For me, Late Night With David Letterman wasn’t just a show. It was a problem. When Late Night premiered on NBC in February 1982, I was a ninth-grader living in Las Vegas with parents who saw no good reason to spend $400 on anything, let alone a VCR. Every school night, I watched with the kind of simmering fervor described in newspaper profiles of teens who run away from home to fight for ISIS. First period started at 7:35 AM, but Dave was more important than sleep.
I revealed my nightly ritual to no one until the day my excellent Grandpa Sal asked, “Have you seen this guy Letterman? He’s great.” I agreed and engaged in the first of what would be many enthusiastic discussions about this strange and wonderful program. (Dave called it a “program.”)
On the day I turned 16, I blew out candles on a Late Night birthday cake. I had “L8NITE” vanity plates on my first car. Dave smoked cigars, so I smoked cigars. When NBC allowed a pre-emption of Friday Night Videos, I assembled a small group of like-minded Lettermanerds for quiet viewing parties that helped to cement my virginity for years to come.
Everything about the show was odd, original and new. Johnny never strayed from the stage. Dave went out on the street! He threw chilled melon from the roof of a building. He crushed things with a steamroller. In a segment titled “Alan Alda — a Man and His Chinese Food,” Dave learned that Alan enjoys string beans and soup. Magic was happening in the middle of the night.
This was a show that anyone could be a part of — no professionalism required. “Real” people like audio technician Al Frisch, stage manager Biff Henderson and neighborhood souvenir shop salesmen Mujibur and Sirajul brought a sense of legitimate bewilderment no one had seen on television before.
The show’s recurring characters ranged from intentionally to unintentionally ridiculous. Kathleen the Bookmobile Lady. Dave’s “brother” Kenny. Gruff but lovable Old Gus. Flunkie the Late Night Clown. An early favorite was Larry “Bud” Melman, a genuinely clueless part-time actor whose primary ability was an inability to act, read or do anything at all.
Best of all was the brilliant Chris Elliott, a writer-turned-performer who specialized in grotesque impersonations of Marv Albert, Jay Leno and hostile characters, most notably “The Guy Under the Seats”, who ended every bit by threatening to make Dave’s life “a living hell.”
Things that shouldn’t have been funny were. There was audience fish-cleaning night. There was a crouton toaster. There was a giant doorknob. (“It’s just plain big.”) Awkward moments were great moments. It was all so different. Not only wasn’t Dave phony with his guests, he seemed downright suspicious of and possibly even ashamed to be seen with them. Some guests he tormented. Some tormented him. A visit from Teri Garr felt like a nervous blind date. A visit from Jack Hannah challenged the very institution of zookeeping. A visit from Richard Simmons was jumpy, oily, curly—and brought to mind circus-themed sexual assault. The best guests were the worst guests, those who either didn’t get it or didn’t like it: Bryant Gumbel, Nastassja Kinski, Cher, Harvey Pekar—all exquisitely uncomfortable.
One night I nodded off in front of the TV and missed what was sure to be a contentious interview with Shirley MacLaine. When I woke up, I was despondent. We had no Hulu, no YouTube and, thanks to my parents, no VCR. The moment was gone forever and I missed it.
I never missed it again. I stayed up late. I had to stay up. Anything could happen. Dave had a bad neck! The writers were celebrities to me. Steve O’Donnell, Merrill Markoe, George Meyer, Jim Downey, Gerry Mulligan, Andy Breckman, Sandy Frank, Joe Toplyn, Ted Greenberg, Rich Hall, Matt Wickline, Jeff Martin, David Yazbek, Tom Gammill and Max Pross. I didn’t have to google these names. Thirty years later, they’re still burned into the credit roll on my brain, along with that of his great director Hal Gurtner. (“It’s Gurnee Dave.”)
The first time I saw Dave in person was in 1984. My uncle Vinny got tickets to the show and drove me into the city. It cost $19 to park. My uncle gave the guy a $20 and told him to keep the change. Dave wore a light blue suit that night, which he hadn’t before and—to my knowledge—hasn’t since. His guests were Gilda Radner and Jay Leno. I remember little of what happened. It was all a beautiful blur. After the show, I went to the gift shop and spent all my money on a Late Night hat for my grandfather and sweatshirts for all my friends.
Fifteen years later, the Late Show booked me as a guest, and I was both terrified and thrilled. Mostly terrified. Including the births of my children, this was the biggest moment of my life. I traveled from Los Angeles to New York and, on the day of the show, called my best friend (now-bandleader) Cleto. I paced nervously while we talked about how mind-bogglingly crazy it was that, after all these years, I was going to sit down next to David Letterman.
That night, Roseanne was the lead guest. She went long. A producer signaled my agent into the hall. They had to bump me. I didn’t mind. It felt like a pardon from the governor. Six months later, I was rebooked. This time, I made it to the guest chair, and—thank God—it went well. After the show, producer Maria Pope assured me that Dave really, really, no-kidding-around, I-rarely-see-him-like-this liked me and, though I was absolutely certain she was lying, I was ecstatic. After all, this was the guy who taught me to smoke.
As I write this, there are only 10 shows left before the funniest, most inventive and smartest man who ever wore an Alka Seltzer suit goes fishing for good. None of us who discovered Dave on our own and claimed him as our own will ever be able to satisfactorily explain to the younger people who didn’t what he did, what he meant and what he means. I guess it doesn’t matter. It’s only an exhibition, not a competition.
Thanks Dave. For whatever it’s worth, you’re my favorite.
(And Paul, I love you too.)
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 25, 2015 issue of TIME.
- What a Photographer Saw in the West Bank
- Accenture’s Chief AI Officer on Why This Is a Defining Moment
- Inside COP28's Big 'Experiment'
- U.S. Doctors Can't Be Silent About Gaza: Column
- The Movie Wives Would Like a Word
- The 100 Must-Read Books of 2023
- The Top 100 Photos of 2023
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time