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Ron Willis Ed.D.
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Ron Willis Ed.D.

David Letterman — The end of an era

On Wednesday evening May 20, 2015, Dave Letterman aired his last show and said goodbye to the American people. It was a sad night for me and many others of us in our seventies. It was the end of an era of comedy that started in the early 50s and ran continuously until Wednesday.

In the late 1950s they were called “The Sick Comics” because they didn't follow the standard code of comedy followed by Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Milton Berle and Red Skelton the “slap stick comics” who came to prominence in the 1930s and 40s. The sick comics included Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Shelly Berman, Jonathan Winters, Mike Nichols and Elaine May and black hipster Dick Gregory. They introduced what was called “topical humor” which included political issues or front page issues in major newspapers or TV news shows. Their satire and language were spicy and at times profane which was illegal at the time.

Lenny Bruce was the first to push the prohibited language envelope and was arrested for doing so. He talked about anything and everything from politics to sex and didn't miss a chance to offend anyone and everyone. He was arrested in San Francisco in 1961. He believed in free speech and his arrest brought the issue of free speech to the courts. Sadly, he died in 1966 of a morphine overdose.

In 1961 I had the opportunity to see Mort Sahl live at the Hungry I in North Beach and it was amazing. The place was packed with just about every age group from early 20-year-olds like myself to middle-agers. Sahl walked onto the small stage dressed in dark gray slacks a white dress shirt with cuff links and a cashmere navy blue V neck sweater. In that outfit he set a new standard for nightclub dress. His only prop was a copy of the NY Times tucked under his left arm. He said hello and smiled and said “Okay let's see what's been happening in New York and Washington DC today.” The place went wild with anticipation. He would give the Sahl report on the goings and comings of the affluent in NY City and the politicians in our Nation's Capital.

John Kennedy was our President, the first to be born in the 20th century and his style and wealth were fodder for Sahl. Kennedy had a very full head of thick brown hair which was very different from the bald head of his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower. I recall Sahl pointing it out as he read the news that JFK and Jackie were headed to Moscow for meetings in the middle of winter. He looked around and smiled again and said “well with that head of hair, I guess President Kennedy wont be needing a Ushanka.” We laughed not so much at the joke but more at the fact that he was making fun of the President of the United States. That just wasn't done before the 1960's.

There were others in the 60's who pushed the envelope further. Shelly Berman would tell long, involved, and racy, stories about his life and loves. Jonathan Winters did parities and characters skits. His Maude Frickert character, the swinging Granny, entertained audiences with tales of her past love life. Maude shared her views on a variety of subjects from gun control to flying saucers.

Nichols and May would carry on phone conversations, often irreverent, about everything and it was hilarious. Tom and Dick Smothers' comedy chronicled the 60s counter culture movement with their humor. They conveyed a gentle and wholesome side that was peppered with edgy material and it became the hippest show on television. However their social commentary on racism, Vietnam and the President was agitating Washington. It was biting, provocative and controversial. Their network, CBS, wanted them to tone down their message. Their refusal to submit to censoring led to the cancellation of their show.

The Johnny Carson Show ushered in a new era. Though he continued to focus on current events and the absurdities of life, his delivery was more gentlemanly, more conversational. In the early 1980s David Letterman began to show up on The Johnny Carson Show and he built his schtick along the lines of the 60s comedians using a kind of freelance style. Johnnie loved it and shortly thereafter NBC signed him to host the Late Show which aired at 12:30 AM. In 1993 he moved to CBS opposite the Tonight Show staring Jay Leno.

For me David Letterman is the last of a line of comedians/TV hosts. He was a deft conversationalist who needed no script. He was a genius at ad-libs. Who can forget his stint at McDonald's Drive Thru? He was a gracious host but he “did not suffer fools gladly” and could disarm the most pompous. He respected his audiences, both in studio and those watching on TV and seduced us all with his self-deprecating humor.

He tenderly spoke to his audience after 9/11. He shared with us such intimate events as his open heart surgery and the birth of his son. Watching him for me was like sitting in the fourth row at the Hungry I listening to the Gospel Rock of the Staples Singers or the comedy routine of Bill Dana as he did his alter ego Jose' Jimenez. On my last night at the club, Dana put on a hell of a show and asked if any one had a question. I shouted out, “What about the sex life of an amoeba?” To which he asked, “ How long has that question been bothering you?” I left the Hungry very happy and as I watched the last night with David Letterman I felt an empty spot in my heart like I did the last time I left the Hungry I, and I said to myself, “An era has ended!”

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