What Losing David Letterman Means To Me …

Everybody has dreams. Do you have dreams?
If not, you should really go get yourself some.
Dreams, much like love, are the things that keep us alive.
Dreams are the fuel that hope is built on.

When I was a little girl growing up in smalltown Groton, Massachusetts, I was already dreaming of bigger things. I’m pretty sure I came out of that womb screaming: “There’s nothing to do in this town! Bring me to NYC!!!” Starting at around age 5 or so, I would do tons of local community theater. Musicals, drama, singing. I did it all. I was even the chosen student in the 2nd grade, to sing the solo at the Winter Holiday Concert. I remember it quite vividly. I guess I wasn’t very tall back then, so I stood up on a folding chair to see the crowd of parents and people beaming back at me, as I sang the words to “The Lights of Hanukkah.” Why on earth they chose me to sing that song, I will never know. I’m not even Jewish, and it wasn’t even a heavy Jewish area. But for whatever reason, they asked me to sing that, and I did. And when I was finished, people clapped. What could be better than a whole bunch of people applauding for something I did, that made them feel good?

Then I discovered comedy. Or it discovered me. The details are kind of fuzzy, but I distinctly recall being in the second grade and making my friends laugh by doing imitations of all the teachers. I also used the word “poop” a lot, which made certain students lose their minds with laughter, and also made my best friend Sarah’s mom suggest that perhaps she no longer hang around me, for I was a “bad influence.” Sarah didn’t listen to her mother though, and we became best friends. (We are still best friends today and we both live in New York now.)

One of our favorite things to do together was to create ridiculous comedy. We would go into my bedroom, get out the cassette and microphones, and write up and perform our own versions of things like “The People’s Court” and “Eyewitness News.” We made fun of how lame and boring our small town was. One of our best bits was a news story that went on and on, about a paper cup on Main Street. It was “Breaking News! There is a paper cup on Main Street. Details about this travesty are coming in slowly. Please stay tuned!” We went on to imitate panicked people in the town being interviewed about how the cup got there, why it was there, and what would be done about it. It was funny shit for a couple of little kids. The rest of my childhood would include many years of local sketch-comedy plays, productions, and other projects leading me more and more into the world of humor.

dave bill

And then there was David Letterman. As a child, I always hated going to bed. (I still do) There were always fun things happening in my parents home – people talking and laughing and having a good time. Going to bed always felt like I was missing out on everything, and I hated not knowing what was going on (I still do.) My mom would usually go to bed earlier than my dad most nights, and my dad would sit in his recliner chair in the living room and watch “The Tonight Show with Johny Carson.” The show was on at 11:30 pm, and it was usually a school night, so I was supposed to be in bed. But I would hear him laughing, and I would be dying to know what was so damn funny. So I would get out of bed, and stand in the hallway or the back of the living room, hiding behind a chair. One night while I was crouched down behind the couch, listening to Carson ask the non-responsive audience: “Hello? Is this thing on? Can you hear me?”, as he pulled the microphone down from above him and tapped on it – I started giggling. That’s when my dad said: “I know you’re back there. You might as well just come out and watch with me.” He paused. “Don’t tell your mother.” From that night on, it became a semi-regular tradition for me to go to bed on school nights, and then sneak out around 11:30 to catch some of Carson with my dad. It was cool. I felt like I was being let in on something special – something that only adults got to see after all the kids went to bed at night.

One particular evening, about 5 minutes before Carson was ending, I heard my dad snoring. He had fallen asleep in his recliner chair. I was about to go to bed, when suddenly my ears and eyes were fixated on the television screen. A younger guy with weird hair, gap-teeth, and a suit and sneakers, was doing his opening monologue. Late Night with David Letterman. Who is this guy, my curious childhood brain thought. I was intrigued. A few minutes later, When Dave was sitting at his desk doing “Viewer Mail”, a strange man lifted up the steps in the aisle of the audience, crawling out from the under the floor, and interrupting the show. Dave started asking him questions, and the man (Chris Elliott) would respond to him with anger, like he was annoyed at the very thought of being spoken to. What the hell was this? I couldn’t stop laughing. Was this supposed to be happening, or was this guy nuts? It was the most bizarre thing I had ever seen. That character of “Guy Who Lives Under the Seats”, and many others, became staples in the early years of Dave’s show. It was 1982, and I was 11 years old.

