Everybody Has a Top Ten Today

(I consider this an addendum to my thoughts on the death of the “old” late night television and the departure from late night of my favourite host Craig Ferguson, which I made in December. So read that if you want a full preamble.

For a briefer preamble: In it, I wrote “Yes, historically speaking, David Letterman’s retirement next year is probably more important (than Ferguson’s last show) since he probably is more responsible for the 12:35am aesthetic than he’s comfortable admitting as a man who wanted to desperately be (Johnny) Carson’s spiritual successor instead.” That’s a big part of why David Letterman is important.)

We live in an age where we have a list for everything. However, David Letterman was doing Top Tens before Top Tens became a well-worn cliché. So we (the “we” in this case is “the Internet”) can be forgiven for all blithely throwing up a Top Ten list to commemorate David Letterman’s 4,263rd episode of Late Show, 6,082nd late night program overall (minus guest hosting duties) and final late night gig of all.

So here’s my Top Ten Favourite David Letterman moments. They’re arguably not the best and it’s nowhere near comprehensive because I cut my late night fandom teeth on his Late Night successor. Nonetheless, here they are:


AN HONOURABLE MENTION: You’ll note that none of Dave’s more infamously confrontational interviews are included; my humour scale tends not to respond to the embarrasment factor. But it’s worth mentioning that their value was at their highest when Dave either thought the guest took themselves too seriously or he had little respect for the guest’s “accomplishments.” It’s a peek into Letterman’s insight when Paris Hilton told him she didn’t want to talk about her time in jail and how he responded. People (rightly) pilloring Letterman for his faults could produce just as much humour.

10 – “Did You Bring Any Mace?,” May 14, 2015, The Late Show
In the interest of acknowledging there’s a recency bias, I’ll put this on the list but leave it at ten. Late night TV works great when you have some sort of motley combination of folks: having gravelly-voiced Tom Waits as guest with an American mainstream sweetheart, George Clooney, standing by works for this reason, while it also serves the purposes of watching three entertainment vets have a chuckle. Clooney handcuffed himself to Dave in an earlier segment in a gag designed to express his disappointment with Letterman’s retirement (“You’re not going anywhere!”). To their credit, they saw the gag through to the episode’s end. Watching Clooney’s delayed reaction to Waits’ tire business joke tickles my pun-loving funny bone.

9 – “It Seems to Me Like You’re Changing Your Style a Bit…,” , Late Night, October 2, 1986
The first of three ’86 moments on this list, this features one of Letterman’s most celebrated featured players from his NBC days impersonating Dave’s most frequent NBC guest in a bit that demonstrates Dave’s most frequently celebrated quality: the “anti talk show” approach. Chris Elliott pokes fun at all of Jay Leno’s predictable delivery points but Dave is quick to immediately deconstruct the bit on the spot and somehow only adds to its humour. Elliott would return two weeks later with Leno himself to deliver a great callback punchline to the routine.

8 – “My Favourite Band Playing My Favourite Song…,” February 21, 2000, Late Show
It’s a strange entry for me to put a musical performance on here because a) it’s not Dave doing anything and b) I could really take or leave the Foo Fighters after their first couple of albums (and this was recorded right as their plunge into mediocrity was already in tilt). But anyone that was in high school/college in the late-90s remembers the power-pop-rock perfection that was The Colour and The Shape, and obviously Letterman loved the signature single.

Letterman was #2 (or 3) in the ratings from 1995 on, but there was a gravitas to Dave that made his coming back from heart surgery in 2000 a much bigger deal than if it had been anyone else. What makes this stand out is that the band didn’t just fly back from South America to play it…they played the hell out of it. For all of the times Letterman was (and is) a jerk where his rivals weren’t, those that did feel warm feelings about him were 100% sincere about it and it came through in their performances. I still kind of get a little goosebump when the synth kicks in and Grohl says, like a giddy eight-year old, “Paul Schaffer!”

7 – “You Need a Ride to the Airport?,” September 24, 2008, The Late Show
Right-wingers say Dave went downhill when “he got political” and believe it or not, I actually agree. Not because of any leanings on my behalf, but because I don’t think Dave did partisan humour well (especially given what his successor was doing in the same timeslot on cable). But what Dave did do well, when he was on, was make fun of the general absurdity of the power politics of everyday life (also see #4). Which is why his takedown of John McCain was a return to form.

We’ve probably all been stood up for a false reason at some point in our life (many of us are also probably guilty of same). What’s interesting about this clip is that Dave really gets across over the course of the show how much his initial admiration of McCain informs his disappointment when John bails on him that way. The fact that noted left-wing pundit Keith Olbermann just so happens to be Dave’s substitute for McCain as the Couric interview is unfolding is like an extra layer of delicious wickedness.

