It is 1984. My best friend Sharon and I are sitting on the living room floor of our Southern California home, waiting. My brother Andy has just plunked down the lid on the Betamax machine, a clunky behemoth that seemed on the cutting edge of technology at the time. My mother wanted the VHS machine, since it was less expensive. My dad had insisted that the picture quality on the Beta was clearer, and since this was a device to record something off television and watch it later, it was worth the extra money. We didn’t really care. This innovation — we can watch a show when we feel like it instead of having to stay up late? — still amazed us. The machine cla-thunked to a start. The picture on the television appeared, then that familiar theme song. We sat back, ready to laugh.
Dave was on.
We always called him Dave in our house. It was never Letterman or Late Night with David Letterman. Certainly not David. Just Dave. Sharon and Andy and I, and my parents most of the time too, watched Dave every afternoon, after school, Tuesday through Friday. (His show only ran Monday through Thursday evenings..) We were the ones with the Beta machine, so Sharon came to our house, every afternoon, to watch Dave, then debrief afterwards. There was the velcro suit, the alka seltzer suit, Chris Elliott, Larry “Bud” Melman, Harvey Pekar, and dozens of other odd, memorable moments. Andy and Sharon and I loved it all.
Sharon and I had met a few years before. Her older sister was one of my new friends when I was a freshman, and I met 7th-grade Sharon briefly. When I returned from living in London a year later, in the fall of 1983, Sharon and I met again in the 400 quad of Claremont High school, in front of a bank of maroon lockers. Her sister said, “Remember Shauna? She met Paul McCartney in London.” I can still see Sharon’s eyes amazed behind thick glasses. Shy, she didn’t say much. But when we started talking about our favorite Beatle, the love of each other’s lives, she dropped the shyness. We became friends immediately.
We have been best friends for 32 years now.
Sharon and I shared our love of Paul — and the brief sight of his butt in tight pants in a tracking shot in A Hard Day’s Night — but we also shared an absurdist sense of humor. She was one of the few people I had met who already knew about Dave.
I was a brown-haired bespectacled bookworm in Los Angeles in the early 80s, the time when every actress was tawny gold-haired and lanky thin. All around me were kids in Nikes, which had just come onto the market with their gold swoop, and Dolphin shorts and feathered hair and year-long tans. I felt awkward, as desperate to fit in as any young teenager does, but also standing back and wondering why the hell I should care about this stuff. I read Jane Eyre and listened to music from the 60s and longed to live in a community of people who made their own food, women talking about their lives while they kneaded homemade bread dough. I felt like a long plain braid in a sea of big hair and blue eyeshadow.
At the same time, I was 40% sarcasm and quips, humor one of the paddles I used to row hard on the surface of a deep lake of pain. I read Donald Barthelme and Dorothy Parker and Woody Allen until the pages were frayed on those paperbacks. My brother Andy and I had both memorized Steve Martin’s records when they came out. Our parents let us stay up late to watch Saturday Night Live during those first years of Gilda Radner and John Belushi, which is amazing to me now. We were devoted followers of Monty Python, quoting long passages during long car rides. Ridiculous comedy was my beacon on the shore.
So when my parents told us there was a bizarre show on the mornings of the summer of 1980, the summer I turned 14, we tuned in. The David Letterman show was unlike anything I had ever seen, especially when the other channels were playing game shows and soap operas that droned on into forever. Dave was snappy and fast. He also didn’t seem to give a damn about convention or glad-handing guests. My brother and I were hooked. We sat in front of the television every morning, waiting for small-town news or stupid pet tricks. I still remember a moment when Dave had on a dog whose trick was that he ate cheesecake. As the dog tore through the torn-up treat slobbered on a tiny tin plate, Dave looked up and delivered deadpan, “Mmmmm. I could go for some cheesecake right about now.” I think I can pinpoint that as the moment I fell in love with him, really. (It’s also entirely possible that I have remembered that moment wrong for all these years. Love is like that too.)
Everyone who was interesting to us showed up on that morning show: Steve Martin, Bill Murray, Andy Kaufman (he confused the hell out of me but I remember being mesmerized by him). Dave made the people who wrote the show, like Merrill Markoe (one of my writing heroes), into bit players too. Biff Henderson the stage manager starting doing segments. Dave seemed to like his staff more than the stars. I liked that too.
