Tonight is David Letterman’s final Late Night show. Over the years, I’ve found him to be funny, exasperating, insightful, annoying, angry, caustic, generous, and very very entertaining. The early years, when he was still on NBC, are some of the most creative television ever. The main reason Letterman doesn’t make headlines the way he used to is because just about every other late night talk show is patterned after his. (They all realized long ago that no one was ever going to come close to Johnny Carson’s greatness. And Letterman was always edgier anyway.)
I loved the Top Ten lists. I loved the wonderfully cantankerous give and take he had with his regular guests, many of them also his friends. Dave wasn’t the best interviewer, but he would give his guests the room to fly or fail (both were equally entertaining). His running bits and video remotes and all the other stuff will go down, rightfully, as one of the biggest influences on the late night comedy genre. But one of my favorite parts of the show was also one of the least original.
Everybody on late night has a band (Craig Ferguson was the only exception I know of). They introduce the star, lead into and out of commercial breaks, and serve as back-up for some of the musical guests. There isn’t anything special about having a band, or that they’re a good group of musicians. But Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band were special. Please note that I didn’t call them the CBS Orchestra, because that name never really suited them; they were dangerous. Not because there was any sense that they would suddenly go off the rails, but because they were the smartest, tightest, most versatile group of musicians ever to grace the small screen. They could play anything with anyone, and they were Dave’s not-so-secret weapon. Even if everything else on the show fell flat, you could count on Paul and the band to turn in a wicked good performance. Monday night’s performance with the great Eddie Vedder should be proof enough of how terrific this group is. I know they can all probably retire and live comfortably, but I hope they keep playing–preferably together.