Funny people pay tribute to David Letterman
Comedians and writers share how retiring late night legend influenced their careers.
Have you heard? David Letterman is retiring!
Of course, you've heard the news: On May 20, the late night legend wraps up 33 years of making people laugh on two different networks, and the parade of guests has been amazing. From presidents to George Clooney to Howard Stern to Julia Roberts to Al Pacino reading the numbers on the Top Ten list, it's been a who's who of superstars and Dave's favorites.
Letterman's influence on late night, and comedy in general, can't be underestimated. As Jason Zinoman discussed at the New York Times, comedy tropes that seem to be second nature now were considered fresh when Dave started doing them. "[T]oday’s hosts still lean heavily on a playbook developed by Mr. Letterman. Any time a show tries something vaguely avant-garde, there’s a good chance that there is an antecedent involving David Letterman," he wrote.
Letterman has influenced so many comedians and top comedy writers, we decided that instead of trying to describe his influence ourselves, we'd ask some of our favorite people to describe how Dave influenced them, both personally and professionally. We scoured the globe and found everyone from a stand-up comedian in Israel to a writer for "Conan" to someone from Letterman's native Indiana. All of them have Dave to thank for their success.
Bill Lawrence, creator of 'Spin City,' 'Scrubs' and 'Cougar Town'
"I used to go by this little coffee place in the morning near New Canaan, Connecticut, because Dave Letterman occasionally stopped there before he got on the Merritt [Parkway] to drive into NYC. He was nice enough to do some stuff for us on 'Spin City.' I always wished I told him: he wasn't just someone I found funny (when I was in high school and college)... He is someone who shaped what I thought funny was. He gave me a comic sensibility."
Benji Lovitt, stand-up comedian
"Letterman was amazing. Only when I was a bit older did I start watching old clips of his '80s shows. Is it fair to say that what Zeppelin is to modern rock, Letterman was to Fallon, Conan and Kimmel? He wasn't interested in softball questions to celebrities as much as just being funny and doing so on his own terms, terms that no one else had ever seen before. Throwing fruit off of rooftops, leaving the studio and talking to regular New Yorkers, oddball appearances by Chris Elliot just to confuse the audience ... there might not be a Letterman without Carson, but there would not be modern-day late-night TV without David Letterman."
Dan Goor, co-creator of 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine'
"If every laugh David Letterman got was turned into a joule of electricity, he could single-handedly have powered Tacoma, Washington, for more than eight months. He is a hero to anyone who's ever managed a mid-sized city's electric grid. And also to anyone who loves comedy."
DeAnn Heine, co-creator of 'The Middle'
"I have always been a huge, huge fan of David Letterman. My parents and aunts all went to Ball State [in Muncie, Indiana] so when David Letterman became famous it was definitely small-town-boy-makes-good and we always followed him. My dad was one of the first people, I think ever, to buy a VCR. It was this absolutely huge hulky thing and he used it to record David Letterman's morning show, and we would watch it together when he got home from work and I remember the show being so hilarious. Stupid pet tricks, small town news – nobody was doing comedy like that, and there was this sense that if you 'got' it, you were cool. I think Dave's humor has always been like that. So subversive that you felt smart for liking it. He truly changed the world of comedy."
Tom Scharpling, former writer for 'Monk' and creator of 'The Best Show With Tom Scharpling'
"I remember watching David Letterman’s mid-morning show before 'Late Night' began. It was crazy and messy and the only thing I can truly recall is a cake being blown up. So when he moved to the 12:30 slot, I watched right from the start. That first episode was one of the most influential things I’ve ever experienced, and his voice and style and dedication to being himself – for better or worse – made a permanent mark on everything that I’ve done creatively for the rest of my life."
Kevin Biegel, creator of 'Cougar Town' and 'Enlisted'
"Letterman has been a part of my life since grade school. That secret language I have with my oldest friends is basically founded on Letterman's gags, sketches and improved lines. I repeat his "maybe you'll get some, maybe you won't" (a line he delivered to an angry monkey in, like, 1985?) on a daily basis. Letterman is hilarious and weird and didn't put up with a lot of s--- and seemed maaaaybe a little pissy in real life? But I like that! I'll take a funny pissy guy over a big fake smile any day."
Rob Kutner, former 'Daily Show' writer, now working on 'Conan'
"David Letterman and his two late-night shows impacted me at three moments. As a kid, my conception of the late-night show was, unsurprisingly, Johnny Carson, and my association was 'That soothingly even-toned guy talking on my parents' bedroom TV when they were all tucked in for the night,' i.e. a sort of easy-listening sleep aid.
"Then one day at a used book store I happened to pick up a book, 'Late Night with David Letterman,' put out by its writers, and it's like my mind exploded. Who were these grownups (!) whose minds were this twisted, sharp and funny? I read that tome and its catalogue of bits over and over, but it wasn't until high school that it took me to the show. Actually, it was, believe it or not, Stupid Pet Tricks. Not the tricks, which were diverting enough. It was the idea of a major nationally televised show openly calling these pet owners and what they'd spent so much time on 'Stupid.'
"It was like this burst of cultural criticism my teenage brain was raring for, and it got me hooked. Finally, in college, as I was beginning to do some of my own comedy writing (for the student humor magazine, theater company and improv troupe), the Top Ten List was my required viewing. I didn't realize it then as I do now writing for 'Conan,' each Top Ten was an architecturally flawless decathlon of comic structure: starting with softer jokes early, layering the insane ones in between protective, more accessible ones, building to a climactic one, then finally coasting back down to Earth with one last, deliberately anti-climactic closer."
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