6 – “As You Can Tell, Andy Kaufman’s is Here, Sorta…,” July 29, 1982, Late Night
This is a “my favourite” list, not “best,” and since I’m a wrestling fan, I’m biased and this makes the list. Jerry Lawler and Kaufman decided to go “off page,” as it were, in one of the most important moments in pro wrestling history and shockingly enough, a formative moment in Letterman’s career. I think it would have been memorable TV regardless of the host but Dave handled it with a coolhanded flippancy that surpasses how any of his contemporaries would have. Also, his little quip at 14:55 (that doesn’t even draw a huge laugh in and of itself) is maybe my favourite Dave one-liner, giving you a clever reference to late night history to that point…

5 – “How Did You Get This Job, By the Way…?,” February 28, 1994, Late Night
I wish the whole appearance was on the webs right now but it isn’t. But I’m a big Conan O’Brien fan and anyone born before 1985 probably remembers the reaction to him getting the job to succeed Letterman on NBC’s Late Night: “Who the hell is this guy, why’s he so nervous and when is he going to get funny?” But a lot of our generation thought there was potential, and getting Dave’s blessing was an enormous step forward. Given that Letterman’s production company was already planning a rival program, he didn’t have to do that, but typically Dave wasn’t good at hiding things that he hated– or things he liked. (A lesser remembered appearance is here— with another quick Dave’esque zinger at 0:49 and an oddly prescient statement about Conan’s future).

4 – “This is Gonna Be Fun to Work with These People, Isn’t It?…,” April 8, 1986, Late Night
If you want to know why Dave “jumped the shark” in the late 90s or early 2000s, it was most notably because he stopped doing remotes. And this one was hands down the most intentionally and unintentionally genius one that he ever did. When he delivered a fruit basket to the headquarters of new NBC owner General Electric, he all at once poked fun at the general hassles of bureaucracy, at how conglomeration created bosses and owners isolated from their employees, and at his own “bite the hand” mentality that would ultimately cost him The Tonight Show. Not like it was the last time he’d do this. And certainly not the first…

3 – “…and I’m Not Wearing Pants,” August 19, 1985, Late Night/Today Show
#2 is Dave at his “elder statesmen” best. This is Dave at his “voice of the young comic generation” best. (He was my age at the time, so I may be trying to overinterpret 38 as young– wishful thinking?). Anyone that made a point to stay up to watch the “hip” Letterman probably also considered The Today Show as overhyped anathema and Dave capitalized on it all too well. It’s probably also no coincidence in Dave’s mind that just as NBC would repeat itself in his universe with seemingly absurd TV-think, they would be equally redundant handling their morning flagship.

2 – “Don’t Blame Conan,” January 19, 2010, Late Show
Mix Letterman’s blessing of O’Brien as his successor in #5, his proclivity for poking fun at invisible network bosses in #4/#3 and his sourness at losing his dream job to the comedian cited in #9 and…voila! If you can forgive the excessive Paul Schaffer interventions in this desk bit, you’ll recognize it as a pivotal moment in Dave’s status as late night’s elder statesman.

It’s impossible to mention Letterman’s careers without also referencing Jay Leno’s. By all accounts, more people watched Leno and we should like Leno better: a faithful husband with gentle comedy and a kind exterior. Still, there was always something…off…about Jay to those that considered themselves more seasoned comedy fans. You felt like for better or worse, you knew Dave, but you didn’t really know Jay.

Dave works that to his advantage here and again does what he does best: deconstruction. The furor over NBC trying to elbow Jay Leno back into 11:35pm, and Leno’s apparent overwillingness to surrender to the corporate structure that drove Dave crazy, kicked off a glorious (if not also redundant) week of high-level Letterman bitching about Jay and NBC. What makes the bit brillant is that Dave doesn’t focus on Jay’s alleged selfishness, he instead focuses on a seemingly innocuous statement (“don’t blame Conan”), dissects its absurdity and divulges what he sees as the personality flaw that informs that statement. Dave would be the cranky old man before and after this, but this was one of the times he was a particularly astute cranky old man.

1 – “The Arbitration,” June 27, 1986, The Tonight Show
Yes, I’m being ironic by making the number one entry something from the show that got away from Dave…but most times when people praise Letterman, it’s for his anti-humour-humour, his diffusing of normal celebrity sycophantism, general curmudgeonry and his widespread influence.

But this is just straight-up clever and funny Dave: bantering with his late-night idol and delivering a hilarious comedy premise that works on YouTube today, worked on television in the 80s and would have easily worked on radio in the 30s (or the stage in any era). Tonight’s Late Show may mark the end of a run for a TV host that was of his time, but there was certainly a spark there that carried beyond his years.

I’m sure he’ll enjoy his retirement like anyone of his vintage should: with a big, big bottle of alka seltzer.