Over the next few years, as childhood turned into teenager, I became rather obsessed with this man called David Letterman. He was doing the strangest things on television, and I absolutely loved it. The Velcro and Alka-Seltzer suits, the endless games of “How Many Guys in a Bear Suit (or other costumes) Can We Get Into a Subway Shop?”, Stupid Pet Tricks, tossing watermelons and other fruit from the roof of the building, the Monkey-Cams, and the incredible man on the street, NYC stuff that nobody had really done yet. He found ways to annoy everyone brilliantly, from the Executives at G.E., right down to the innocent tourists walking down the street. I had a weird little crush on him. (I still do) He was odd, cynical, bitingly sarcastic, and he interviewed his guests in a way that I had never before seen on television. He was so honest, so matter-of-fact about everything. If a Hollywood star was on the show and he didn’t see their film or care about it, he would say so. “Yeah, I’m not gonna see that”, he would toss out casually. If he felt someone was being difficult or not answering the question he was asking, he would just keep asking it. This happened in a hilarious way when Paris Hilton came on the show as a guest, fresh off the heels of getting out of prison. Dave kept asking questions about life in jail, and Paris got more and more uncomfortable. Finally, she said: “I didn’t come here to talk about that. I don’t want to talk about that.” Dave’s brilliant response? “Really? Because it’s ALL I want to talk about!”

dave simmons

I actually remember watching the infamous episode in 1986, when Cher came on the show after 4 years of the producers begging her to. When Dave asked her why she didn’t want to come on the show before now, she said the statement which she became famous for, even decades later: “Because I thought you were an asshole.” Dave paused, smiled at the audience, and sat back with a cigar in his mouth proudly. He then said: “You’re the first guest to call me that in person though. Most people just mutter it on their way out the door.” The thing about that interview, and many others, is that most people just remember that Cher called Dave an asshole. But her comment was said with laughter, and the rest of their exchange had this flirty – awkward – humor, because of it. Dave kept bringing it up for the entire 10 minute or so dialogue, and it was hilarious. “You threw me off my game with that asshole remark”, he would say out of nowhere. “I’m all out of sorts now.” Dave had a way with his guests that kept them awake, alert, and constantly guessing. He was somehow tender and crass, snarky and caring all at once. When Dan Rather broke down in tears, twice, during his appearance on the first “The Late Show” after the 9/11 attacks, he apoligized to the audience and Dave, saying “I’m sorry. It’s unprofessional.” To which Dave responded: “You’re a professional. But good Christ, you’re a human being.” In that same episode, Dave sat at his desk and comforted a nation who didn’t understand how to get back to laughter again. He was the first one to return after 9/11 to the airwaves, and his words were both heartbreaking and incredibly real.

What I think I loved about Dave the most, was his uncanny ability to take a bit or a joke and run it into the ground. I have always loved the idea of there being comedy in repetition, and Dave took this to the extreme. If he sensed that the audience was getting sick of something, he would take that something and beat it to it’s comedy death. When he didn’t get “The Tonight Show” over Jay Leno, Dave spent the next couple of years getting in his digs at both Leno and NBC. When John McCain cancelled his appearance with Dave just hours before the taping, stating that he had to get to the airport and get back to Washington, Letterman interrupted his own interview with fill-in guest Keith Olbermann, to show the audience a live shot from the CBS newsfeed, of a makeup artist touching up McCain’s face as he prepared to go live with Katie Couric. Dave then started shouting into the camera: “Hey John! I got a question! You still need a ride to the airport???” When Oprah was upset at Letterman because of a bad experience as a guest on his show where she felt he didn’t stand up for her, the two had a “feud” for 16 years. Dave responded with a hilarious ongoing bit called “Oprah Diaries”, where he would write out loud on the air, of his desire to get her to come back on the show. She finally did, in 2005, and they became fast friends again, walking down Broadway together like King and Queen.

