David Letterman belongs on the short list of entertainers whose influence exceeds their medium. As well as being one of the most successful broadcasters in television history, he has had a huge impact on the worlds of comedy and music.
The 68-year-old steps down as host of the "Late Show with David Letterman" on Wednesday after 22 years on CBS. Letterman preceded the "Late Show" gig with an 11-year stint as host of "Late Night with David Letterman" from 1982 to 1993 on NBC. Letterman is the longest serving late night host in TV history. Not bad for a guy whose first attempt at hosting his own show, a morning comedy program titled "The David Letterman Show," ended in cancellation after four months in 1980.
Keith Forrest, associate professor of communication at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing, remembers being a 14-year-old living in Cape May and seeing Letterman's original daytime show. By the time Forrest was in college, he made watching "Late Night with David Letterman" part of his regular viewing.
Forrest recalls Letterman was always more irreverent than the guy who was the king of late night TV at the time - Johnny Carson. Carson gave off the impression he was untouchable. Letterman let the audience in as he speculated about his life, such as when he was rushed into emergency heart surgery for a quintuple bypass operation in 2000, Forrest said.
"He (Letterman) had human foibles that made him more like us," said Forrest, now 49.
By the time Letterman made the switch from NBC to CBS in 1982, he already had imitators. Jimmy Fallon, current host of "The Tonight Show," has been more influenced by Letterman than either Carson or Jay Leno, who took over "The Tonight Show" from Carson, Forrest said.
Comic Scott Friedman, who performs weekends at the Comedy Club at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and at the Comedy Stop in The Quarter at the Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City, also believes Letterman was more irreverent than Carson.
"I definitely saw some comedians for the first time on Letterman," said Friedman, 44, of Linwood, adding Letterman made the career of Ray Romano, who starred in the popular sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond."
"I never would have heard of Ray Romano," said Friedma, who first saw the comedian when he was a guest on Letterman's show. "I caught him (Letterman) when I could when he had a special guest or a comic. Some of my comedian friends have been on the show."
Friedman said when Leno was picked to host "The Tonight Show" instead of Letterman, he thought Letterman had gotten cheated. As a comedy fan, Friedman recalls seeing standup masters Eddie Murphy, George Carlin and Robin Williams on Letterman's show.
In 1999, 40 employees of the now-defunct Claridge Casino Hotel attended a taping of the "Late Show with David Letterman." Glenn Lillie, who was then vice president of marketing and communications at the casino, saw the show twice in 1999. Earlier that year, a staffer for the Letterman show gave him and then marketing director Karlos LaSane II front-row seats when they were in a nearby souvenir shop. The same woman later that day invited them to bring a group to the show after she found out they worked for the Claridge.
"I still feel like a 12-year-old coming in here," said Lillie at the time. "It's a special kick."
Bob Rose, 60, a Bridgeton-based concert promoter, has been watching Letterman since the 1990s. Rose has been booking live music since the 1970s and currently brings acts during the summer to the Ocean City Music Pier. Rose remembers Letterman's personality, sense of humor and top-10 lists, but because of his involvement with live music over the decades, he also recalls some of the musical guests Letterman hosted over the decades.
Among the most memorable were Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, the late Warren Zevon, Sonny and Cher, country music singer Elizabeth Cook, Tom Waits and Paul McCartney performing outdoors on top of the "Late Show" marquee in 2009.
"He had one of the few (television) appearances of R.E.M. The Avett Brothers, they were on their years ago when they were first starting out," Rose said. "For the last half dozen years. I have watched him (Letterman) every night. The Letterman Show introduced you to artists that you might not have seen. He (Letterman) started in college radio. He has a strong affinity for music."
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