Beyond changing late night, David Letterman shifted what America found funny. With him saying good-bye tonight, Vulture asked Scott Aukerman, host of the Comedy Bang! Bang! TV show and podcast, to say a few words about his comedy idol. Dan Reilly spoke with Aukerman for this as-told-to piece.
I remember when David Letterman first had an impact on me. It was 1984. He had already been doing the show for a couple years, and I was in high school, trying to figure out my own personality and where I fit in. What I had learned up to that point was that people didn’t like the person who was out there trying really hard. They didn’t like theater geeks. They didn’t like the people who put on a show. And I remember seeing his show and really responding to it because up until that point, show business was very much about the pageantry of show business. Carson’s show was very much ensconced in that, where it had “show-business tradition” written all over it. “You’re in safe hands. Please don’t change the channel.”
With Letterman, it was interesting to see a guy who, No. 1, didn’t look like he should be in show business. He didn’t look like a guy who cared as much about the way he looked as much as other people did. He didn’t have a million-dollar smile — in fact, his smile looked like he maybe owed his dentist a million dollars. But also, he didn’t seem to be trying that hard, and he didn’t seem to care whether you changed the channel or not, or whether you thought this show was too weird. If you thought the show was too weird, maybe you should change the channel and find something that was more up your alley. There was nothing else on at the time, so if you changed the channel, it was pretty much that you were going to turn off the TV and never watch him again. And if he got kicked off the air, he would probably say, “Oh, well. Who cares? I’ll go back to the Midwest.”
Here was a guy who was being sarcastic about everything and showing you that these show-business traditions were bullshit, and that everything I had grown up with and been shown on television was stupid. I was a young teenager and I looked at it and said, “Yeah, he’s right! I do hate everything!” For a teenager to realize there was a guy out there who also hated everything was really powerful to me. So, I embraced my personality as a guy who was super sarcastic about everything and started acting like Letterman all the time. I would sarcastically embrace the cheesiness of things and treat everything like it was a big joke.
The time he spent on his show that seemed like wasted time was really interesting to me. No one had really done it before, and that changed American comedy — how looking at something ironically became accepted. When he put a camera on a monkey and said, “Okay, we’re going to put a camera on a monkey and see what the monkey sees,” and it would be hopping around the studio. To what end? Why should we care what a monkey sees while it’s hopping around the studio? My favorite moment, though, came in the fifth-anniversary special, when he did viewer mail, and he got a letter from a woman named Colleen Boyle asking a dumb question about why he wore sneakers. He thought about the answer for a minute and then decided we needed to go give her the answer personally, so he did a remote segment. He went to surprise her at her house with a large gift — a bug zapper — but she was at work, so they packed up. He goes all the way to the department store where she works and makes fun of her. I had taped that on VHS and would watch it over and over and over again. My parents didn’t really like Letterman, but this was something they actually found to be accessible and funny. They couldn’t believe someone would do that. That, to me, is the epitome of the show.
He took the same ironic approach in all his interviews, not asking real questions and not caring about what the guest might say — not even caring about getting good guests was interesting. He would just interview weirdos and trust that to be entertaining. It became about the personality of the host rather than distracting with the glitz and the glamour and the good-looking Hollywood stars and pageantry. He was the one worth watching, not anything else.
I’m really struck by how his interview style changed over the years. I rewatched his early years, and he is just being flat-out rude to everybody. He has become such a good interviewer over the years, you forget about how little cared about it back in the day. With my show, I’ve tried to adopt a sense of not really caring what the guest is going to say, treating the interview almost as performance art. Up until Letterman, talk shows basically told you you should care about what this Hollywood star has to say because they’re a Hollywood star, and whatever they say is elevated above everything else. To have a guy treating Hollywood stars like they were nothing and something to be ridiculed was really how I felt about my teachers at the time.
When we started Comedy Bang! Bang!, we wrote a bit where you would hear my inner thoughts and then you would hear Reggie Watts’s inner thoughts and then we would realize we could hear each other’s inner thoughts. We’d write that bit and go, “Great comedy bit. Wow, aren’t we thinking outside the box?” and then I would see a clip of early Letterman where he did that exact same bit. I’d say, “Well, I guess we’re not as smart as we thought we were. There was some guy doing it 30 years before us.”
If I ever get the chance to talk to Dave, I would thank him for giving me a career, and apologize for ripping him off so shamelessly.