Dear Mr. Letterman,
Hello, my name’s Jon Williams, and I just wanted to write this to you on the week of your final shows on CBS.
I know that ever since you announced that May 20 would be your final show, that this week, this month, heck the last year has been a constant swirl of nostalgia, reminiscing, tributes and retrospectives celebrating your over three decade run of brilliance, irreverence, and relevance on late night television. The New York Times, Rolling Stone magazine, CBS Sunday Morning, and a host of other national media outlets have interviewed you and profiled the lasting imprint you have left on the American media landscape forever. The guests toasting your final weeks–from presidents to A-list movie stars to Rock and Roll Hall of Famers–are a testament to your influence and the entertainment world’s affection for everything you have accomplished. But of all the performers who you have influenced the most, there is one who has been shaped by you more than anyone else, one that I doubt you’ve ever even heard of.
I was 12 years old the very first time I saw your show. I had been hit in the eye during a little league baseball game, so I had to stay awake all night for fear I may have a concussion. I watched Joan Rivers host Johnny’s show, and I kept it on NBC since we didn’t have cable and I didn’t have much use for Ted Koppel on ABC’s “Nightline.”
Your show came on and…I’d never seen anything like it. Out you came in a shirt, tie, blazer, khakis and white adidas wrestling shoes. I’m like…who is this guy? Johnny Carson had his own line of suits. YOU WORE WRESTLING SHOES AND A SUIT! And the sarcasm. Your monologue was a combination sideways smirk, eye rolling cynicism, who-do-they-think-they-are populism and back of the classroom smart aleck-ness. Needless to say, I identified right away. I loved it.
I immediately started telling my friends about you. I’d sneak outta bed whenever I could to catch your show. On Friday nights, when you finally replaced “Friday Night Videos,” I’d stay up and wait for Viewer Mail. Not just because those were usually the best set ups of your bits, but because I wrote you at least a dozen stupid emails that I hoped would make it from the NBC mailbag to your desk. It never happened. I didn’t care.
My friend Heath Chesney and I became best friends by not just watching your show, but by mimicking your every mannerism. The (literal) tongue-in-cheek facial expressions, the throwing pencils behind us, the “yaknow PAAAAAUL” and everything you said……we copied and laughed not with the kids in our classes that got the joke, but at the rest of the world who didn’t know yet. They didn’t get it. And it was awesome. We were not the popular kids in school, but the fact that we spoke Letterman-ese made us the cool kids in our own club.
Of course, it didn’t take long for the world to catch on to your genius, and soon as I moved through junior high and high school, you were becoming the counter-cultural icon in entertainment. You began getting magazine covers and movie roles (don’t think I forgot “Cabin Boy”) and worldwide respect. It felt redeeming. It was like owning Apple stock from their IPO. I could look everyone in the face and go “sure, you like Dave NOW but where were you when Dave was wearing the Velcro suit?” I was there from the beginning.
As I entered college, I wanted to be in broadcasting. Like you. I didn’t know if I wanted to be on TV, do sports, do radio, I didn’t really know. I just knew I wanted to matter. I wanted to make it. I wanted to entertain people. By essentially ripping off your material and mannerisms and many creative bits, I’d been able to become somewhat amusing to the circle of people around me, thus encouraging me to try.
I went to the University of Arkansas, majored in broadcast journalism, and a year before I was to graduate, I was offered my own morning show on the radio. At 22 years old, I was given my own program to make people laugh. My dream had come true. Just like when you had become a weatherman in Indianapolis, it was a beginning, a venue to try out my material on an unsuspecting public.
22 years later, I still have my morning show. I never got my show on television or to New York City the way you did. But I’ve had an amazing life, I have a wonderful family with a son (like you have) and a beautiful wife, I get to do my show with my best friend Deek, I get to do exactly the material I want exactly how I want to do it. I love what I do, and the fact that I’ve been able to do essentially what I want for my entire adult life is such a blessing.
But the bottom line is, I would have never decided on this line of “work” (I put it in quotation marks because, if I learned nothing else from you Mr. Letterman, it is to not take what I do very seriously) were it not for you. You made me believe I could make people laugh. In you, Mr. Letterman, I saw how I saw myself: awkward, not-too-confident, kinda nerdy, not the “in crowd” and a raised eyebrow at those who you thought were just full of crap. You weren’t afraid to call people out. You did your show on your terms. I loved everything you represented. I wanted to be you.
Last March, my lovely bride Judy and I were lucky enough to take a trip to New York City. It was our anniversary trip. We saw Bryan Cranston’s Tony Award-winning performance as LBJ at the Neil Simon Theatre just 100 yards away from the Ed Sullivan Theatre. We saw Lady Gaga close down the historic Roseland Ballroom right across the street from where we saw Cranston. But neither came close to being the thrill that seeing your show was for me. We showed up to get tickets to your show and every single page and assistant of yours that I came in contact with heard my story. How much you meant to me, how you influenced me, the whole shebang. The thing that struck me was how they listened to me. They paid attention. Like, they cared. They believed me. And it dawned on me that the reason why they cared was because they probably had heard that very same story day after day after day after week after week after week after year after year after year.
As we stood in line, I had a lady named Lisa in a Late Show letter jacket approach me and ask “are you the radio guy from Arkansas?” And I was wide eyed as I answered “YES. That’s me!” And she quietly said “come with me.” And she took my wife and I to the front of the huge mob waiting to enter the theatre. We ended up being in the very very front row, our feet actually touching the stage. After the show, we even spoke to (announcer) Mr. (Alan) Kalter and a security guard who let me sit in your chair and my wife in the guests chair to take a picture. It’s one of my very favorite pictures ever.
Mr. Letterman, I guess what I’m trying to say is simply, thank you. It is so well known your gratitude for what Johnny Carson meant to you. He was your idol. To you, there was nobody better and nobody who could ever top what he meant to you. You compared sitting on his couch talking to him for the first time akin to sitting on the Lincoln Memorial and having Abe Lincoln, the guy on the five dollar bill, start talking to you. Well sir, to an entire couple of generations of entertainers and just plain folk in America, that’s exactly what you were to us. Thank you, and know that among the Jon Stewarts, Louis CKs, Stephen Colberts and Jimmy Kimmels of the world that became nationally famous…..there is an average guy on the radio in Northwest Arkansas whose dreams came true thanks to what you did when he was a kid.
104.9 the X