In Praise of Letterman: A Musical Top Twenty


With David Letterman’s final Late Show airing on CBS on Wednesday, bringing a close to an unsurpassed thirty-three year career at the forefront of late night, the media over the past week has been full of all things Letterman. There have been tender and laudatory remarks and reminiscences from a whole host of celebrities and, most of all, from his late-night contemporaries and successorsoverviews that have read close to obituaries; and perhaps more than anything else, lots and lots of Top Ten lists. Across all of these, two themes have stood out: Letterman as a comic revolutionary, whose sharp and sometimes caustic wit, dry humour, skewed and often uncomfortable presentation, palpable disdain for celebrity, and innovative and offbeat segments changed the face not only of late night television, but of stand-up comedy throughout North America; and Letterman as a leading champion of alternative music.

I was never an avid follower of the Late Show with David Letterman. Perhaps first and foremost, for much of its life – before YouTube, and the flourishing of streaming sites, proxies, and VPNs – it wasn’t easily accessible in England, where only The Tonight Show has been a routine import, and then across minor channels and fluctuating timeslots. When I lived in Sweden too The Tonight Show was a regular presence, shown on television each day slightly behind its American schedule; but there was only an intermittent place for Letterman. At the same time, it has sometimes seemed hard to square Letterman and his Late Show with their reputation – won by Letterman in his earlier years, as the host of Late Night with David Letterman on NBC between 1982 and 1993, but maintained through to this day – for subversiveness and a radical, punk-rock ethos.

I stayed up here beyond the early hours of Thursday morning to watch Letterman’s farewell. It was an engaging finale, funny and deeply humane though Letterman was typically self-deprecatory and refrained from any overt emotional display. I regret not watching more of his Late Show: the pace and the nature of Letterman’s comedy probably demanded attentive viewing, and while it will be possible still to look back over his work, I intend to quickly catch up on his shows of the past several weeks. Despite my loose engagement, one of the things I continue to admire most about Letterman is his resolute support for two of my favourite artists, Tom Waits and Andy Kaufman.

Kaufman in particular was a frequent guest of Letterman’s throughout his early years as a host, first appearing on the short-lived morning-time The David Letterman Show, which ran on NBC for just four months in 1980. Although he died in May 1984, Kaufman featured prominently on Letterman’s final show via clips and photographs. Looking back over these early appearances, as Kaufman emerges at once snotty and utterly down on his luck, in a neck brace feuding with professional wrestler Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler, or introducing his three black adult adoptees, Letterman’s response is frequently one of mocking exasperation. But given the number of Kaufman’s appearances, Letterman was clearly profoundly fond of his art; and played up a certain wry, irritable, conservative-Midwest aspect of his personality to better contrast with Kaufman and to selflessly enhance each occasion.

Kaufman referred to himself as a ‘song-and-dance man’ rather than a comedian. Song was a continuous facet of his career, whether he was lip-syncing to the Mighty Mouse theme, beautifully impersonating Elvis, or threatening to butcher jazz standards as Tony Clifton, in performances which were at once throwaway and comically futile, awkward and occasionally menacing, but erring on just the right side of a lithe musicality. I have praised some of the music on Letterman’s show in previous posts: discussing the grand tradition of Darlene Love’s ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’; and recently Tom Waits’ sterling 1999 performance of ‘Chocolate Jesus’. Letterman’s love for music – which found centres in the compositions of Warren Zevon and in his explicit interest upon the question of owned or rented drums – was wide-ranging. As a tribute to him, here in chronological order, following on from a remarkable Andy Kaufman rendition of Slim Whitman’s ‘Rose Marie’, are twenty great performances which graced his late-night show.

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And as a bonus, here are two of my favourite Letterman interviews: with Norm MacDonald in 1998, just after Norm was fired from his position as anchor of Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update; and with Louis C.K. at the beginning of this year.