Letterman: Signature, circa 1981.
“I think I’m just nervous all the time. I’m never really relaxed.”
Late in 1981, Dave Letterman was the age that I am now, 34. His nationally televised morning show, The David Letterman Show, had been cancelled by NBC. When he sat down for this intensely personal interview on a short-lived CBS Cable program called Signature, he was a few months away from taping the first episode of a brand new type of program, Late Night with David Letterman, displacing Tom Snyder’s 12:30AM Eastern time show, Tomorrow Coast to Coast.
Before Late Night would come to define the era, before the man who would finagle his way onto our TV sets night-in-and-night-out for an astounding thirty-three years, outlasting his mentor and all his competitors, hosting more guests for more years than anyone in television history, before repeatedly touching the zeitgeist with segments never-before-seen-on-television, segments groundbreaking in their strangeness, in their whimsy, in their stupidity, in their contribution to the art form, Dave Letterman sat down for a soft-spoken interview filmed in close-up and allowed himself to get as personal as the world would ever seen him.
Though he’d clearly been humbled by the loss of his first nationally-televised program, the elements of future versions of David Letterman are all there. He’s self-deprecating to a fault. He’s quick to speak, self-consciously explaining, “Anything you hear that sounds like a set up, you feel obligated to fill in the punchline.” And yet, he’s clearly as nervous as he’d ever be. His hands cover his face for much of the interview.
This moment in his career is most inspiring to me. When he missed the opportunity in 1992 to host The Tonight Show, while many have correctly pointed to that debacle as character building, as the catalyst that turned Dave into the misunderstood underdog of late night, I don’t think it was as hard for Dave to dust himself off and charge forward following the seemingly massive missed opportunity thanks, in part, to his experiences a decade earlier. In losing his morning show in 1980 and going without work for most of 1981, Dave learned a valuable lesson in resilience. His toughness was formed in these early flounderings where good content failed in the wrong forum. And in watching this twenty minute clip, understanding this may well be a low point, I’ve drawn inspiration to find my own grit, to face life more fearlessly, and to understand that failure happens. It’s what we do with failure that defines us.
As Dave signs off tonight for the last time as the host of The Late Show, it’s my hope that in his ride at sunset, he glances back, if only for a moment and realizes how far he’s come, appreciates the endurance that got him here: a real American boy fully living out the American Dream.