By Chris Stigall
Talk Show Host
PHILADELPHIA — Please understand this is personal. It’s not a matter of whether you agree with me or even care about the man. I’m writing this for me. Selfishly. Right now, all I can think about is how much he mattered to me in the most formative years of my life. Saying goodbye to David Letterman is breaking my heart and I’m having a tough time thinking about much else.
I can’t claim to have been watching him since his morning show in the early 80s. I was too young. I found Dave during high school in the 90s. Specifically, when Carson was leaving “The Tonight Show.”
Hosting, broadcasting, whatever you want to call what I’m blessed enough to do today has been in my marrow since childhood. When I saw or heard someone doing it on a grand stage, I paid close attention. The importance of Johnny Carson was known to me only because others told me so.
Who would replace Carson became my own little personal soap opera. I knew Jay Leno was Carson’s fill-in guy. Eh. Never wowed me. I knew David Letterman had this really irreverent show that was on too late for me on school nights. That is, until my parents made the mistake of allowing a little TV in my room.
Bam! There was Letterman. This really unusual looking man who made me (and millions like me) feel like we were in on this massive prank on conventional television as we knew it. Nothing seemed “right” or “normal” looking – and I adored it! No showbizzy clichés. In fact, Letterman seemed like a guy who was almost perpetually uncomfortable with the very job he held, and wasn’t afraid to say so.
His total lack of hipness made him “buzz-worthy.” He was the underdog who always seemed to get the shaft and wasn’t respected by “the suits.”
There’s the rub, I guess. I was a high school kid with big dreams of hosting his own show one day, but never felt like I was attractive or popular enough to make it. David Letterman taught me there’s something very good, right, and rewarding about being an individual.
The more I watched and read about Letterman, the more fixated I became. Not just his comedy – which I loved. It was his “damn the torpedoes” approach to this hallowed thing called television. It was everyday people from his shows’ staff cast in bits. It was random souvenir shop and deli owners turning into unintentional comedy stars.
I literally cut out and laminated every magazine article, cover photo, or write up I could find on the man and his show. I decorated my room with Letterman pictures the way teen girls decorated with pictures of boy bands and heartthrobs.
One of my favorite pull quotes from an article hung on my mirror. “David Letterman has never cried on Oprah, has never posed in the kitchen for People. He has ignored all the rules and he won anyway.”
It became my motivation. “If this odd ball can do it, so can I.”
The year I graduated high school, my dad surprised me with a trip to New York to see this thing that was my universe in person. The year was 1995, and I still have the tape of me lunging into the camera shot during an audience cut-away that night. Richard Simmons was the guest.
It was everything I hoped it would be as I went back home beaming and packed my things for college. I wanted to see that again, but never imagined how.
Friends and family still tease me about it. The first thing I did when I arrived on campus? Wall-to-wall decorating of my dorm room with Dave. It became a sort of accepted peculiarity about me. I admired this guy, and I just didn’t care what anyone thought.
My college girlfriend (now wife) Christine likely wondered if I was being honest about my sexuality, as she would later tell me she remembers staring at big pictures of Dave overhead while we…studied.
Yes, I took the pictures down when we got married. Yes, I still have them all. No, I’m not sure if she still wonders.
By my junior year in college, with the help of some great friends and about 30 student volunteers – I realized my dream of hosting my own television talk show. It was a student operated, cable-access channel that broadcast to a booming metropolis of 10,000 each week.
My grandfather built my desk. We brought in a band. We bribed students with pizza to come in to serve as a live audience. I wrote a weekly monologue. We taped exterior comedy bits. I even talked the local men’s clothing store into giving me a suit and tie to wear every week.
It was so much work and we were all so proud of it. And in my mind, in my little world, secretly (though probably not so secretly) – I was Dave.
Through it all, it never occurred to me how I could ever return to New York again. I would daydream out loud about it, but never had a plan. Then one of my dearest friends said to me out of the blue, “Why don’t you apply to intern with Letterman?”
“Intern with Letterman? Me? Right. Why don’t you put in an application to be Pope,” I remember thinking. As much as I adored Letterman, and as driven as I was to succeed – I still never thought of myself as worthy of such a big thought.
My friend wouldn’t take no for an answer. Through almost literal force and harassment, he pressed me to put together my first resume and cover letter until I dropped it in the mail addressed to “Late Show.”