Some of my favorite guests on the show over the years, were the ones that Dave argued with or got passionate with in some way. Richard Simmons, (Dave: “Why are you always oily?”) Julia Roberts, Charles Grodin, Jack Hanna and his many animals, (him and Dave always seemed angry at each other, which was amazingly funny to watch), Regis Philbin, Dr. Phil (whom Dave often referred to as “Dr. Quack”), Howard Stern, Amy Sedaris (her many conversations about her fake boyfriend were legendary), Bill O’Reilly (because nobody put him in his place AND had an intelligent dialogue with him better than Dave), Martha Stewart, (nothing is funnier than watching Dave grab the wine bottle and just start swigging it), and so many others. The whole show, whether it was the early days of “Late Night”, or the later “Late Show” version, always came with the underlying tone straight from Dave of: “Why is any of this on television?” His self-deprecating and putting down of his own “hack” material and “dog and pony show” as he called it, was sort of the ongoing punchline. It was genius, disguised and wrapped up inside stupid. Which, of course, made it genius again.

dave crowd

Throughout the past few decades, I went to see Dave’s show 4 times in total. Once at “Late Night”, and three times at “Late Show.” Each time was an experience like no other. Back in the day, Dave had a running joke about “Big Ass Ham”, and I remember going crazy trying to find a label to bring to him that first time. One of the shows I went to was a live taping he did at 4 a.m.. I can’t recall why they did it, other than maybe to do something different, but a friend and I somehow got tickets. During the commercials, Paul and the band played and everyone sang along, and there were clips from past shows on the tv screens around the studio. The staff came around and literally tossed us breakfast from McDonalds. Egg mcmuffins, hash browns, and little orange juice boxes. It was such a blast.

I have also had many dreams about David Letterman. Actual, literal dreams, while I am sleeping. The dreams are almost the same each and every time. I am on the Letterman show, and I’m a sit-down guest. Dave and I are laughing and bantering back and forth – we are flirting, the way he does with Julia Roberts or Drew Barrymore. In the dream, it is never clear whether I’m there as an actor or a comedian, but I have written a book. It has also never been clear in these dreams what the book was about, or the title, or anything like that. The only thing that is definitely clear in these dreams is that I am bantering and laughing with Dave, and I am making HIM laugh. I am a frequent guest on his show, and I have arrived.

This is, of course, every comedians dream, to be on Letterman. He is the Johny Carson of our generation. He has been on the air for 33 years, and I don’t know a late-night world without him. These days, I have grown to love Conan and “the Jimmys”, and I especially have a thing for Jimmy Fallon. He is my latest TV crush. And Stephen Colbert will come next and he will do great and different things with “The Late Show.” But all of these people would not even be here if it weren’t for Dave. And none of these people will ever BE Dave. There will never be another Dave, and so, it is the end of an era. It is the end of an era in comedy, and on a personal level, the end of my dreams that one day, I would be sitting in that chair bantering with David Letterman. It was always in the back of my heart – the very real possibility that it could very well happen. And now it won’t. Because there is no more Dave. Because sometimes in life, you just run out of time.

dave julia

And there’s one more thing. One more reason why losing Letterman is such a great void for me.
My dead husband.

When I met Don Shepherd in a music chat room online in 1998, he was living in Florida, and found it fascinating that I was a comedian and performer in NYC. As we got to know each other, and once he came up to NY and saw me do stand-up, he would say to me: “You’re gonna be on Letterman one day. I’m serious. It’s gonna happen. He would love you.” It made me light up and smile huge each time he would say it, and a tiny part of me believed it could happen. When Don became my husband in 2006, Letterman was a staple in our apartment. Most nights, the routine was the same. Start getting ready to climb into bed around 11:30 p.m., just as Dave was beginning. “Who are the guests tonight, Boo?”, he would yell from the bathroom as he brushed his teeth. “Jack Hanna and Train!” “Yes!!!” Then, by the time the Top Ten List was happening, we would be cuddled up in our bed with the kitties, cracking up at all the madness that was about to take place. Dave was our familiar. Our steady. He was always there, every single night, and we loved him.

