EXCLUSIVE: While we’re all thanking David Letterman for tossing the genteel Tonight Show mold and recasting post-primetime comedy in his own rebellious image, here is a heresy worth considering: Letterman’s debt to Ed Sullivan goes way beyond just the name of the theater in which he’s hosted The Late Show since August 30, 1993. It was Sullivan, after all, who could showcase prima diva Joan Sutherland and puppet Topo Gigio on the same night; Sullivan who, despite his own conservatism, embraced the winds of change by bringing Elvis Presley and the Beatles, not to mention George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Señor Wences into the national spotlight along with Richard Burton singing the title song from Camelot.
All of which is to say that while the Brooklyn Dodgers and The Tonight Show abandoned the joint (on September 24, 1957 and May 1, 1972 respectively — days of infamy in the Gerard household) for Southern California, Letterman was constant in his belief that New York City is the center of the universe. A strange, incomprehensible but always funny island habitat off the coast of America. Remember Letterman, megaphone at the mouth, heckling Bryant Gumbel from a window high above Rockefeller Center? That was the very distillation of pure New York comic malice.
Never was his New York spirit more in evidence than on the night of September 17, 2001, when Letterman led the return to the air after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. His 8-minute monologue, in which he appears to be gasping for air, was powerful television — a moment of shared mourning, a tribute to the city and its leader:
“I need to ask your indulgence and your patience here, because I want to say a few things. It’s terribly sad here in New York City. You can feel it, you can see it. And watching all of this, I wasn’t sure that I should be doing a television show. Because for 20 years we’ve been in the city, making fun of everything, making fun of the city, making fun of my hair, making fun of Paul, so to come to this circumstance that is so desperately sad – I’ll tell you the reason that I am doing the show and the reason I am back to work is because of Mayor Giuliani. Very early on and after the attack…Mayor Giuliani asked us, and here, lately, implored us to go back to our lives, continue trying to make New York City the place that it should be. If you’re like me and you’re watching and you’re confused and depressed and irritated and angry and full of grief and you don’t know how to behave, all you had to do at any moment was watch the Mayor. Watch how this guy behaved, watch how this guy conducted himself. Watch what this guy did. Listen to what this guy said. Rudolph Giuliani is the personification of courage. And it’s very simple: There is only one requirement for any of us, and that is to be courageous. Because courage, as you might know, defines all other human behavior. And I believe, because I’ve done a little of this myself, pretending to be courageous is just as good as the real thing.”
As a New Yorker having lived through that time, I still find it hard to go back there. But Letterman, in expressing his love for the city, nailed it. He’d proven it by making his show not just a pit stop for stars hawking their latest wares, but for Deli Man and the Larry “Bud” Melman of Calvert De Forest, and Chris Elliott — actors and characters who captured the anything-can-happen and anything-goes spirit of the city. The late great Tony Randall was a regular guest, telling stories about Broadway and life in the city, much the way Amy Sedaris and Nathan Lane have filled that role in recent years, though with much more citrus in the drink. (With its refrain, I’m just like you, Dave, I’m dead inside, Lane’s farewell serenade last week was a delicious slice of urbane, existentialist pizza).
Letterman shut down the neighborhood for concerts and if he never got comfortable with Harvey Fierstein, he could exhibit a taste for Broadway glitter and its sometime renegades. South Park inventors Trey Parker and Matt Stone came on the show in Febrary 2001 to talk about their new project.
“It’s a musical, right?” Letterman asks, showing the Playbill for The Book Of Mormon. Yeah, they replied. They’d gone to see Avenue Q and that taboo-busting show’s composer, Robert Lopez, said he’d like to work with them on a musical about Joseph Smith. They were game. “So, will Mormons go there and enjoy it as well?” Letterman asks? Yes, they assure him. “They always look like they’re about to break out into song anyway,” Stone says. Pointing out the theater where the show’s running, Letterman jokes, “I think I just heard Eugene O’Neill turn over in his grave.”
To be sure, other talk-show hosts (Rosie O’Donnell, Jimmy Fallon) have embraced Broadway more fervently. You can ascribe that to Letterman’s aversion to delivering the expected big numbers from hit shows. Or to his lack of passion for the form; theater just ain’t his thing. After Sting performed “What Say You, Meg?” from his sinking show The Last Ship, the host sauntered over from the desk muttering, “Beautiful,” and said, “That, my friend, has hit written all over it.” Nice try, Dave, but really, your heart just wasn’t in it.
“Letterman himself rarely attends shows,” a longtime Broadway press agent told me. “But key members of his staff love Broadway,” he added, “and in the past several years they have really stepped up Broadway’s presence on the show. I would give him high marks for that especially since, conversely, Leno never had Broadway on, despite great enthusiasm for it on his staff.”
There was one recent performance that several Broadway folks recalled with great affection. On April 30, 2009, the cast of Hair performed a medley of songs from the Aquarian musical, precisely replicating an appearance by the original cast, 40 years earlier. That had been — need I point out? — on Ed Sullivan’s show.
On the same stage, as it happens.