getting old. One of the more obvious traps is the tendency to believe, or worse yet proclaim, that things were “better in our day.” Age breeds delusion; this is true. Yet I maintain that I have decent perspective on some things. Television, particularly the episodic variety, is better now than it used to be.  HBO and Netflix offer some of the best stuff going, arguably better than mainstream cinema. Movies aren’t bad either and the quality of box office film (despite the very term ‘film’ being mostly a misnomer nowadays) is as good as it was thirty years ago. There’s great live music out there if you’re inclined to find it. The Internet has forced even older musicians to work on their chops because live performance is where their bread is now buttered. Sports are every bit as compelling and, living in New York, it’s evident that plays and stage productions are thriving. Books (or their modern equivalent) are holding their own. Just because words are more easily disseminated doesn’t stop the cream from rising to the top. That culture is circling the drain is largely myth. There’s just more junk clogging the pipes than there used to be.

But Jimmy Fallon is no David Letterman. I mention Fallon because he’s the new king of late night ratings. Meaningless as this might seem in an era where network television is becoming passé, it still says that the bulk of ‘relevant’ TV watchers — those eighteen to thirty-four — find something compelling enough about Fallon to tune in on a regular basis. And this, if you’ll excuse my “get off my lawn” moment, is something I don’t get. I understand his appeal as a high-energy, good looking young guy. But when he stood up on his desk to do his “Oh Captain, my Captain” bit in tribute to Robin Williams, something inside me just said “no.” I have to be fair here .. part of it is that he’s too young, and was only fifteen when “Dead Poet’s Society” (a film I’d never consider a ‘highlight’ of Williams’ career) came out. But he’s not that young. At forty Fallon is now well past Letterman’s age at inception. There’s just something about the guy that’s too earnest, too polished, too glib.

Put another way, Carson was Fallon’s age now when he had his classic “Tonight Show” moment with Ed Ames throwing a tomahawk. I wasn’t even born yet, so claiming it for my generation would be wrong. But watching it as a kid on the anniversary specials, I knew that there was something instinctively cool about Johnny, even if I didn’t get the “I didn’t know you were Jewish” reference. There was something very adult about the show, like the kind of conversations you heard listening through your bedroom wall, emanating from the cocktail party that your parents were throwing in the living room. Fallon, I’m going out on an old guy’s limb to say, has no such mystique. It’s all cuteness, overplayed reverence for his older guests, and hair gel. It’s Youtube clips and Twitter references. And it’s Jimmy and Jennifer Lopez in a “Tight Pants” skit. Yeah, he’s of the correct demographic .. but he sure ain’t Johnny or Dave.

Not to bust exclusively on Jimmy Fallon. He is a talent, and his guitar-playing impersonations of Springsteen and Neil Young are on the money. Letterman could never have pulled this off and wisely never tried. But what Dave could do in spades and in his prime was man on the streets bits, armed only with a camera and microphone. Watching him gently badger the proprietor at an NYC retail outlet called “Just Shades” that sells only lamp shades is vintage Dave. “But seriously ..what, what can you get besides shades here?” This was the slightly less gentle host; the one who was willing to make regular folks, and most particularly pompous celebs and those in positions of power, look almost foolish. He replayed a clip the other night from eighteen years back on tax day, asking how many guys dressed in bunny suits can you get into an H&R Block? It was the kind of bit he shied away from in later years and it resulted in a middle aged office manager getting rather physical with one of the extras. “We later found out that was ‘R’ Block,” he quipped after the replay. “H is fine.”

Letterman has a handful of shows left before signing off next week, and the run-up to the finish has been solid. He’s become a better interviewer in his later days and this has offset losing some of his edge. Don Rickles and Howard Stern were on the other night and Rickles, while still sharp at eighty-nine, seemed to fail to realize that he had only one segment. He spent it praising Stern and saying next to nothing about the departing Letterman. (Who knows .. perhaps he did realize it and it was a stroke of brilliance.) None of it seemed to bother Dave, who lately seems like a man comfortable with his body of work — and ‘comfortable’ is not the first word that comes to mind with Letterman. But his discomfort served him well, too, and I wouldn’t mind seeing some of it spread around after he’s gone.

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