David Letterman is much older than me. He started doing comedy before my parents even had the necessary equipment to make me, and his show started airing before I had the necessary equipment to make me. But he might be the single biggest external influence in my life.
When I was younger, I used to sit on the arm of my dad’s recliner and beg him to let me watch the Late Show. It was always on, and acted as the only thing I knew about staying up past my bed time. Leno didn’t even exist as far as I was concerned, because CBS was the only channel you watched after the news.
I would occasionally have success with that arm rest. Sometimes because my Dad had fallen asleep and my mom didn’t have the heart to pull me away from him, and other times because there was a guest we were really excited about seeing. But those nights where I was left to ride that past-it’s-prime recliner affected me in ways my very stupid little brain couldn’t possibly comprehend.
In fact, at the time, staying on that arm rest only meant less time in my bed and more time next to my dad. I wouldn’t have cared if he put on videos of cute animals being yelled at, it just mattered that I made it to that arm rest. Which is way David Letterman never crystalized as such an important part of my life until recently.
Depending on who you ask, or what you consider by the word, I’m a professional comedian. I write and act comedy, I occasionally get paid for it, and I own multiple notebooks. If you had asked me who my biggest influence was growing up, I don’t know what I would have told you. There’s really only one moment that comes to mind, and that was my Dad sneaking me into one of Rodney Dangerfield’s last shows in Las Vegas while I was 16. That was a serious game-changer. But it had to have started before then.
I always liked anti-comedy so I thought maybe it was because I watched a lot of Conan and Adult Swim in my formative years. I always wanted things to be weird, make people uncomfortable, and generally amuse myself for the sake of art. I didn’t like safe jokes, and I sure as hell didn’t want anything that made people comfortable.
I also always insisted on wearing sneakers with my suits.
It wasn’t until I got to relive all of Letterman’s greatness in the past year-and-a-half that I realized: I’m just one of thousands of his disciples. Young kids who sat on their dad’s recliner, or alone in front of the TV, and watched this guy do whatever he wanted. He may not have created ironic comedy but he sure as hell perfected it. You can’t watch a single Letterman video on youtube without five more popping up of him making dignitaries uncomfortable, working drive-thru’s poorly, or simply throwing shit off of the roof.
And it never had to be digestible, either. Letterman wasn’t a show that was made for you to enjoy. It was made to see if you enjoyed it, almost like we were all being dared to go watch Leno and not wish there was a bit more edge.
But as much as Letterman has meant to me as a comedian, an idea I’m really just starting to wrap my head around; it’s what he means to me in my life that is really going to tear me apart as he makes his exit.
The arm of that recliner is my favorite place in the world. And in it, through thousands of memories, three things stick out:
1. UCONN basketball games.
2. Michael Jordan in the playoffs.
3. the Late Show with David Letterman.
That’s it. Were there more? Of course. There were countless nights of network drivel, there were times when I’d get to eat a tv dinner and not even have to use a napkin(!!), and there was even one time when I stood up on it and kicked my dad in the dick because I was mad that he wanted me to finish my dinner. (Sorry ’bout that one, Pops)
But there was something inescapable about the Late Show.
It represented something my Dad and I could always bond over, something we’d always have in common, and even more importantly with my last eight years of career choices; it’s been one thing that lets me know that even when my comedy is weird and abstract, that my Dad just might get it and appreciate it. That if my Dad loved Stupid Pet Tricks, and when Letterman would make some off-the-cuff comment that would send his guest into a downward spiral, then he might also love a short film I wrote about living in a bathtub.
David Letterman gave a lot of things to a lot of different people. But to me, his legacy will always be the thing I got to share with my dad for almost thirty years.
And he’s also one of the reasons I’ll be wearing sneakers with my tux when I get married next summer.
As for the recliner, it’s long gone. Replaced by leather couches that no one in our family has ever really taken to. But every now and then, when I’m visiting from across the country, I’ll still sit on the arm of those couches, right next to my Dad. And even if it’s not the same, it’s still my favorite place in the world.
Because that’s where we used to watch Letterman.