Of course, that show only lasted a few months. Weirdos like that didn’t last long in the land of smooth-voiced announcers giving away washers and dryers.
Of course, I was elated when Dave got his own show, late night, at 12:30 am. That was the zany hour. He could do whatever he wanted, like put a camera on a monkey or go to a 5-story abandoned building and throw crap off of it, just to see what happened. I liked even more that his show debuted when we owned a Beta machine — I’ve always loved the late evenings but I couldn’t make it up to 1:30 on a school night — and Sharon had come into my life. That’s how we came to be sitting on our living room floor in 1984, watching Dave.
It is the summer of 1986. My family and I had moved to Washington state after I graduated high school in 1985. I started college at a small school with an honors program steeped in the classics that I liked. (Talking about the history of physics and ancient Greek plays was my idea of a good time.) My dad, who had taught at the same community college in Southern California his entire career, had taken the leap to ask for a sabbatical and take a one-year position at the same school I now attended. My mother had always wanted to live near her family. Here was our chance.
All year, as we thrived on the green trees and clear skies in Washington state, my parents worried about what to do. Choose safety and what is known, the retirement fund, the steady paycheck, the years stretching out before us in a place we didn’t love but called home? Or take the leap to stay in our newfound home without a steady job yet? One day in May, my parents flew down to California, looked at houses in our old hometown all day, put in a bid on one, then flew back up to Seattle at the end of the day. One day in June, we filled up moving trucks and our cars and drove away from those leafy green places we had just started exploring. We were on the freeway outside Tacoma when my mother started crying. “We made the wrong decision,” she said. “We shouldn’t be leaving.” My brother and I felt the same. My poor father was shocked to find us all despondent when we stopped at the first rest stop. It took us three days to drive to California. By then, my parents had made their decision: we’d unload just enough furniture and decorations so we could make the house ready to sell. And then we’d move back up to Washington and take our chances.
(It worked out, by the way, that giant leap, an absurd move guided by passion and some gut determination that it was time to leave LA for good. That summer, after they decided to move back even if they didn’t have a job, my dad was offered a full-time position at the university where he had been teaching on a one-year position. He retired from a long career there two years ago. My brother and I both met the loves of our lives in Washington state. In fact, we both live on Vashon Island, five minutes away from each other. Our children are dear friends. There’s no other place I can ever imagine living. That leap my parents took, absurd and exhausting as it seemed to us that summer, set something in me, a clear notion that following my bliss was more important than logic. That knowledge — it can work; it will be different than you imagine, but it will work — has guided my life and career ever since. Thanks, Mom and Dad, for that crazy summer.)
That temporary living situation in our old hometown is how Sharon and Andy and I were able to watch Dave together every afternoon again, on a VHS machine this time. As I have been watching clips on YouTube these last few days, I’ve remembered every single ridiculous sketch, all the musical guests, the filmed segments in a car with Dave’s crazy hair even more tousled. I remember mostly that a little film with Martin Short made the three of us laugh so hard that Sharon folded up inside the metal lawn chair she was sitting on and sank down to the floor, her feet flailing as she was trapped there, stuck and laughing so hard we were crying.
Dave did that to us every time.
One day that hot hot summer, Andy and Sharon and I sat down to write letters to Dave. At the time, he had a segment where he read viewer letters, typed on blue notecards, and then answered them in absurdist fashion. There was always a hint of cyncism and what-the-hell to it all. Camera on a monkey, people. We wanted him to read ours. So we wrote letter after letter on yell0w-lined legal paper, each one dumber than the last. “Dear Dave, it’s 110° here today and we’re wilting. What are we supposed to do?” My favorite, and the only one that made us laugh so hard we fell backward on the floor is the only one I remember fondly. “Dear Dave, please eat pie.”
I’m still disappointed he never read it.
My mom somehow got tickets to the Tonight Show, back when Johnny Carson was still the host, because she knew that Dave would be on. (She worked at the newspaper in Claremont, where tickets were handed out sometimes. She also got tickets for us the last year we lived there, when Paul McCartney was on the show. Sharon and I nearly fainted.) We all drove together, Sharon and I giggling in the back seat, to see Dave. The show was funny but we were far away. There was a sort-of-lame skit with Judge Wapner. It all felt a little like a dream.
