Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Priest Says Goodbye to David Letterman

A one inch Sony Watchman.  I needed to get one during my last year of college seminary.  The walls in our dorm were paper thin and the year before I had heard the seniors laughing with delight after our 11pm curfew.  The next morning I would hear them at breakfast asking, "Did you see Letterman last night?"  Of course, we weren't supposed to have TV's in our room, but for my last year of seminary, I was determined to walk over to the K-Mart at the corner and spend the $99 so that I could barely afford to get me a one inch Sony Watchman so that I watch Letterman every night.  Since we were seniors the Dean of Discipline had kind of like a "nod/nod-wink/wink" understanding that we were watching the same thing he was at 11:30p.  Seminary was not easy but after homework and prayers, going to sleep with a smile was so important.
When I was a kid, I loved staying over at my grandparent's house in the summer because that meant I could stay up late and watch Johnny Carson.  He delivered his monologues with great ease and interviewed guest like a king presiding over his royal court.  On some nights when I was particularly daring, I would stay up a little bit longer, just because I could, and watch this odd thing called "Late Night" with some guy called David Letterman.  I was too young back in the 80's to understand his comedy.  I was a straight laced kid who liked the order and pacing of Carson, and then on came Letterman with his oddball comedy, stupid pet tricks and plus, he was in New York (which back then I abhorred because of the dark images of the city streets they would run in and out of commercial, the New York Jets, and the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man).  The only thing I liked about New York was the Yankees.  But who knew that years later when I was in college seminary, on a one inch Sony Watchman, a gap toothed loon from Indiana would make me love the greatest on earth and would help me get through seminary.  I've always told people that I really didn't become a teenager until I entered seminary.  I really didn't rebel against anything until I was further into seminary, and when I was a 21 year old senior, I began to relate to the rebel of late night comedy.  I loved watching things being thrown from the roof of the Ed Sullivan theater unto 53rd street.  I loved watching him turn New York into one of the characters of his show.  I loved watching him eschew the ridiculous side of politics and celebrity.  But on one April night in 1997 when I needed something to smile about, I laughed till my sides hurt (quite literally) when Dave tried to stuff guys dressed as bunnies into a New York City H&R Block.  This was genius!
He would try thing again some years later during the Spiderman craze when he would try to stuff as many Spidermans as he could into a Jamba Juice.  I laughed even harder.
I still remember lying in bed in an almost fetal position because I literally could not stop laughing.  (Incidentally, I showed this clip to my 8th grade students the other day and to my surprise they laughed almost as hard as I did.  Comedy is comedy after all, and what's more, they pulled this trick on our IT director when they played "How many 8th graders can we stuff into the IT director's office?" I was so proud.)

My favorite Letterman tradition was his Christmas episode which was the last episode taped before he went on Christmas vacation.  Since 1998, the episode had the same format: random movie star, Jay Thomas, and music from Darlene Love.  Jay Thomas would come on to tell what Letterman calls "the greatest talk show story ever" or quite simply "The Lone Ranger Story".  It is epic.  Then after the story is told, both Letterman and Thomas would proceed to hurl footballs at the Late Show Christmas Tree which was adorned at the top with a model of the Empire State Building holding up a gigantic meatball. Whoever knocked off the meatball with a football won.  And the Christmas show would always close with Darlene Love belting out "Christmas, Baby Please Come Home" year after year.
David Letterman was also the only celebrity I have written a fan letter too.  Well, if you could call it that.  While I was on pastoral year in 2000, Dave had quintuple bypass surgery.  Questions swirled about whether or not he would return.  On the old AOL, there was a button that would send Dave get well wishes, and I remember writing, "Praying for you, Dave.  Please get well soon.  God bless you, Manny Alvarez."  Of course he would come back, and with a haircut!, and proceeded to make the subsequent 2000 Election funnier than it was.

Soon after that election came what for me was Dave's finest hour and one of the greatest moments in television history.  On September 18, 2001, when we were all reeling from the attack of 9/11, I sat in my room and watched as Letterman became the first late night comic to come back to work.  What all of us saw was a reflection of ourselves: a shaken man, a shaken American who hadn't quite come to grips with what we experienced.  At that point, which one of us had?  So he opened his show without fanfare or grand introductions, a waving American flag opened the program and then the camera panned to Dave sitting at his desk, not standing on the stage like he would for his monologue, and he did what most of us wanted to do and needed to do, he vented.  And in doing so, slowly helped us start to laugh again:
Of course, like all of us, Letterman was a flawed man, and his scandals of 6 years ago almost derailed him.  But he pressed on.  I don't think he was quite the same after 9/11.  After I was ordained a priest, I saw less and less of him.  He seemed to be going through the motions.  Fewer groundbreaking stunts.  No more stuffing animals or superheroes into New York establishments.  Dave also began to get a little too political, and even more cynical than he already was.  The joy, the zaniness, the unpredictability just wasn't there.  When I was transferred to Parkland in 2009 and found I had time on my hands after prayer at 11:30p, I did the unthinkable and started watching (gulp!) Leno.  This only lasted five months thankfully, but at that time his monologues were frankly better than Dave's.

So with the advent of Netflix and Youtube and reading or praying, I stopped going to sleep watching Dave.  Then in April 2014, 17 years after he sent bunnies into an H&R Block, Mr. Letterman announced he was retiring this year.  I thought back to all those moments mentioned above, and a year later, last month to be precise, when I took a week off after Easter, I began watching the last episodes of the Late Show with David Letterman.  I have not missed an episode in the last month.  The joy was back.  The tributes and flashbacks were incredible.  The music sublime.  And the celebrity interviews, with his favorite guests of course, were funnier than ever and a bit touching as each came by to say goodbye.  I would always tune in when Julia Roberts came on because the two of them had remarkable chemistry for two so incredible different people and in her last appearance a week ago, she articulated perfectly Dave's approach to guests who are "celebrities" without really accomplishing much (see: Hiltons, Kardashians, Beiber, etc.).  She was worried about her first appearance in 1989 because as she told Dave, "stupid people annoy you."  For evidence just watch his infamous interview with a bearded Joaquin Phoenix.  Yes, the joy was back the last two months and each night at 11:30p, it was just like I was back in seminary (except with a bigger TV) and I was back to watching Dave making me laugh.

I could go on and on (and seeing my word count, I have), but this much is true, David Letterman (and a lot of prayer of course) helped me get through those long seminary days when things were rough and when I really needed a good laugh before falling asleep. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, and during a infamous seminary sketch show back in 1998, we put on a "Late Show" and yes, I was lucky enough to play Dave with a Taco Bell bit and Top Ten List. All I needed was gap teeth and a "bad toupee".  I discovered that night amidst all those laughs of how important it was to bring joy to others when preaching the gospel.  It is important to laugh. And it is important to laugh at yourself, and I guess I have Dave to thank for that for that.  Now that will be gone when the big man signs off at 12:37am tonight.  Flaws and all, I have them too, thank you David Letterman for allowing me to laugh and for making it just a bit easier getting though seminary so that I can stand in front of my own audience to do what I do best: preach the gospel (and sometimes get a laugh or two.)  #ThanksDave

(One last thing: I traveled to New York City for the first time in 2003 and walked by the Ed Sullivan Theater with my parents right as they were letting people in for a taping of that night's show.  I took a picture under the marquee and then a Late Show employee approached me and asked if I wanted to go in because they had one spot left in the audience.  I politely declined as to not leave my parents on their own in New York City.  Wait?  I did what?  Who was I kidding?  They weren't my kids!  They were my parents!  I regret very few things in life.  Declining a ticket to see The Late Show with David Letterman is one of them.)