On July 13, 2011, my husband Don, an E.M.T. and animal-adoption volenteer, went to work and never came home. About an hour after arriving at his pet volenteer job, he collapsed on the floor and went into sudden cardiac arrest. By the time I was woken up by the ringing phone of the hospital calling me, he would already be dead.

On Wednesday evening, May 20th, two nights ago, I watched Dave’s last show at “The Stand” Comedy Club in NYC, with a few good friends and a bunch of other comics. As I sat there looking at the big screen where they showed the last ever Letterman show, my heart began to hurt. This was something I should have been watching with my husband. This was a show we watched together, and we should have watched the last one together. It was also a show that I grew up dreaming about – having visions of being a guest, and having my husband confirm these visions as his dream for me too. It was a show that spoke to me on so many levels, and that I wanted to be a part of, as more than just a fan. But sometimes in life, you just run out of time.

Those dreams I used to have about being on Dave’s show? About having my book to promote? Today, as it turns out, I AM writing a book. I WILL be an author, hopefully by the end of the year. But the book is about the story of me and my husband, and how I have managed to figure out this life without him in it. Sometimes in life, you just run out of time.

The ending of that show represented to me, the end of my “guest on Letterman” dream. The end of that familiarity and comfort that I had in my marriage. The end of a very specific type of humor, and a very specific kind of late-night talk show host. The end of an era.

Life will continue, and laughter will continue, and someone will come along who changes the game once again.
But nobody will ever be Dave, except Dave.

Thank you David Letterman.

From the bottom of my heart, and from the place where dreams are kept breathing, thank you.

dave old

Kelley Lynn is a writer, comedian, actor, and grief coach living in NYC. Find out more at www.akelleylynnlife.com

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4 thoughts on “What Losing David Letterman Means To Me …

  1. Awww. This was great!! He truly was a great comedian, and a warm hearted, true hearted man. If you haven’t seen Conan’s ode to him, it’s wonderful. He stood up for what was right, and shamed those who deserved it.

  2. Dearest Kelley Lynn
    You don’t know me, but in a way, I know you. You see, I am a paramedic with Sunstar Paramedics in Largo, Fl. My schedule at work was the mirror of Don’s. My shift ended every day with seeing Don and Rob in the bay of our headquarters. We would sit and chat at the tables in the bay and laugh about the humor we found in our jobs. Don was always quick with smile and was seemingly well adept at making others laugh. When he left our family at Sunstar I felt as though he was one of the few who had left a fingerprint. A mark that would last through out time. A subtle charm and wit rarely seen from those in our industry. I missed his stories of when he worked as a techinician on vehicle wiring and working other EMS systems. I am not the talented writer you are so please be patient.
    The reason I am writing to you is I was so moved by your words. I was married to my wife for 12 years but we had known each other for much longer. She was a paramedic also at Sunstar Paramedics. She passed way suddenly 6 years ago. I have struggled tremendously and have had others tell me I am a “shell” of who I used to be. Reading your posts and letters have let me know that I am NOT as weird as others think I am. Your feelings and emotions echo those of mine. I don’t mean to dredge up hard memories but I felt you should know that your writings have touched a soul many miles away.
    Don spoke frequently of you and always with a gleam in his eye. The two of you were very blessed to have been in each others’ lives.
    Thank you for allowing me to feel I am not alone.
    With warmest regards,
    Robert “Bob” Lanoue

    • Oh my god. You have no idea what this means to me, you writing this and sharing this with me. The fact that you knew Don AND that you also lost your wife – wow – I really would love to talk with you more. Are you still at Sunstar? I will be in Florida in February or March next year for about a week, in Tampa, and I always go visit Clearwater Beach where I have some of his ashes. I would love so much if we could grab some coffee and talk. Thank you so much for writing this.

  3. Thank you Kelley for putting into words a lot of the feelings that I also have. My husband also died suddenly and unexpectedly, 2 years yesterday, and I have a hard time putting into words, how my life has changed, other than saying “I miss him”. It’s so much more than that. Reading about all the things that have changed, or are no longer in your life, helps me deal with very similar circumstances! One at a time. Thank you for sharing your story.

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