One Night with Letterman

Standing outside the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City.

It is a cold and wet Monday, February 7, 2011 in New York City.  Chris and I have been in line for roughly 30 minutes when groups of about 20 people start to shuffle in to the lobby of the Ed Sullivan Theater.  We patiently wait our turn and eventually make our way to an audience co-ordinator who asks us where we’re from and quizzes us to see how big of fans we are of Dave’s show.

How big of a fan am I?  Well, I grew up watching Dave.  After learning one summer night that there was something on TV if I stayed up after Johnny Carson finished his show, I was mesmerized by Letterman’s madhouse.  There was something gritty and dangerous about the late night show that looked like it was shot in the ratty attic of 30 Rockefeller Center.

Stupid pet tricks.  The top ten list.  A low budget / high comedy distraction for adults who suffered from insomnia.  But as a kid, if I could manage to keep my eyes open I’d watch Dave.

When Letterman crossed the street to join CBS, I was there from show one.  There was something rather grand about what he was doing .  One day – I swore – I’d get to New York City and see the show in person.

And now here I was – standing in the lobby of historic CBS Studio 50, waiting for a ticket that would get me inside the ultra-refrigerated auditorium where Dave performed his show.

With a smile, the audience co-ordinator hands over tickets with something scribbled on the back, and tells us what time we should show up for the taping.  She also reminds us there are only two appropriate forms of expression in the well-microphoned theatre – applause and laughter.  Woo-ing will get us ejected.  These are rules I can live by if it means I get to see the show live and in person.

With time to kill, Chris and I head in to Angelo’s Pizzeria which is in the same block as the Sullivan theater for a few slices of pie and something to drink.  I’m nervous.  I don’t know why – it’s not like I’m going to meet Dave.  But regardless, I’m jittery.

We finish lunch and it’s time to head back downstairs and queue to for the show.  It might be Monday, but we will be watching Friday’s show – Dave likes to take Fridays off, so he does double duty when he’s fresh and ready early in the week.

The line starts moving in to the theater, and as we cross the threshold we hear Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra playing warm up music for those who have already been seated.  As we near the door, the audience member in front of us has a freakout because he wants four seats together on the floor for him and his friends.  The page thinks we’re with him, and so she ushers us in behind him (even though we’re not.)  Score!

We barely get settled in to our seats when Dave comes out on stage to talk with the audience.  Rolling Stone says he’s relished this Q&A experience in the last days of the show, spending 7 to 8 minutes kibitzing with audience members before the “on air” sign illuminates.  On the day we see Dave, he has about 45 seconds to make a couple jokes about a guy in the front row before running backstage as the floor director starts to count down to showtime.

Dave bursts out on to the stage, and tells some jokes.  In hindsight, it’s challenging to do a monologue four days in advance.  Letterman makes a joke about Hosni Mumbarak who – as of the taping – is the embattled leader of Egypt.  By Friday (when the show will air), Mumbarak has resigned.  The joke goes to air – still as relevant as when it was taped.  That’s not being lucky – that’s being good.

Sixty minutes of late night television goes by in a flash.  This is not an episode of any considerable note.  Dave doesn’t get flashed.  Richard Simmons doesn’t fly in from the rafters.  But Ed Helms is there promoting a movie (Cedar Rapids), and participates in one of those classic late night talk show rituals of taking some small thing he learned during filming and having a bit of fun with it.

During the commercial breaks, the band plays as Dave and his producers huddle at the desk.  It’s all business, and you can see them talking about what has just happened on stage, and what is coming up next.  The size of the team needed to pull of this show is staggering.

Throughout the show, my eyes are darting around the theater.  I can’t believe I’m actually here.  I can’t believe that’s actually Dave.  It’s all so surreal.

As fast as it started, it’s over.  The credits roll, we applaud one last time.  Dave comes back out and thanks everyone for taking in the show, and pages start ushering us out.

As I slowly saunter out of the theatre, I run my fingers along the back wall – it’s like pinching myself because I can’t believe I’ve actually been there.  Cross it off the list.

30+ years in late night come to an end for Dave on Wednesday.  It’s the end of an era in late night, and one I’m glad I had a chance to witness up close and personal – if only for one night.  Thanks, Dave.