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Dave Ad Nauseam

I feel the need to add an epilogue to my previous post about David Letterman. Watching his final broadcast on Wednesday night filled me with unexpected emotion and nostalgia. His refusal to bow to sentiment both choked me up and made me laugh out loud. From monologue to frenetic closing montage he hit every note with spot-on cynicism and acerbic observation. His reverence for those who worked for him and appreciation for those who watched were pointedly conveyed, yet the show never wallowed in mawkish mire and circumvented every maudlin sand trap. And this coming from someone who had all but given up on him in recent years. His body of work is impressive; that it was typically delivered with dismissive disappointment should not obscure this fact.

I  binge-read the many reviews of his farewell the day after. Most were complimentary, some were not. One writer for the Washington Post opined on how Letterman was among television’s “biggest losers” because he failed to beat Jay Leno in the ratings. I don’t see the logic in this. Yes, people liked Leno .. but to quote Bill Murray in ‘Groundhog Day’ : “People like head cheese. People are morons.” This, it should be noted despite the assertions, was never exactly Letterman’s attitude. He’s been called “mean” more than a few times and after more than six thousand shows he likely was on occasion. But it was not his prevailing sentiment. He was an apt wiseass to be certain and such an awkward interviewer in his younger days that he occasionally fell back on misplaced barbs. His veneration of celebrity was spare; if you weren’t Bob Dylan or Peter O’Toole, you got no free pass. This is perhaps where the “mean” thing came in and separated those who enjoyed Letterman and those who did not. If you felt bad for Justin Bieber when Letterman quipped “Canadian high school” after the kid referred to the Vatican dwelling with Michelangelo ceiling as the “Sixteenth Chapel,” then no, you probably weren’t a fan. If you wished he’d stopped grilling Paris Hilton on her time in “the slammer” when she came on his show to pitch her perfume, he likely wasn’t your cup of tea.

The last decade-plus saw him morph into a tempered incarnation of his former self. Open heart surgery and fatherhood mellowed him. He wore his political leanings on his sleeve, something he’d never have done in the old days. It was perhaps born from a sense of responsibility as a dad, but it alienated some. Most of his old edge was gone. He was too famous for his man on the streets bits with a microphone and his tendency to bite the hand that fed him came with the added realization that he was now an Establishment Figure . But he also became a better interviewer along the way. He learned to listen and wasn’t as quick to interrupt as means of quelling his nerves. He was more thoughtful and reflective, though he never lost the tendency to question his instincts. And he always remained vigilant in questioning fame. The Paris Hilton and Justin Bieber segments referenced above came in recent years. Yeah, he got softer, but he was still Dave.

All of this has been said before, and most of it repeated over the last month. Watching Letterman reject sentimentality at every turn as he bowed out didn’t really register with me until that final show. Then I got it .. why he was so measured in keeping it at bay, why it’s so essential to know how to live in the moment. When it hits you — where you’ve been and how much of it is behind you — there’s never any place to put it. It matters little whether you’re filled with regret or a sense of accomplishment. Nothing stops it from moving forward. In this sense, that final frenetic montage of images spanning his years on both networks and culminating with fireworks exploding from the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theater was perfect. The still frames came at the viewer so fast that some could only be registered on a subconscious level, stopping to pause selectively on shots of Warren Zevon or Larry Bud Melman. And after that it was over. You didn’t see him taking any final bows. It was done, completed, finished.

Letterman understood television and television is now dead. The device remains and is more affordable and technologically advanced than ever. And there are still networks and talk shows and commercials. But now it’s about going viral; it’s about the next day, and the clicks, and the ads, and the traffic. Late Night and The Late Show evolved, not just over the course of decades, but even within individual programs. But something about evolution and its conveyance has changed — something barely perceptible and beyond the obvious. You have to be of age to see it and the very fact that you are makes you suspect. Penn Jillette said that two things have always been true: One, the world is always getting better, and two, the people living at that time think it’s getting worse. I looked it up on the Internet and you can do the same.

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