It’s a Bittersweet Day in America, Everybody

It’s hard to imagine how unbelievably worked up America got almost five years ago when NBC attempted to rearrange its late night television universe and Conan O’Brien stiffly rebuked its suits. Especially when you consider one of O’Brien’s public rationales for doing it.

Conan didn’t technically get kicked off of The Tonight Show (though it’s often remembered that way). Instead, he walked away because he essentially didn’t feel like hosting a show any time other than 11:30(ish) PM was the gig he signed up for. In other words, he still really valued the concept of The Tonight Show.

It was almost enough to make entertainers in the minority opinion (at least at the time) want to shake Conan and say what Jerry Seinfeld said not too long after: “‘There is no tradition! (After 16 years), you should get it: there are no shows! It’s all made up!.'” Seinfeld’s sentiment was echoed by David Letterman’s former producer Peter Lassally in the early 1990s. Lassally is quoted in the legendary 1990s book The Late Shift as having to verbally browbeat into David Letterman’s head that Johnny Carson’s ubitquious Tonight Show didn’t exist anymore.

Even transferable titles like The Tonight Show, The Late Show and so on seem arbitrary and a pandering attempt to create a simulacra of transferrable tradition where no transferability exists. Yet they are oddly enforced in our consciousness: Seth Meyers is presented as “the fourth host of NBC’s Late Night” despite no retention of bits between the show’s four hosts. Seinfeld would later say he didn’t see himself (as a guest) doing these shows but just “doing Jimmy’s show, Jay’s show” and so on and so on. And moreover, isn’t the TV audience of the future timeshifting everything anyway?.**

**Full disclosure: I consider myself a Conan O’Brien fan. Still, I don’t feel like his show is a “late night thing” to me. It can be if I so choose to be. However, there’s nothing about watching Clueless Gamer (which is outright hysterical, by the way) that evokes a sense of time, even if it entertains me. Funnily enough, Conan’s early earnest, though often fumbling attempts on NBC did evoke the late night feeling much more, at least for me.

Yet people have fought about, written about, and argued about the legacy of late night network television as though it was something important. As Louis Menand wrote for The New Yorker in 2010 (referring to Carter’s Late Shift followup), reading about the “late night wars” “can sometimes feel we are reading about the Battle of Stalingrad.”

Hey everybody, remember Greg Kinnear?

This isn’t important either, but it’s just an aesthetic opinion: I feel like the last true network “late night” show airs tonight. Not at the coveted 11:35p slot but at 12:35a.

Why It’s a Bittersweet Day in America (If You Like Late Night Talk Shows, That Is)
Tonight, the last episode of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (with Lassally serving as Executive Producer since 2009 and with Leno as Craig’s final guest) airs. And yes, that marks the death of late-night television for me. Or that is to say, the death of late night as I knew it.

Let me first clarify that this is not meant as a disparaging comment towards any current crop of late night hosts, be they major network or otherwise. Each has their own talents. Yet, as stated above about O’Brien, their shows seems like the same time-shiftable material any variety program would offer. Craig Ferguson, in all of his glorious, semi-improvised Scottish splendour, was the last to feel like his show was genuinely meant to be late night. His was a show you were supposed to stumble into after a late-night of trivia at the bar (or an early night at the bar for anything else, I suppose).

I came upon Ferguson’s version of The Late Late Show several years after its inauspicious start. By complete happenstance, as I laid my head down on the pillow at 12:35AM (roughly), I flipped to CBS and saw this. It was, suffice to say, quite random and quite absurd.

It was….well, it was almost 1 in the morning and it felt that way.

Thus the great irony in the tagline that Craig Ferguson would regularly drop in his monologues on The Late Late Show: “It’s a great day in America, everybody!” (emphasis all mine). The irony being this: If any late-night talk show host still lives up to being a late night talk show host in terms of aesthetic (if nothing else), Craig Ferguson is it. “It’s a great late night in America” would have been a more fitting salutation, even if every late night talk show is filmed in the day (something that Craig didn’t mind reminding you about…a lot). We’ve come through an age where viewers upped their time-shifting massively. Only now, they’re gradually being swayed back to being more time-intensive viewers by fear of being spoiled by social media.** But talk shows (not celebrated as a “high social” form of viewing anymore) may just be immune to the tidal shift back because there’s not too much to spoil, unless a talk show host has an incredibly au courant level of social confession to make.

*Flying back to Canada on Wednesday night, this Survivor watcher needed to avoid Twitter for awhile until he could get caught up on the Season 9 finale

Full disclosure #2: Yes, I’m being a fanboy with this blog entry because some stuff will be written about Ferguson’s exit, but not nearly as much as the usual 11:35pm dramas. Yes, historically speaking, David Letterman’s retirement next year is probably more important since he probably is more responsible for the 12:35am aesthetic than he’s comfortable admitting as a man who wanted to desperately be Carson’s spiritual successor instead. And yes, last night’s overly-celeb-stuffed exit by Stephen Colbert before he succeeds Letterman probably underscores the grandiosity of that timeslot. But folks, Craig Ferguson is, and soon-to-be-was, a helluva late night talk show host.


