Thursday, February 9, 2017

Small Towns: Small Town News

[preorder a biography of Letterman because the only purchasable videos of his show are on VHS]

We did a theme a couple of years ago called “Where I Live,” and I wrote about my favorite small town, Tarrytown. I’m not going to that well again, so you should read that piece if you are interested.

Instead, I’m going to write about the second thing that popped into my head when I heard the theme, “Small Town News,” a segment that was regularly featured on Late Night With David Letterman, and occasionally on Late Show With David Letterman. Let me start by saying how much I miss David Letterman. I didn't start watching Late Night right away, when it started airing on NBC at 12:30 on February 1, 1982, but a couple of years later, I began to record it on my VCR and watch it in the mornings as I got ready for my day. I pretty much stuck with Dave, and followed him to CBS when he moved to the more coveted 11:30 slot (even if he lost the battle to succeed his idol Johnny Carson to the duller, more mainstream Jay Leno). And when Dave signed off in 2015, I tried to watch his successor, Stephen Colbert, but it wasn’t the same and I have gotten out of the habit.

Late Night was considerably stranger than the Late Show. It was as if NBC really didn’t care what happened after midnight, and it seemingly allowed Dave, and his writers, to do what appeared to be anything they wanted to do. Rotating the screen. Dubbing reruns. Involving the backstage staff. Having strange, fake guests. Having strange, real guests. Weird stunts. Letting Andy Kaufman go wild.  Which is not to say that what he was doing was unprecedented—Steve Allen’s Tonight Show was definitely an influence, and Ernie Kovacs did some similar stuff, but what made the Late Show so unusual was the way that it seemed to mock the entire genre of late night talk shows without being a parody.

The “Small Town News” segments were a perfect example of the show’s style. Like other segments on the show, like Stupid Pet Tricks, they took something ordinary and pretended that it was appropriate for network television.. As you can see in the video above, from 1988, Dave goes into the segment after what appears to be an improvised bit with a goofy bubble machine and having Paul Shaffer and the band play a cheesy 70's-style “Love Theme.” Throughout the segment, Letterman makes it seem like he has no idea what is going on, he donates $10 per laugh to the United States Olympic Luge Team, for no apparent reason, other than wanting to “just beat those damn Russians at luge once,” he engages in asides about the temperature in the theater, and regularly uses self-deprecating humor.

When Letterman moved an hour earlier, and to CBS, the show changed. Being in an earlier time slot, and competing against the Tonight Show, meant that the network cared more about the show, and many of the odder rough edges were sanded down. Of course, Letterman was also older, and seemed less interested in tweaking authority as much as he had in his younger days. Which was not to say that the Late Show lacked edge, or was slick, dull and mainstream, but it certainly lacked some of the absurdity and anarchy that the earlier show was famous for.

Compare this version of “Small Town News” from the Late Show from 2007—nearly 20 years after the video above.

Putting aside the better production values, including a still silly but more produced theme, nicer cards, etc., you can see that Letterman no longer was pretending that he didn’t know what was going on. No more asking the booth what comes next, or pretending to be confused. In other words, he had gone from being some renegade comedian who somehow found himself with a show that was not completely in his control to a confident TV star. One who still didn’t always seem comfortable with his fame, but was no longer surprised by his good fortune.

The CBS show was still great, and I enjoyed it enormously (because I was older, too), but I guess it is sort of how so often you love a band’s early, sloppier work more than their later, more polished stuff, even as you can appreciate that they have grown and the later material is objectively “better.”

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