A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving of 2014, I moved into the attic in my family’s home. Things had fallen apart in my marriage, in spite of the trip we had taken to China to bring home a daughter in the previous May. We knew. My wife stopped wearing her wedding ring—not making any formal fuss about it. Cataclysms had intervened to help clarify our struggle, and so, as sad as it was, we began the process of unraveling.
The universe was ready for change. Stephen Colbert stepped down from the Colbert Report, which had lasted just a tick shorter than our marriage. Craig Ferguson walked away from his gig. And then the two seismic shifts: Jon Stewart would leave the Daily Show and David Letterman would exit late night television after 33 years. Is it strange that I gauge my life according to who is performing a monologue on late night television? Perhaps.
I started watching comedians late at night with my father, who was a Carson devotee. My dad would take a nap after dinner—short, maybe 20 minutes in his chair in the den—before watching television or reading until the news and then the Tonight Show. He would stay up until Carson finished at 1 am (later only until 12:30 am). My mother absented the scene well before 11.
My dad was a reasonably well-informed man, coming home each night with a copy of Philadelphia’s evening newspaper—The Bulletin. We did not watch much nightly news—my mother was not interested in the ugliness. Strangely, she has become a avid listener of talk radio and NPR, but not then. In the 60s and early 70s the Vietnam War hung like a grizzly threat over her sons, and so, no news except for what we read.
I learned to pay attention to the news both by scrambling through the Bulletin and Time Magazine, which came every week. For a few years my father changed the name on the subscription to those of my brothers and I, whether for the savings or to delight us, I do not know. As much as any other reason, I knew I had to follow the daily news to keep up with Carson’s monologues. Without knowing the daily facts, the jokes fell flat.
In 1982, the year I graduated from college, Letterman took over what had been a fairly straight talk show slot. Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow had ended NBC’s programming. Snyder was as hip as could be imagined at the time, smoking a cigarette and asking pointedly bemused questions. Letterman rolled in on a wave of calculated whimsy and sarcasm. He was a genial wiseass—smart enough to host Fran Leibovitz, foolish enough to wear a suit of Alka-seltzer tablets into a dunk tank. While Carson chuckled at the world, Letterman was in perpetual eye roll. “These people are idiots,” he seemed to say, “And if we aren’t careful, we are too.”
Somehow, the line between “the joke’s on them” (the politicians, the hypocrites, the too-big-for-their-own-britches), and “the joke’s on us” got thinner and thinner. When Letterman jumped to CBS in 1993, the eyebrows raised response to the woman who said, “They’re not going to put this on CBS, I’m sure,” admitted that he—and we—were getting away with something.
I didn’t watch lots of Letterman after a while. For years I did not own a television—a sacrilege, I know. I started watching Jon Stewart, and then Stephen Colbert, and by then, the comedy of “the joke’s on us” landed too close to home. Letterman never stopped being a smartass—as if that is ever a choice—but the times I did stop by, he seemed gentler, weathered, and maybe perplexed.
When he left in 2015, it marked the end of my Second, and maybe Third Act. From graduation from Swarthmore to graduate school at Binghamton, from adjunct teaching to secondary ed teaching, from occasional church goer to religious professional, from single, to committed cohabitation, to marriage, and finally to separation and divorce. I still watch late night comedians, but now they function almost only as an antidote to the news. Please, someone make light of the daily made-up facts. Maybe that will end when the current administration leaves, and maybe a sequel to Ionesco’s Rhinoceros will have everyone gleefully turning back into humans.
On May 20th, 2015, I sat in my condominium watching an end, and knew something had changed. Everything. Me included.