Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Late Show with David Letterman
Audience warm up: Friendly, heavyset man in his 40s with slicked-backed hair and good rapport with tourists
Seating: Cramped, theater-style chairs
Taping: January 30, 2008
Air date: January 30, 2008 (I think)
A few weeks ago, a NY Mag piece articulated what were at the time my thoughts on David Letterman: he is the polar opposite of Jay Leno. Leno is the champion of the status quo, who hams it up with jokes about how "blondes are dumb, gay men are silly," while Letterman is a "renegade" who delights in "absurdist" comedy. Nowhere is this more striking, the story notes, than in their respective monologues. Both do one every show, of course, but Letterman shows open disdain for his shoddy material, while Leno embraces it. When channel surfing on weekdays at 11:30, a circumstance that really doesn't happen too often to me, it's obvious why I always choose Letterman.
I was standing in line to see another show when I got a call from somebody at Worldwide Pants. He needed me to confirm absolutely I'd attend Late Show and asked me a very simple trivia question that I nearly missed. If I'd gotten it wrong, I wouldn't have been able to attend! That's when I realized that when it comes to its studio audience, this is no normal show.
Most shows treat their audiences as afterthought, a gimmick to augment their show. Not so with Letterman. It's held in the Ed Sullivan theater, which gives the whole process more of an air of regional theater than of those cheaply made TV studios: fancy staircases, a nicely carpeted lobby, and an astonishingly high number of pages, all of them wearing fancy "Worldwide Pants" jackets. While waiting, we were shown this vintage Letterman clip:
As is standard, I waited for hours in line. As is not at all standard, I got a ticket proclaiming me in the "red zone". Not everybody was in the red zone. Some were relegated to the yellow or orange zones. And each zone stood in its own line, and the red zone's line was closest to the entrance and entered first.
Awesome, I thought. Red zone? More like red carpet!
The Late Show isn't filmed in a normal TV studio; it's in the historic Ed Sullivan Theater. There's not just one tier of seats, but two. Two! And they took us to the second tier! That turned out to not be such an honor.
It hit me while I was sitting in that famed Ed Sullivan theater, in the nosebleed section, wondering why there was a nosebleed section to begin with. I was listening to kindly goomba of a warm-up guy talk about how Dave is such a stand-up guy, adjusting my girlfriend's head while she dozed on my shoulder, when I realized I don't have to like Letterman just because I despise Leno. That whole "whose style monologue do you prefer" thing is a false dichotomy. Letterman shows disdain for his monologue because it's a lower form of comedy, but he still does a monologue every time. I'd prefer Matchbox 20 to post-drugs Aerosmith (I guess), or a Dane Cook movie to one starring Robin Williams, but my God, that doesn't mean I'd voluntarily sit around for any of those.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we don't have a very good show tonight," Letterman said to us before taping started. At first I thought he was joking, and says that to each audience. Anti-comedy, right? But in retrospect, I doubt it. It was actually a bad, bad show. The guests were Dr. Phil ("We're all nuts here!" Dave quipped in a manner suspiciously like his rival), Lena Heady (Sarah Connor from the Chronicles; we discovered she's actually British!), and Gary Allan (a Wal-Mart country star hopeful who powerfully gushed blandness; I believe he sang an ode to malls). If I hadn't been taking notes for this blog, I would have forgotten the entire experience within a few days.
To be fair, right after the Super Bowl, I managed to catch Letterman interviewing Eli Manning, and it was freaking awesome. Dave's been at it for 25 years; maybe this was just an off night.
Next week: Montel