Ferguson has all the redundancies of catchphrases and repetitive “oh my show is so cheap” self-depreciation, but buried within that was more distinct and original comedy than anyone else. Most late night talk show hosts essentially recycle the same monologue for 4-5 nights in a row, just changing the wording about each item they plan to joke about. Craig Ferguson delivers a completely different monologue on a completely different subject each night he hosts. He reads emails and Tweets from his viewers every night: the same “sketch” but because the viewers are different, he can change his riffs as he pleases. So there’s just general talent on display.

But there’s also an undeniable feeling that his show belongs in your queue as the last stop before you sleep. I’ve always been fascinated by late night talk show hosts, but not so much late night talk show guests: especially when it was obvious they’d rehearsed “bits” masquerading as interviews or were simply plugging the usual project. Craig Ferguson had the raw audacity to just…chat…with his guests. So charming was he at just disarming his guests to forget about plugging and just talk, that to look up “Craig Ferguson flirts”, which seemed to result from nothing more than Ferguson actually displaying some level of interest in the person rather than the actress/etc., yields a plethora of YouTube compilations.**

**Lest you think this informality only lent itself to the frivolous…who’da thunk a late night talk show host would pull this Peabody winning performance off.

Late night talk shows always struck me as the metaphorical greasy spoon diners of television: if it’s too fancy, you’re doing it wrong. When I first saw Craig’s show, I thought “this man is interviewing big celebs and is probably paid millions, but this doesn’t seem too fancy. This is what I want right now.”

To be fair, Ferguson (or perhaps more accurately, his producers) always flirted with the dangers of success in a way that threatened to deprive his show of its diner’esque charm. I used to use his show as an example to my GSTV students of how you can accomplish a lot in a small studio space…then his studio got bigger. His was the last late night show to go HD…it was long overdue but could have felt like a betrayal of the “oh, this late at night we can’t be fancy. He decided to counteract this with the best possible cold open for a “this ain’t Letterman’s budget even though Letterman’s company pays me” show. When his robotic sidekick Geoff began to develop more than a ten-word vocabulary, it seemed to counter what his invention was meant to deconstruct (how the role of late-night sidekick could theoretically be reduced to monosyllabic metaphorical bootlicking that “even a robot” could do)…instead, it ended up reaffirming the character as a sidekick that was, in fact, genuinely hilarious.

Even his theme song seemed like it should stay primitive rather than epic…but I never stopped singing along even when its recording got shinier.

He also brought a pathos to his show that seemed oddly fitting for his timeslot also. Again, emotional confessions and sober second thoughts are hardly the private reserve of the night hours, but something about when Ferguson got serious evoked that late-night diner chat you had with an old friend that was “getting real with you for a second” over that last cup of coffee you shouldn’t have ordered. Rather than take the day off or take a moment and move on regarding his parents’ passings, he memorably eulogized each of them. You felt like you were the last one Craig was speaking to after all of the funeral services.

In many ways, I feel sad to have missed out on the first airing of arguably the absolute highlight on the serious side of the ledger: a memorable explanation of why he wouldn’t joke about Britney Spears’ public troubles in 2007. He managed to come across self-effacing, life-affirming and completely non-judgmental in his “getting real” moment about struggling with addiction. But it did prompt me to immediately turn to him for the sober second thought (even as his audience was laughing) about Charlie Sheen in 2011.

So in synopsis:
– When Craig Ferguson talked to his guests (and his audience), it didn’t feel canned. It felt like a postbar chat with his chums.
– His actual brand of comedy, particularly to open the show, had an upscale cable access aesthetic simultaneously contradicting his stature yet fitting his timeslot.
– He managed to capture this aesthetic while being the host most blatantly lampshading when his episodes are actually recorded.
– He was using puppets, costumed characters, a “lesbian row”, and for gosh sake’s, he gave his timeslot “rival” kittens as a Christmas present
– His show enders…the best ‘last call’ concept for a TV show you could want (no offense to Carson Daly), even their odd anticlimaticism befit the genre.

That’s why it’s a bittersweet day in America, everybody. There are many talented comedians whose shows happen to air late at night, but really it’s all a DVR webfest for me.** The old late night is dead. Dave, turn the lights off when you leave the room, K?

**The irony of commemorating Ferguson’s timestamp value by linking online footage…not even remotely lost on me. They’re entertaining any time of day but best enjoyed between the hours of 12:35a-3:35am…just one man’s opinion.