When I was a kid, and times like 11:30 and midnight held this air of far-away mystery, I thought The Tonight Show literally went on all night. Johnny Carson would come on after the late news and usher us through the evening into morning. Undoubtedly this was fueled by drifting off to sleep and waking up to see The Tonight Show on the TV, and my still-forming sense of time assuming hours must have passed rather than just a handful of minutes. But it led to me viewing Carson as a comforting presence, one whose arrival meant things were going to be all right, that the night could safely go on.
If Carson was the wise-cracking nightlight who joked us off to sleep, David Letterman was the smart-ass wake-up call. By the time Letterman’s post-Carson talk show rolled around, I was in the final year of junior high and right in Dave’s wheelhouse. For most of my high school years, lunch consisted of at least ten or fifteen minutes spent going over what happened on Late Night the night before. We’d huddle at the table recounting the top ten list or the Stupid Pet Tricks or whatever Larry “Bud” Melman had done, our daily ritual of nerd cool. Carson still had that kitschy appeal for me, but Dave was ours. He got us. He was weird the way we were weird, or at least hoped we were weird. In the days before geek culture became fully embraced, Dave’s dorky demeanor was a beacon to us. We could feel funny and popular and with it, even if we had to wait until almost everyone else was asleep to do so.
When Dave eventually moved to CBS, robbed of his rightful ascension into Carson’s seat, I have to admit I fell from the faith. I still kept up with what was going on with the show, but it was no longer the nightly ritual. Maybe the idea of the rebel taking the throne wasn’t as appealing as when he was throwing spit balls at it. Maybe I’d reached a place where I didn’t need the validation and acceptance Late Night had provided. Maybe I just came to like sleep too much. Whatever the case, Dave carried on, and while I didn’t always tune in, it was comforting to know he was there.
So while I hadn’t watched regularly in years, I made sure to tune in the last few nights to send Dave off. Because while he may not have meant as much to me now, he meant a whole lot to me when I really needed things to mean a whole lot. And because I felt more than a little regret for not having kept in touch with an old friend. Because that’s what he was. Why else has he been “Dave” this entire post?
Farewell, Dave. Thanks for being there when a bunch of awkward teenagers needed you.