Afterwards, my mom urged us to wait outside of the gate nearest the studio. (She’s always had this part of her, a little naughty side that insisted on experiences, a part of her I really like.) We waited, then realized Dave was coming out another gate somewhere. We ran across the parking lot in Burbank, my mother chasing my brother who ran far ahead, a security guard chasing us for awhile because he thought my brother had stolen her purse. We got it sorted, then we turned the corner. And there he was. Dave.
He was tall. Skinny. Tan. I still remember the Hawaiian shirt he was wearing had pineapples all over it, which made me laugh. He was chewing gum and cracking jokes and signing autographs on pieces of paper and books that people were handing over the fence. Sharon held up her book and said, “Can you put something nice on it? To make it personal?”
Dave looked at her and laughed, that same sardonic laugh we had heard a thousand times, when a guest was doing something sort of dumb and something sort of wonderful at the same time. “What did you want?”
Sharon, insistent, more confident than normal (because, after all, it was just Dave), said, “Draw a heart and put a smiley face in it.”
That’s why I have the Late Night with David Letterman book, signed, “to Shauna and Mom,” with a heart and smiley face in it. A Late Night hat too. I’ve kept them both, all these years. I’m never letting those go.
Years passed. Sharon went to Vassar. I finished up at my college in Washington State. We called each other every week, to talk. All through the week, I kept notes of things I wanted to tell her. Most of the time, it was jottings like, “Oh my god! PeeWee on Dave!” We stayed friends, still watching Dave.
My brother and I had two VHS machines by now, so we could watch a show, rewind to anything we really liked, and then keep it. We’d tape a bit from one VHS machine to the other, so the final tape was a compendium of all the most joyful, cynical, and incredible 3-minute segments from Dave that year. As my brother wrote to me yesterday, “I think about our videotape collections. They were like our own YouTube. Just a great encyclopedia of comedy.” I’d give anything to have them now. We threw everything away when people started giving away their VHS machines for free.
In 1996, I went to New York City for the first time. I couldn’t sleep the entire red-eye flight, too excited for all the experiences I was about to welcome. I landed at LaGuardia, then took the M125 bus to Columbia University, on Broadway and 116th. The moment my foot stepped on New York City sidewalk, I knew I needed to live in that city. (I moved there the following year.) After I checked into my dorm for the month-long seminar in poetry, I looked around and realized none of the other participants were there yet. So I went back to Broadway and started walking. I walked and walked, stopping to eat sometimes or look in shops a few times. New York City came at me in huge doses, and I loved every blaring noisy smelly human moment. I meandered. There was no fast pace for me. I wanted to see it all. But I was headed in one direction, to one place. The Ed Sulivan Theater. Dave’s studio. When I reached it, and looked in the front doors, I knew I was really home.
When I lived in New York, I didn’t have a tv. There was too much to do to sit in the living room of my life anymore. But the second year I lived in that apartment on the Upper West Side, Sharon moved in as one of my roommates. She owned a tv and some nights we’d still sit together, on her big bed this time, pints of Ben and Jerry in our hands, and watch Dave.
One morning, I got a call from my friend Caroline. We were studying arts and humanities at NYU together. A lovely, gentle soul, Caroline knew how much I loved Dave, even if she didn’t have quite the same fervor. Her friend had written away for tickets months before. That day, she was sick and couldn’t go. If I could get down to the studio by 2, we could watch the show. Be in the audience for Dave’s show! Of course, I went. But I was miserable too because there wasn’t a ticket for Sharon. I thought about demurring, but then I realized Sharon would go without me. I had to go. I remember the feeling of lining up outside with Caroline — was it cold? I think it was the winter — then snaking through the hallways of the theater, assistants in the blue and gold letterman jackets guiding us there, and then sitting about 20 rows back. It was colder in the studio than it was outside. The band rocked. I mean, of course. It’s Paul Shaffer. But they blew the roof off the place, just warming up. Dave came out, even skinnier than when I had met him. White shirt, tie, suit, nicer shoes than the Addidas wrestling shoes he wore through the 80s. I remember pinching myself and trying to remember all of it for Sharon. And the rest is gone. Oh, I do remember that Dave sat behind his desk in commercial breaks, no interaction with the audience. Mostly, he was hidden by cameras. But that’s it. Who was on? What songs did the band play? I have no idea. I had almost forgotten I went once, until yesterday. I think I found it hard to enjoy it fully without Sharon.