Patiently we waited by the mailbox. Then, it came. An official “Late Show” envelope – addressed to me! In it, an official “Late Show” forum letter telling me they get hundreds of applicants a semester and… no dice. But, if I’d like to try for a fall semester I could feel free to resubmit my materials.
Well, that was it. I tried. I failed. “What did you expect,” I felt like saying to my friend. But my dear friend pushed again. He wouldn’t take no for an answer when I was perfectly prepared to accept it. “You have to send it in again,” he urged.
Late that summer, a new letter came. This time, it said I was chosen! Chosen to come to New York…to interview with 29 other selected college kids across the country…on my own dime…and if things went well, I’d be chosen as one of the final 15 interns for that coming fall semester.
This was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. Fly to New York and stay overnight, alone? A place I’d only been once before? Walk into the “Late Show” for an interview? Maybe not make the cut?
I spent that late summer interview day of 1998 in a kind of trance. I didn’t sleep a wink in the cheapest motel room I could afford in Manhattan the night before. The woman in “Late Show’s” human resources gave me a brief overview of the building and sent me department by department around the building to meet with staffers of the show.
I saw every square inch of the internal operations of this dream world I’d been fascinated with for years. I met the production team, the mailroom people, the research department, and the writers. The writers!
At the conclusion of the day, I was sent back to the woman in H.R. She asked, “So, if you’re picked to intern – which department looked most interesting to you?” She didn’t even have to finish the sentence. I knew. In my head I was shouting “THE WRITERS! THE WRITERS!”
But, my college training taught me to play it cool in an interview. Can’t look too eager, you know. You have to show gratitude just being there. “Oh, I’d be honored and thrilled to be with this show in any way you’ll have me,” I said. All the while thinking “Great, you idiot. You got in the door of your idol and you’ve coolly talked your way into the mail room.”
The woman pressed. “C’mon, I know that’s what you’re supposed to say. Now, what do you really WANT to do?” I confessed. She said she’d be in touch. And a couple of days later, I got the call. I would be a writer’s intern for “Late Show with David Letterman” in the fall of 1998.
That fall, a Midwestern kid was dropped in Brooklyn with a box of his belongings and a few bucks to his name. I had a weekend to learn the subways and report for duty with the writers of “Late Show” on a Monday.
On Tuesday, my second day on the job – the stock market took a big dive and I made “Late Show” history. According to the show’s archivist at the time, no intern or staff member new to the show had ever been cast in a segment as early as day two on the job.
I was to play a CBS page – along with three beautiful models they’d also cast to play pages. During the segment, “Late Show Cutbacks” – the four of us walked out on stage and Dave had to let one of us go.
Yes, I was a sight gag. But I got a line! When Dave says “Alright, Chris. You’re fired.” I protested “But, Paul Shaffer’s my uncle!”
It was a moment of validation. On stage, interacting ever so briefly with my TV hero on a show I’d only watched from afar. I’d hoped it was a sign to that those who put up with me for years that they hadn’t done so in vain. I later learned friends and family held mini watch parties for the broadcast moment.
My grandmother came to New York that fall, and I gave her a full tour of the Ed Sullivan Theater while “Late Show” was on Thanksgiving break. We walked through Central Park. I told her about a girl I wanted to marry back home. We watched the Rockefeller Center tree lighting for the first time in person.
That internship was special. That time in my life was special.
I have a home office full of memorabilia and a head full of memories that stir in me each time I think back.
I think of my friend who pushed me and would later be the “best man” in my wedding I think of the woman who wrote to me when I was lonely and would later become my wife. I think of my family and friends who believed in me when I didn’t, and celebrated with me when I succeeded.
As I watch Dave sign off this week, it feels like a bit of a funeral for all those wonderful, personal memories.
In truth, I haven’t watched him with regularity in years. But there was always a comfort in knowing he was there.
David Letterman inspired an insecure kid who didn’t feel good enough at much of anything. He made me feel like it was OK, even cool to be different. Odd, prickly, awkward, whatever – being the odd man out was OK.
Now Dave’s leaving, and I don’t know who’s going to make me feel OK when he’s gone.
Chris Stigall is the morning host on CBS RADIO-owned news/talk outlet WPHT, Philadelphia. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.