By Steve Svetovich
When Late Night With David Letterman made its debut February 1, 1982, the final group of Baby Boomers were just starting adulthood.
And 6,028 shows and 33 years later, David Letterman retired as the longest serving late night talk show host in television history surpassing his mentor Johnny Carson.
And whether it was NBC or CBS or Late Night or Late Show, Dave surely captured our attention with his silly humor and slew of noteworthy guests that ranged from the late Warren Zevon to Cher to Bob Dylan to Regis Philbin to Bill Murray to President Bill Clinton to President Barack Obama to Sandra Bullock to Julia Roberts to Don Rickles to Tom Hanks to Madonna to Norah Jones to Chevy Chase to Adam Sandler to Jerry Seinfeld…The list goes on and on.
He made us laugh and he even made us cry. But it was mostly laugher generated from his comical genius and relaxed, witty interviewing style. Remember Stupid Pet Tricks? How about Stupid Human Tricks? Remember when he used to throw items from the top of a building just to watch the objects splatter on the pavement? Remember the late Larry “Bud” Melman? And how about the on going friendly banter between Dave and Paul Schaffer, his enthusiastic band leader for the entire 33 years. How about Dave posing as a supervisor at Taco Bell and asking customers to do silly and stupid things as they ordered food and drinks through the drive thru. Silly humor, but brilliant. And then there was the simple, but everlasting and humorous Top 10 List. On the final show, he had 10 of his most famous guests there reading a number each from the Top 10 List. A perfect finale.
This scribe has a special tie to Dave, having lived every adult year from age 21 to 54 watching his show. I grew up and I grew older with him.
Having graduated college in the middle of my senior year, Letterman’s Feb. 1, 1982 debut came at a perfect time for me as I ventured into the adult world as an idealistic young maverick. However, six months of unemployment followed before I landed a job in the Central Processing Unit at Scranton’s Mercy Hospital on the 3-11:30 p.m. shift.
Letterman became my salvation. His blend of humor was perfect for a recent college graduate and young enterprising adult. He was off the wall, out of the box, and a bit of a non conformist.
On nights I was not out for a night on the town, I watched Letterman every night at 12:30 p.m. His show would become fodder for the water cooler discussions the next day at the Mercy Hospital. Especially for the younger crowd.
My good friend and fellow co-worker at the time, Joanie Sheets, would talk about the previous night’s Letterman show throughout every work day. The humor he provided helped us get through our eight-hour work shift. We would be laughing and sharing stories about the previous night’s show as we cleaned, decontaminated, sterilized and distributed hospital instruments. Yes, David Letterman helped us get through the night. And we had Late Night with David Letterman to look forward to as our own late shift ended.
But there is one time that David Letterman indirectly saved me.
It was the early 1980s and a group of friends and I ventured out to the Syracuse Carrier Dome to see Bruce Springsteen and his East Street Band.
Well, I had this crazy idea of sneaking a cassette recorder into the concert and recording it. Of course,the plan was to keep the cassette for my own pleasure and not to distribute it.
Well, I got the cassette recorder in and recorded the entire first half of the concert right up until the song, “Promised Land.” Well, the Boss was getting into it and I was getting into it even more. I started to pump my fist into the air with the cassette player to the music and tune of “Promised Land.” And I was singing it loud and clear.
The next thing I know a hoard of police officers had picked me up in the air and were carrying me away. I remember looking back and seeing my good friend Ted ‘T.C.” Christy waving goodbye.
I asked the officers where they were taking me. “To the Syracuse Jail.” For what, I asked. “For recording the Springsteen concert.”
Well, after carrying me off for 15 minutes and hearing me plead that I had no intention to sell the tape, one of the officers yelled, “Push the eject button.” That I did. “Now give us the tape.” I complied and they led me back to my seat.
However, I was carefully watched for the entire second half and duration of the concert.
When we exited the Carrier Dome, we needed to find our bus to take us back to the motel. However, there was a severe snowstorm and hundreds of buses outside that all looked alike. And we forgot our number.
There were 10 of us, but soon we were separated in pairs. I was with Jack Gilroy. We were trying to decide which bus to get on. Finally, we randomly picked one hoping it would take us back to the Syracuse motel.
Well, we started talking about the great concert and my escapade with the police. Various stories were told and there was a lot of laughter and chatter on the bus.
We were beginning to realize that what should be a 15 minute ride back to the motel was now more than an hour in a blizzard that was getting worse.
The topic turned to David Letterman. We began to notice that some of the people on the bus had French accents, Finally, one young man with a French accent on the bus asked, “Letterman? How do you get Letterman?”
I told him I watch Letterman every night at 12:30 p.m. on NBC. “But you can’t get Letterman in Canada,” he said. “We don’t get Letterman.”
I asked him why. He said, “Because Letterman is not televised in Canada. Do you know where this bus is going to?”
I had a feeling what the answer would be. “Toronto, Canada.”
Jack and I immediately looked at each other and politely asked the bus driver to let us off on the highway in a snow blizzard. We excited the bus to a standing ovation from a group of now apparent French Canadians.
We then did the only thing two young Scranton guys could do when facing the Canadian border on a highway in a severe blizzard. We stuck out our thumbs in the opposite direction.
Amazingly, we were soon picked up and driven back to Syracuse to the very motel our friends were at awaiting us. How we found the right motel, I do not know to this day. And neither does Jack Gilroy. But we arrived with just another story to tell.
And on a night I almost landed in a Syracuse jail for recording a Springsteen concert, I want to thank David Letterman for helping me to not land in Canada that very same night in a huge blizzard without a transport back to the United States.
Thank you, David Letterman.