And then I moved back to Seattle and started teaching again. The hours were too late for me. Thursday nights I saw him, when I could stay up just a bit later than usual, knowing Friday was coming. September 11th happened and Dave was one of the few voices that made sense, strangely. He was growing older. Softer. Sometimes, his kindness slipped out between jokes. I met Danny and I stopped watching much television at night. The whirlwind of our lives began. Lucy arrived, then Desmond, and I never made it up to 11:35 pm again.
I caught bits of Dave’s show on the internet, which had started to become a force in our lives. The VHS tapes we had were being recreated with new material, one 3-minute clip at a time, sent through emails, then YouTube, then Twitter and Facebook.
My guess is that Letterman is probably diffident about all of this.
Thing is, Dave has this deep Midwestern side to him: fundamentally decent, keeps personal things close to him, not mawkish. And then the zany, who-gives-a-shit side that appealed to my brother and me. The man is just smart. Let’s not forget that. When the world is more absurd every year, it’s helpful to have someone smart and just as weary of the pomposity and preposterousness as you are have the chance to point it out on national television.
I’ve always had my earnest side: the plain braid, the love of classic Greek tragedy and all things geeky, the teacher, the pyschologically minded observations, the one who goes for the ending that gently ties it all together. That has, over time, become the voice of this site. It’s an important part of me. But it’s not all. If you want to know the real me, take the voice of this site and add Dave Letterman.
Maybe there should be more cameras on monkeys around here.
As you might know, last night was Dave’s last show. I’ve been writing this piece for days, thinking I’d have it up in time for his last show to air. But something kept dragging on me, not letting me finish it. Probably, it’s this.
As Sharon wrote, “I’ve had Letterman in my life for so long, it’s going to be so strange not having him on.”
The last few days, Andy and Sharon and I have been texting. We’re all still friends. We’re all busy now. I see Andy every week. Sharon’s in Portland, teaching. She has such a different schedule than mine, and I have two small children, that the phone is near impossible. But we’re all still right there. And when we are in the same room, the three of us, we start laughing so hard no one can understand us, usually in under three minutes.
Andy and I see each other all the time and still talk about our favorite comdy and shows that intrigue us. (RuPaul’s Drag Race is our current fervent shared obsession. In its way, it’s just as irreverent and brilliant as Dave. Danny and Andy’s wife love it too.) Yesterday, we texted back and forth all day, sharing clips from Dave in the 80s. (Can anyone find the Clowns in a Heat Chamber skit? I can’t.)
Here’s what my brother wrote: “The thing with Dave is that he taught me how to react. Monty Python couldn’t teach me that. Dave was just funny in the world.”
I wrote to him: “Exactly. He also taught me to not take shit too seriously. And that it’s actually fine to be an outsider.”
Andy: “And how to be a little uncomfortable with everything. A valuable skill.”
As Sharon wrote to me, “Seriously, this week is like watching our teenage years.”
I’ve been watching Dave since the summer of 1980, devotedly, with great gratitude, and mostly laughing. I’ve been watching Dave for 35 years. 35 years! I haven’t even known Sharon for 35 years. The only other people who have been in my life that long are my parents and brother. (And Paul McCartney, whom I still love.) I’ve only known Danny for 9 years and he’s at the center of my life now, the force of love that makes me who I am. What will it be like when I’ve known him for 35 years? I can’t even imagine.
And knowing that I have been watching Dave for 35 years, writing this piece, and watching clips for days in the guise of this writing, one thing has been clear: I’m getting old. I still remember Beta machines. I can say: “Back in my days, we didn’t have microwaves or computers in our home or cell phones.” Lucy looks at me like I’m crazy when I tell her this, the same way I was confused by my parents’ statements like that. I am, without a doubt, at nearly 49, one of the oldest folks writing a food blog.
And I love it.
