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David Letterman made the best bad TV ever

Everything is crap; now watch Biff crash this golf cart.

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

My brother was being born and I got to hang out with Dad. Hanging out with Dad meant all the great things about being taken care of by a dad who had no domestic capabilities whatsoever. We ate fast food breakfast every morning, watched laundry pile up in the corners of the house and enjoyed a decided negligence of bedtimes because my dad did not understand how to take care of us, much less himself. He regarded sleep like an untreatable tropical disease: He had it, and from time to time it made him pass out for a while until he recovered.

We ate the cheap, generic-brand, knock-off cereal in bags when Dad was in charge. We also got to watch Letterman. The first night I watched Letterman I was 6 years old. The host looked like he'd loitered in from some other show: He was irritable, rarely looked directly at the camera and wore tennis shoes and jeans with his suit. When he did look in the camera, even 6-year-old me recognized what this was. This show was a total fucking disaster, right down to the long pauses, obvious, got-nothin' time killers, and half-speed interviews with celebrities often horrified by the thought they'd shown up to the wrong place.

That night, David Letterman got paid to watch a woman throw tennis balls at a labrador retriever. After significant earnest effort, the dog managed to hold three balls in its mouth at once. The next night, I think he put a canned ham in a hydraulic press. It was, by any accepted standard, deplorable television. It was crap, and it was all I wanted to watch.


I grew up in Tennessee and Georgia and Florida and South Carolina in a sea of crap and the mundane, average, crappily done things people did every day. The first thing to come on the television in the mornings was the farm report, read by exactly who you think would read those things: a bald guy in horn rims with a hilljack accent in a short-sleeve shirt and tie, droning on for 15 minutes about sorghum prices. The Ralph Emery Show came on next, a show where the cast was mostly bleary-eyed studio crew members clumsily reading off live ads for tractor places in Lebanon and Murfreesboro. It, too, was deplorable television. I watched it every damn day for years.

Dave was from Indiana, which is as middle as middle can get in terms of Middle Western mundanity. But it's not far off from Tennessee, or the South, or any other place where the norm is so boring you have to resort to grand acts of weaponized boredom. Dave dropped random shit off a five story tower, played "Will It Float" with anything he wanted to throw in a pool and drew up elaborate traffic maneuvers for New York City cab drivers to execute in impossible traffic situations. He was the bored guy at the party who would ask around until he found someone, anyone, who could do something to amuse him. Then he'd show you: Hey, did you know Mike here can squirt milk from his eyeballs? Did you see that? Well look at that, would ya?


Everything was terrible and boring, sure, but that didn't mean it had to be terrible and boring. This was especially true when Dave got to remind everyone and everything that they, too, were terrible, boring and just as subject to periodic reminders of their mortal normality. He attempted to bring flowers to horrible, boring corporate bosses at GE, and was thrown out of the building. He pissed off the extremely serious Bryant Gumbel by yelling "I'm not wearing pants" through a bullhorn in the middle of a Today Show interview.

Once he got access to celebrities, Letterman often asked them deliberately mundane questions just to immediately short-circuit the usual gas cloud of fame around them. For a time, Joe Frazier was a regular phone-in guest. Dave would small talk for a second, and then ask him how much gas was in his car, keeping track of the levels in Frazier's Cadillac on a posterboard gas gauge. He told bad jokes for months until they got good, or sometimes told good ones for years until they turned bad, and then somehow flipped back over to good again.

And when he finally got good at interviewing people, it was always when he got guests talking about ... crap, mostly, or at least the crappy jobs they had, or even the times when they brushed up against the lowest degree of fame possible and still made a crapheap of the opportunity. Something like Tom Hanks talking about ruining Slappy White's golf clubs, for instance:

Letterman was the first and maybe the only person on TV I felt like came from the Republic of Mundane Crap, too. He had a contagiousness: You noticed the odd store named "Just Shades" from that point on, or got a fond affection for the stumbling 5:30 a.m. local weatherman who could not for the life of him correctly tie his tie on the Columbia, S.C. news. Things were normal, and often bad to middling, and that could funny -- even side-splitting if you just saw it from the right angle.

And for 6-year-old me, Letterman wasn't a coping mechanism so much as a way of seeing reality. Dave found a woman across the way at Rockefeller Center in a window and thought: That's our show. First we'll call her. Then we'll strike up a friendship. Then, in the middle of her work day, we'll send her a hawk because ... well, because we can, right? It'd be a crime if we thought of something this amusing and didn't do it. We'll put a camera on chimpanzee's head, or take over a Taco Bell drive-thru. We will try it and if it fails we will laugh at our failure because that's often funnier than success would have been anyway.

If life gives you nothing but office elevators, race them. If you have nothing else, you can throw shit into a pool and see if it floats and call that a game. Nothing but crap in all directions isn't a curse. It's a starting point, a palette. And when someone gives you money, and time, and maybe a camera or two, don't waste it. Make the velcro suit of your dreams and jump onto a wall to see if it will stick. Let Chris Elliott live under the stairs. And to hell with the celebrity guest: Move them back five minutes. Biff says he'll drive a golf cart through a pyramid of tabasco sauce. We're hanging out with Dad tonight and he has no idea what he's doing. Neither does Dave. It's the dumbest, best thing ever.