Saluting Dave with a Top Ten List of what sets him apart

David Letterman in his office at NBC on Jan. 28, 1986 after taping his show. (AP Photo/Mario Suriani)
David Letterman in his office at NBC on Jan. 28, 1986 after taping his show. (AP Photo/Mario Suriani)

NEW YORK (AP) – David Letterman leaves late night on Wednesday after 33 years when he retires from CBS’ “Late Show,” his TV home since 1993. Now, drawing inspiration from his “Top Ten” lists, we offer a list of what made him special.

Here are Dave’s Top Ten Tricks:

Before most TV figures thought to do it (or dared), Letterman bit the hand that fed him. His mission, he said early on, was “to pierce that flat TV screen,” which he did, and made it bleed with his stunts, shtick and snark. He knew that TV was its own biggest joke – and it was his, too.

Yes, Letterman was (and is) a big star who hosted thousands more through the years. But through it all, he maintained his professional distance. There was never the pretension that his guests were his chums. If anything, he seemed drawn more to civilians, whether the proprietor of Hello Deli, the owners of the animals performing Stupid Pet Tricks or his own staff members, like stage manager Biff Henderson. Dave knew how to find star quality among the rank and file.

He had serious guests and could ask serious questions. But for proof of his interview skills, look no further than his 2007 interview with anything-but-serious guest Paris Hilton. Seizing on the one thing she could talk about that might make her interesting – her recent jail time for violating probation – Letterman, grinning but relentless, posed one question after another about her time in the slammer as she grew increasingly unsettled. When she finally tried to call a halt to his interrogation (“I don’t want to talk about it anymore”) he responded graciously, “This is where you and I are different. This is ALL I want to talk about.” It was a masterpiece of postmodern grilling.

Dave introduced his mother, Dorothy, to the world for the 1994 Winter Olympics, dispatching her to Lillehammer, Norway, where she interviewed first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton (proposing her hubby “fix” Dave’s speeding tickets) and declined to sample reindeer meat, among her charming remotes shared with Letterman back in New York. It wouldn’t be the last time Dorothy would make a “Late Show” appearance, as Dave continued his wise policy of making Mom a member of his talent pool.

Letterman was the protege of Johnny Carson, who ruled late night for 30 years as host of “The Tonight Show,” and he was the King of Late Night’s heir apparent, despite what NBC thought when it tapped Jay Leno instead. Carson made his preference clear forever the night of May 13, 1994: Unannounced, he strode onto “Late Show” to personally hand the Top Ten list to Dave while the studio audience went wild. Never uttering a word before his hasty departure, Carson sanctified Letterman and his brand-new show. Johnny offered no such blessing on his own show once it passed into Jay’s hands.

At key moments, Letterman stopped kidding around and got real. It happened most notably on Sept. 17, 2001, when “Late Show” returned for its first new telecast since the 9/11 attacks. Dave apologized for getting serious, but, obviously heartsick, he declared, “I just need to hear myself talk for a couple of minutes,” whereupon he delivered an eight-minute confessional of grief and Midwestern plainspokenness. “There is only one requirement for any of us,” he said. “To be courageous.” Then he added, “Pretending to be courageous is just as good as the real thing.” It was courageous.

“Wait till you hear what happened to me!” grinned Letterman upon his much-awaited return to “Late Show” on Feb. 21, 2000, after several weeks’ absence. Sure, he choked up while introducing his audience to the medical team that had performed the quintuple heart bypass surgery that saved his life. But when describing the ordeal, he stayed irreverent: “Bypass surgery: It’s when doctors surgically create new blood flow to your heart. A bypass is what happened to me when I didn’t get ‘The Tonight Show’! It’s a whole different thing.”

For such a private man, Letterman shared a lot of offstage drama with the public, and did it well. In particular, an extortion plot in 2009 spurred his on-the-air admission that he had been sexually involved with women on his staff. His skill at crisis management was displayed in a 10-minute explanation during which he owned up to his sins while disclosing he had helped in the arrest of the man who tried to blackmail him. In less capable hands, this mortifying episode might have spun into a career-ending scandal. Instead, Letterman nipped it in the bud and emerged intact, maybe stronger than ever.

Busting up stuff. Crazy stunts on West 53rd Street. Turning ordinary people into instant stars. And turning television into “television” – not just a communication tool, but an endlessly adaptable plaything. Dave’s humor was a shrug-and-grin brand of comedy dismissive of itself while inviting viewers to indulge in its absurdity. It even inspired a term, Lettermanesque, which is hard to define, but, like the Supreme Court justice famously said, you know it when you see it. And always will.

Letterman told viewers a year ago it was time to step away: “I’ve spent half my life in makeup.” After Wednesday, the makeup comes off, by Dave’s choice. Few TV veterans leave on their own terms. Not Carson, who was pushed out to make way for a younger star, Leno. Not Leno, who twice was pushed out to make way for a younger star (first, Conan O’Brien, then Jimmy Fallon). Almost certainly, the 68-year-old Letterman’s decision was his and his alone. Now he leaves, not without misgivings and even regrets, but in command to the end.

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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