I mean it. I love it. Every time I have seen Dave lately, he seemed older and softer than ever. He seemed to be enjoying it all more. The twitchy tensions and awkwardness left him last decade. Now that I’ve been writing this site for 10 years, I feel the same. Rather than trying to keep up with the younguns with the latest technology of the moment, worrying that I’m no longer relevant, I’m just going to be like Dave. I’m going to keep doing what I love and showing up, offering up small-town news, making stupid jokes with the staff, and laughing. This is my home.
* * *
Dave is 68 years old now. His son is 11. He has a lot of good living that isn’t tied to television. (Even tv is gone. There’s so little that makes us all tune in at the same time anymore.) Of course the man has the right to go.
But damn it. No more Dave on tv, online, in clips that Sharon and I text each other. As Sharon wrote to me: “Even when I’m not watching, I like knowing he’s there.”
I guess it’s finally time for me to stop writing this piece. He’s done now.
p.s. Please eat pie.
gluten-free strawberry pie, adapted from Home Cookin’ with Dave’s Mom
One of my most favorite recurring segments from Dave’s show was when his mom would be beamed in from her kitchen in Indiana. Dorothy had a wonderful Midwestern sensibility, a kindness and patience that Dave liked to test. When he got up to some of his shenanigans, she would quietly say, “Now David.” That would be enough to stop him. She was an anchor on the show. And she was always cooking something: meat loaf, fried bologna sandwiches, Coca-Cola cake, or Swedish meatballs. This was Midwestern cooking at its best.
Her favorite, and clearly Dave’s too, were her pies. (I believe that sour cherry was his favorite.) Since pies are my favorite food in the world to make, I knew I had to try one of Dorothy’s pies for this post. Strawberries aren’t quite ripe here — there’s too much white in them still to make them truly sweet — but bathe them in this glaze and they’re fine. Dorothy’s pie crust here is a shortening crust, with egg yolk and milk. It’s not as flaky a crust as you would make with cold butter and some shortening, but it’s an easy crust to make. It’s also very easy to roll out. This pie is better on the second day anyway. When the glaze has fully set, and the soft sweet strawberries have seeped a little into the crust, it all softens into something wonderful.
Dorothy’s pie crust, adapted from the recipe here
280 grams (2 cups) gluten-free all-purpose flour
1 tablespoons organic cane sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
125 grams (3/4 cup) shortening
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Make the pie dough. Whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt. Add the shortening in small pieces. Work the fat and flour together with your fingers, until the flour looks like small peas in sandy flour. Add the egg yolk, milk, and lemon juice. Bring together the dough with a rubber spatula or your fingers until it forms a loose ball.
Put the ball of dough onto a lightly grease piece of parchment paper. Lay another piece of lightly greased parchment paper on top. Roll out the dough to a smooth round, slightly larger than a 9-inch pie pan. Take off the top piece of parchment, lay the pie pan on top of the dough, and flip the dough into the pie pan. If any of the dough tears off, just pat it into the pan. No worries — there’s gluten.
Blind bake the crust. Heat the oven to 425°. Lay a lightly buttered piece of tin foil onto the pie dough, taking care to make sure every surface of the pie is covered. Pour in some dried beans, enough to cover every part of the tin foil and up to the edges of the dough. Bake for 15 minutes. Carefully, take the pie crust out of the oven, remove the tin foil and beans, then bake until the edges of the pie crust are starting to brown, another 5 minutes. Remove the pie crust from the oven and let it cool completely.
Dorothy’s strawberry filling, adapted from here
3/4 cup + 5 teaspoons fresh orange juice
1/2 cup organic cane sugar
2 tablespoons arrowroot powder (or cornstarch)
4 cups fresh strawberries, tops removed and cut into quarters
Make the glaze. Set a small pot on medium heat. Pour in the orange juice and sugar. Cook, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Turn the heat on low. Stir together the arrowroot powder and remaining orange juice until a thick paste forms. (This is a slurry.) Turn the heat up to medium high. Spoon in half the slurry and stir the orange juice. It should thicken to form a slow-moving syrup. If it’s not thick enough, add the rest of the slurry. Turn off the heat and add the strawberries. Stir well to coat every strawberry. Pour the strawberries into the prepared pie shell.
For best results, let the pie sit for at least 4 hours before serving. Ideally, you wait until the next day. I know. Good luck with that.
Makes 1 9-inch pie.