Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Man-Crush Hall of Fame: David Letterman

Back in the primitive year of 2007, I consciously decided to publicly proclaim my appreciation for six male celebrities and their distinctive masculinity. Those celebrities were:

Duane "Dog the Bounty Hunter" Chapman
Vincet D'Onofrio
Chris Hanson
Joel McHale
Gordon Ramsey
Mr. T

Of course, things change in just two years, so I recently began revising this list of Man-Crushes, so far including:

Craig Ferguson
David Gray
Gordon Ramsey
Mr. T

Since I've vowed to retain only seven man-crushes at a time, making the list somewhat exclusive and contemporary, who among Chapman, D'Onofrio, Hanson, and McHale will make the cut remains to be seen. However, I have recently decided that I must also create a Man-Crush Hall of Fame, honoring male celebrities that I admired in my youth and continue to respect today. These men demonstrate such unapologetic masculinity that they transcend the three categories I've assigned to my regular man-crush list and establish a lifelong standard all their own. My inaugural choice for the Man-Crush Hall of Fame is one I made several months ago, and in light of current events, now deserves mention and description. Yes, the first man to enter my Man-Crush Hall of Fame is . . . David Letterman.

More than once, David Letterman was the only friend I had on New Year's Eve. Before he became Jay Leno's late night rival, Dave followed Johnny Carson on NBC with Late Night with David Letterman, the show then-rookie Conan O'Brien took over in 1993. Yes, more than once, I rang in an Arizona new year with Dave (and once, I vividly remember, a whole bucket of fried chicken), since his show was on at midnight. Before his move to CBS, Dave was like a real life cartoon character, his wide, circular glasses and informal khaki pants mere accessories to his exaggerated facial expressions and wacky themed segments. His interview style threw reverence to the wind and was all Bugs Bunny on Elmer Fudd, comically combative and ultimately harmless. Obviously intended for a younger audience, I don't know if Dave sought emulation from an eleven-year-old kid like me, but he got it anyway.

When Johnny Carson retired and Jay Leno won the Tonight Show mantle in '93 (the same year I started high school), CBS offered a jilted Letterman a prestigious opposing show, and Dave classed up the joint when he moved into America's homes an hour earlier. Since then, The Late Show with David Letterman has been a comforting, reliable influence in my life, primarily as a source for hilarious daily commentary and raucous, ridiculous comedy. In 1994, I visited my father in New York, got my picture taken with Hello Deli's Rupert Jee, and saw Patrick Stewart entering the Ed Sullivan Theater, then in '99, I saw a live taping. My sophomore year of high school, I joined the media club and I began reading weekly top 10 lists for our campus's televised announcements and was quickly dubbed "Top 10 Boy." As if to seal the deal, when I finally discovered Frank Miller's definitive Batman work The Dark Knight Returns, I was delighted to behold Dave's cameo -- a crossover with reality that secured Letterman's iconic place as my comedic hero.

I didn't realize just how important Dave had become in pop culture and the American landscape at large until his heart surgery in 2000. Then, after September 11, his somber reflections as a New York commuter gripped me more than any supposedly objective newscaster dared. During the writers' strike in 2007, The Late Show was the first to make a deal and return to air, and Dave's "strike beard" was a more shocking statement than any picket sign those writers cleverly penned. However, Letterman's personal life is most striking to me; Bill O'Reilly has frequently dubbed him a celebrity recluse, yet the details of Dave's personal life have always been forefront, usually thanks to his gossip-dodging transparency. I mean, Dave had a suicidal stalker in the '80s, frequently speaks openly of his surgery from 2000, talks proudly of his son Harry, and invites us into his mother's home every Thanksgiving to play "guess the pie." Further, like many others, my mouth hung open when he nonchalantly announced his matrimony on March 23, shrouded in a congratulatory note to the also newly wedded Bruce Willis. Sure, Dave isn't often caught in front of the paparazzi cameras, but he has a camera to himself every night that he uses just as candidly.

Ah, and October 1's episode was no exception. Like the other landmark Letterman episodes, I almost missed it if not for happenstance; in this case, the nightly news' teased an extortion attempt against him. I watched reverently as Dave explained the strange plot as best he could, concluding with his confession of infidelity with female members of his staff, and in the moments afterward, I silently renewed my vow to forever be a fan. See, as I heard Los Angeles talk radio personality Dave McIntyre explain, Letterman isn't really in charge of anything important. He's an entertainer, and his private life is ultimately inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. I agree, but I admire Letterman, so why hasn't his sex scandal embittered me? Well, unlike politicians caught in similar schemes (incidentally, politicians are in charge of things), Dave confessed to his personal crimes and apologized to anyone it has adversely affected. Just as his heart surgery exposed his mortality, this latest development exposes his morality, and the man frequently, publicly struggles with both. Who am I to question his struggle, and make it worse by joining him in it?

Finally, and most importantly, Dave did not let his now scandalous personal life get in the way of doing his job. He didn't cancel his show and call a press conference, or schedule a heart-wrenching interview with Barbara Walters. Dave used his show as a personal forum to explain his misconduct in an honest, self-abashing humorous way, then proceeded business as usual. That's the lesson -- always has been. Jay Leno gets your dream job. Heart surgery. Whether or not it floats. September 11th. Sex scandal. Pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and go to work.

With almost 30 years on television, I can't think of a better time to be a David Letterman fan. Just a few weeks ago, he interviewed the President of the United States, for crying out loud. His production company introduced fellow man-crush Craig Ferguson to the world of late night, and it is so much better for it. You remember that Craig spoke at the White House Correspondents' Dinner last year and just released his autobiography, right? Dave's longtime partner, Paul Shaffer, recently released a memoir about his career in the music industry, too. Now, we watch a television icon overcome some personal hardship -- again -- the best way anyone can . . . by telling jokes at others' expense. Since I was eleven, Dave's been one of the funniest guys I know, and that was me finding him over ten years into his career. Now, closing in on thirty years? That's as long as Johnny Carson was the host of The Tonight Show! Everything else be damned. Has any celebrity been anything for almost 30 years, let alone hilarious? And the number one reason Dave is in my Man-Crush Hall of Fame is? Just that.

No comments: