GOODNIGHT EVERYBODY!

Tonight, David Letterman will sign off for the last time. Now you may say, “Everyone is gushing about Letterman, the last thing the internet needs is another ‘Thanks, Dave’ post.”

Well, that’s too damn bad for you, Paco, because this is my blog and I get to write about whatever the hell I want. Go start your own blog. It’s free.

Watching the retrospectives over the past few months, the reason it’s so sad that Letterman is leaving is that it is so clearly time. Even if he reversed course tonight and said, “Nah! I’m coming back!” he couldn’t recapture the edge he had from his earlier days.

I’ve watched Letterman regularly since the early 1990s, starting out when A&E ran reruns of Late Night at 7:00 p.m. For Christmas 1993, I got a portable, broadcast-signal-only TV. The station that came in clearest was the CBS affiliate out of Philadelphia – and that was all I needed as I watched the Late Show every night. In 1995 I moved to Massachusetts (and got a normal-sized TV); even as many things in my life changed, Letterman was there. One of the best compliments I ever received was during sophomore year of high school, when a classmate turned to me and said, “You know, you remind me a lot of David Letterman.” We weren’t even talking about Letterman at the time.

Not to romanticize the man – Lord knows, he’s had flaws aplenty. But watching his shows, I have taken away some pretty valuable lessons – things that apply to politics, careers, relationships, or anything else you’re getting into these days. If only there was a thematically appropriate way to present these lessons in an ordered fashion…

TOP TEN LESSONS FROM DAVID LETTERMAN

10. Build your own road. There’s room. In 1991, when Letterman was passed over for the Tonight Show, there was Johnny Carson on at night and not much else. Arsenio Hall targeted younger demographics and black audiences, and Nightline was there for the news junkies, but there was only one late night talk show. Now there are at least five. Letterman may not have topped Leno in the ratings after 1995; but by striking out from the safety of his 12:30 Late Night time slot in 1993 – and creating his own show – he found more success.  In the process, he’s become the cornerstone for two late night franchises. Not even Carson could say that.

9. Don’t take yourself too seriously. From goofy hair to the gap between his front teeth, Letterman has never been shy about cracking jokes at his own expense. The occasional rough edge is much easier for others to stomach when you make yourself the target now and then.

8. Everyone has a story (and a joke) to tell. With non-celebrity guests – from audience members to kids who won science contests – Letterman really shined, showing genuine interest in what they had to say. He turned his neighbors around the Ed Sullivan Theater into stars. Being generous with the spotlight made Dave look better in the end.

7. Don’t be intimidated by anyone. …And when the person sharing the spotlight thought too much of themselves, Letterman was never afraid to knock them down a peg or two. (Even big stars like Madonna and Cher.)

6. There is such a thing as good-natured cynicism. Each week, Family Guy does a send-up of the sitcom family trope. The characters assault each other verbally, emotionally, and physically. It’s funny, but you wouldn’t say it’s rewarding. Letterman may have been caustic and sarcastic, but at least you knew there was always a smile on the other side of it.

5. Be respectful. When Letterman left NBC, he also left the blazers-and-sneakers look behind; he understood the investment CBS made in him (a $14 million per year contract) and wanted to at least look nice. That shows a level of respect that isn’t readily apparent in the irreverance. It extended to the audience, too. Daniel Kellison, the segment producer for the infamous 1994 Madonna interview wrote about Letterman’s real problem with the Material Girl’s f-bombs: “He always understood the privilege that came with the ability to broadcast, and the responsibility that accompanied it. Ratings and press were less a consideration.”

4. Rely on your team. Paul Shaffer said that Letterman told him from the beginning to jump in with comments anytime – whether it was during the monologue, during an interview, anywhere. Stage hands, producers, directors, writers, and staff all found themselves on the air. Letterman understood what he did was nothing special, and that talent was everywhere around him.

3. Great things can come from heartbreak. As mentioned above, Letterman is a late night legacy on two different networks, and at two different time slots. None of it could have happened without the crushing disappointment of losing his dream job. Sometimes the bad breaks work out. Everything happens for a reason.

2. Remember how lucky you are. As Letterman himself said, “I cannot sing, dance, or act. What else would I be but a talk show host?”

1. Have fun. I couldn’t tell you exactly when it happened, but my all-time favorite memory came when Letterman, in the middle of a monologue or a bit, called out to no one in particular, “Who has more fun than we do?” Dutifully, Shaffer enthusiastically hollered from off camera, “Nobody, Dave!” It was a small, throw-away moment that didn’t seem rehearsed. Few people probably gave a second thought to it two minutes after it happened, let alone in the decades since.

Yet it always stuck with me as the epitome of Letterman’s attitude toward his own show. Even when the jokes were bombing or the guests were lame, it seemed like Dave and Company understood that there would always be another show. At least until tonight.

This may be the most important lasting lesson of the David Letterman era. In every office I have ever worked at in my professional life, I have, at some particularly tense or busy time, called out loudly, “Who has more fun than we do?” The answer has always come back (from folks I’m certain weren’t avid Letterman fans): “Nobody!” Without fail.

Johnny Carson might have invented late night television as we know it. Jay Leno might have bested him in the ratings. Jimmy Fallon might have merged the TV and internet age better than anyone.

But who had more fun than David Letterman?

Harry Shearer and the future of Springfield

It looks like “The Simpsons” is parting ways with one of six main cast members, Harry Shearer. The prolific Shearer voices several characters, including Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, and both Messrs. Burns and Smithers.

Since the show relies so heavily on a small cast – most of the main characters have come from one of eight voice actors – that a departure, or firing, or someone getting hit by a bus was inevitable. Given how outspoken he has been, it’s not surprising it’s Shearer – who also clashed with both Lorne Michaels and Dick Ebersol during separate tenures at Saturday Night Live.

From an operational perspective, the producers should be able to replace him in the near term. The characters Shearer has helped create have become so recognized and ingrained in the culture that just about any mid-sized city has someone who can do a spot-on Mr. Burns impersonation, or a dead-ringer Ned Flanders. If the audiences start to leave, it shouldn’t be due to voices sounding different.

In fact, forcing the writers to downplay Shearer’s former characters might remove  some of the crutches that recent writing generations have leaned on. Could the current batch of writers bring new characters that freshen up the series?

Think about the side characters that have made “The Simpson’s” so great (many voiced by Shearer. Many are cultural relics. Flanders is a wacky neighbor, pulled straight out of the old-time family sitcoms “The Simpsons” was created to satirize. Burns runs the biggest company in town, but the big bad boss just isn’t as threatening in an era where workers change jobs as frequently. Kent Brockman is the smug evening news anchor on an over-the-air local network affiliate; Krusty the Clown hosts an afternoon kids’ TV show. In a modern Springfield, neither of these types of people would exist. Brockman would be younger and pushing to latch on with a station in Capital City. Krusty’s time slot would be filled with Steve Harvey while kids watched their cartoons on the Disney Channel.

(Bumblebee Man? He might still be ok.)

At a quarter-century, “The Simpsons” has over-stayed its welcome as groundbreaking TV and evolved into Sunday-night background noise.  Future media critics may point to Shearer’s departure as the catalyst for the beginning of the end. But if the current crop of writers are up to the challenge, it could be a new beginning.

Bill Simmons and the myth of sports journalism

ESPN and Boston Sports Guy Bill Simmons are breaking up. There are probably no good guys in this split since the talented Simmons has come to embody every horrible stereotype of a Boston sports fan over the past 15 years or so (it’s not his fault, they’ve all gotten like that).

But ESPN is just pathetic in its self importance. Even the statement from network head John Skipper dripped with it: “I’ve decided that I’m not going to renew his contract,” he said. It sounds like the person who tells you the end of a relationship was a mutual thing. You know that person is probably the one who got dumped.

ESPN, the “WorldWide Leader” in sports, didn’t rip the lid off the somewhat obvious steroid use in baseball. They aren’t blowing up the out-and-out lie that publicly-funded sports stadiums are a boon for the cities which shell out the money for them. The closest they come to “sports journalism” is the nightly highlight reels of SportsCenter, or the longer-form, incredibly informative 30 for 30 documentaries that were spearheaded by, you guessed it, Bill Simmons.

Otherwise, the ESPN media empire is a wasteland of loud talking heads on TV and radio like Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd and Mike and Mike in the Morning – all personality-driven, somewhat entertaining in doses, and devoid of intellectual heavy lifting. They’ll still talk in reverent tones about hallowed records or greats of the game – as if sports really matters. It doesn’t, at least not the way they cover it.

And they don’t cover it seriously because ESPN is also based around live games. And even paying huge sums of money in broadcast rights, the network can still act like a scared employee, worried that during the next round of negotiations Roger Goodell might decide he would rather have Monday Night Football on TBS. Last year, when Goodell was facing very serious and very legitimate questions about wether the most visible American sport was unwittingly giving cover to domestic abusers, Simmons found out the hard way that you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Even if you are the one paying that hand.

The fact is that ESPN probably is better off without Simmons. They can probably replace him with someone cheaper, maybe someone whose pop culture references will be a little fresher. And the content ESPN churns out will be every bit as bad as it used to be.

Baltimore needs Dads

A Facebook friend posted two startling statistics the other day in light of the mess in Baltimore:

  1. Young men with absentee fathers are twice as likely to wind up in jail.
  2. An astounding 83% of black kids in America will reach their 17th birthday without a father in the house.

There certainly may have been justified anger in Baltimore, but manifested itself as unjustified behavior. In this week’s “By the Numbers” post at Communities Digital News, I note that the 2010 census showed that 53% of Baltimore’s children under six are in fatherless families (and 63% are in single-parent households).

There are plenty of questions for the City of Baltimore to answer in how it handled Freddie Gray, and there are reasons for the citizens to be reproachful of the police. But maybe the anger, distrust, and frustration could have come out differently than the ugliness of destruction.

In the coming weeks, plenty of policy experts will have political solutions to help – things like police reforms or community initiatives to help bridge the gap between law enforcement and their constituents. These proposals might help the problem. Still, there are deeper rooted issues whose solutions simply go beyond the relatively limited realm of politics.

There is no substitute for Dad.

A new frontier for pro-life politicians

This week’s post over at Communities Digital News is about some recent polling that shows that many Americans have views on abortion that aren’t as easily categorized as many politicos think. This is likely true of other issues as well. Some things simply transcend politics, so the fight needs to be in a non-political arena. Legislation and policy is certainly important, but not all-inclusive.

Most policy is made by politicians who understand the electoral implications of being for or against something. For example, many conservative politicians wouldn’t have supported a ban on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy; now you couldn’t win a Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in most states, let alone President, if you oppose such a ban.

Through crisis pregnancy centers and post-abortive counselling organizations, the broader pro-life movement handles the non-policy side of the debate well. Political organizations who want to move public opinion on the abortion issue should embrace this.

That may be non-traditional for politics, but it’s ultimately how opinions change.