Tuesday, June 16, 2015

(Top) 10 Things About David Letterman — Number Two: The DIY Ethos!

A Little Counting Music, Please ...
Ten ... Nine ... Eight ... Seven ... Six ... Five ... Four ... Three ... Two ... One ... and Good Night

Giant doorknob aside, Letterman's no prop comic — but he knows how to get a laugh with whatever's handy.

The same way he roped staff and neighbors into bit parts on the show, he built legendary routines around items from the studio closet.

Chief among these were the wacky suits.  Letterman had more specialty outfits through the 1980s than Iron Man did in the '90s (and Iron Man had a toy line!).  I could embed suit videos all day, but instead I'll recommend you click here to visit the blog Rediscover the '80s, which has the most comprehensive collection of them I could find.

Dropping things off the roof.  Crushing things with a steamroller or an industrial hydraulic press.  (Breaking things, it turned out, was the perfect pastime for a show breaking the television format.)  Throwing pencils.  Actually taping the show at 4 o'clock in the morning.  Strapping cameras to himself, Paul, guestsaudience members, Vegas showgirlswater hoses, and, yes, monkeys.

The camera was a favorite tool in Letterman's arsenal.  Rather than insisting on its invisibility, he brought the camera to the fore whenever possible, filling interstitials with roller coaster-style Thrill Cam rides and even doing an episode of Late Night where the camera rotated 360° over the course of the show (to many viewers' annoyance).

The one thing these high-concept shows had in common wasn't performance art but something much more low-brow.  These were things you might do if you had a television camera, an audience, and the social capital to ask someone to let you do them.  They were another way Letterman let the audience in on the joke, said joke usually being, "TV is dumb, but it's fun."

On a couple of occasions, he engineered shows where applause determined which gags and props got used. (Consider for a moment how much effort went into taping and having all the unused segments on hand.  These weren't cheap laughs, no matter how it appeared.)  Building the show out of whatever was on hand made having a late-night show feel like something you could (almost) do at home.

Perhaps the best-remembered of these breaking-the-format shows occurred during a 1985 New York City heatwave, when Late Night decided to forego a studio audience and shoot the show in their offices rather than on the set.  I doubt television can break the fourth wall more decisively than this episode, which opens with Letterman reading jokes from his monologue with show writers — to neither audience reaction nor musical cues.  (Paul Shaffer is standing in the hall before they realize he should be making some sort of sound to accompany the zingers.)

Brilliant as these innovations are, they're not why the episode is fondly remembered, largely by middle-aged men.  That honor belong to guest Teri Garr, a staple of Late Night who might be better described as part of the recurring cast than as a recurring guest.  Garr had proven game for many of Letterman's shenanigans, engaging in awkward flirtations that may have been put-ons or may not have.  Whatever lay behind the banter, Letterman bordered on the inappropriate with Garr, one time passing her a note during a taping that became a notorious cornerstone of armchair psychologists' analysis of him.

The creeper-sweet infatuation he cultivated was never funnier than during the heatwave show, when he attempted to convince Garr to take a shower on the program.  Uncomfortable, titillating, and hilarious in ways that build over the course of the hour, this is an episode that could only have existed at the forlorn end of the broadcast day.  In 2015, it retains a surreal quality that might make you think you'd imagined it if it couldn't be found on YouTube.

Coming up:  Number one on our homemade Top Ten list!

— Scott

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