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David Letterman changed everything

David Letterman and Madonna rode horses in Manhattan in 2005.
David Letterman and Madonna rode horses in Manhattan in 2005.(David M. Russell/CBS/file)

You only get to say goodbye to America once, and millions will be watching Wednesday night to see how David Letterman chooses to do it. I give big odds against “mawkish.”

America will be saying goodbye to its most evolved celebrity, a complicated man who's had the good graces to respect his audience by embracing certain core, sometimes apparently conflicting, values.

"It's just a damn TV show," Letterman has said, expressing discomfort at the praise lavished upon him of late. Yet, we know that he pushed himself and his incredibly talented staff to put on a funny, absurd, intelligently stupid show night after night. When he failed, it really bothered him, and we could tell.

Letterman will tell you he didn't reinvent the late-night talk show. Yes, when Letterman was lowered into a 900-gallon tank of water wearing a suit attached with 3,400 Alka-Seltzers, he was channeling Steve Allen, the first host of "The Tonight Show."

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But when NBC opened up the time slot after "The Tonight Show," the network restricted Letterman from using a number of time-honored talk show conventions that Johnny Carson had made his own. He had no choice but to go weird. Dogs did Stupid Pet Tricks; Chris Elliott emerged from under the bleachers; stuff got smashed, either by being dropped from a five-story tower or crushed by steamroller or hydraulic press. And Paul Shaffer and the band composed and played oddly appropriate themes for every ridiculous bit of business.

There was intent behind the anarchistic silliness. While Carson's show was a smooth, pleasant entertainment for adults to enjoy before drifting off to sleep, Letterman was what happens when there's no adult supervision. Carson's show was always under control. Johnny was polished and unflappable.

Letterman, however, was flappable. And he could be prickly if he felt a guest was being kind of a jerk. And that always made for some mighty fine viewing.

He liked guests who came to play. Guests like Billy Murray, Steve Martin, Marty Short, Tina Fey, Tom Hanks, and Will Ferrell. I've done his show 20-some times over the years, first with my then-partner Tom Davis. We showed up once as "The Comedy Team that Weighs the Same" (168 pounds, two ounces) and did a weigh-in, on a very large scale, wearing only Speedos.

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However, David was not enamored with guests who came just to promote their latest project. If they rubbed him the wrong way, it was almost as if he had been put behind that desk just to torture them.

Carson and Letterman were both from the Midwest and conducted themselves with a certain Midwestern reserve and decorum. But there's a dark underside to the Midwest sensibility, which Letterman let us see.

David has changed and even mellowed over the years. We've seen him handle some career and personal dramas. As a broadcaster, he helped guide us through our greatest national trauma, 9/11. I think it's fair to say that an overwhelmingly vast majority of the audience admired and appreciated the way he did that.

None of this would matter, by the way, if he weren't hilariously funny. Since his days as a weatherman on a local Indianapolis newscast, where he's described the awesome responsibility of being "one heartbeat away from anchorman," Letterman has been a uniquely American wit. Over the years, he has allowed himself to rely on that talent to become the relaxed, but penetrating interviewer one would expect from the senior statesman of late night. But it's his comic sensibility that changed everything. In 1985, during a particularly weak season of "Saturday Night Live," a TV critic from The Philadelphia Inquirer called me and asked why we weren't doing "risky" comedy like Letterman. The critic cited the Monkey-Cam, a bit involving a roller-skating chimpanzee with a TV camera attached to his head.

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"That's not risky," I said, "It's actually foolproof. Also, brilliant and hilarious." Someone had to strap a camera to a monkey. But David Letterman was the one who did it.

I can't wait to see what he does Wednesday.

US Senator Al Franken of Minnesota was a writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live.''

Watch: Franken’s tribute to Letterman

Related:

Editorial: In the end, irony beat cornball

Critic's Notebook: Letterman upended late-night genre

Stephen Colbert to replace Letterman

As Letterman retires, so does Belmont joke writer