Tonight, David Letterman retires. The fact that IN YOUR FACE JAM drops on the day of the last “Late Show” is too big of a coincidence to ignore. As has happened a few times in the past with this column, I really can’t write about anything else this week. To not turn the tiny corner of the internet that I have into a tribute for David Letterman would feel wrong. The man, through the institution that was formed around him, upended my life and set me on the path that led to me being right here, right now, typing these words to you.
David Letterman is my Professor X.
There are two things that I do on the regular: I get hyper sentimental real fast and I relate the facts of my life to the fictions I love. So, that’s what you’re dealing with here — you’ve been warned. In the fall of 2006 I started an internship at “The Late Show” in the research department. Then from July 2009 to July 2010, I worked in “The Late Show’s” yearlong page program. I’ve spent a cumulative sixteen months at my own personal Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters — also known as the Ed Sullivan Theatre.
To get honest with y’all, I wanted to spend this week writing about the infamous “Avengers” #239 wherein the Avengers fill out the cushy chairs next to Letterman’s desk and our host takes out a no-name bad guy by whacking him with a giant door knob. I wanted to point out all the delightful inaccuracies in the issue, but I realized I never worked at “Late Night”. I know the Ed Sullivan Theatre like the back of my hand, not 30 Rock. Maybe cameras did shoot lasers back then! Instead, I’m prepping myself to get sincerely nostalgic.
That’s where this “Letterman as my Professor X” bit comes from — my desire to write something more straight from my heart-guts and less so from my humor-brain. Just like how attending the Xavier school (or the Jean Grey school or Future Foundation or any of the other superhero schools with dubious curriculums) changed the lives of numerous fictional teens, getting involved at “The Late Show” changed me (without any pesky radiation).
I first traveled to New York City in 2005 when I was 21. That was the farthest I had ever been from Tennessee; imagine me going through a quarter of the culture shock Cannonball went through when he first left the coal mines of Kentucky. After a childhood growing up in a Leno-by-general-disinterest household, I had gone to college and discovered Letterman. I won tickets to attend a “Late Show” taping because I got the trivia question right (the answer was “Hello Deli,” which I said with a, “Duh, of course” tone).
A lot of that first NYC trip was themed around Marvel Comics and Letterman. I remember my mom and I trying so hard to find the Frick Collection, the museum that Avengers Mansion is based on. We walked through the same loop of Central Park a half dozen times without finding it; I had better luck finding a comic shop since there was one located across the street from our hotel’s back entrance. It was packed with cardboard boxes filled with random ’80s issues of Marvel comics in no order. That’s where I found that aforementioned “Avengers,” making it a perfect souvenir from that trip to New York and, unbeknownst to me, a comic that would grow to symbolize my resume. I also remember seeing Marvel Comics come to life during that visit. I come from suburban Tennessee, so I’d never seen real alleys before — you know, the kind of alleys where you’d find Night Thrasher breaking up an animal-themed skateboard gang. Marvel’s New York City still felt like 2005 New York to me. I had no idea I’d be moving there.
I was a TV production major in college and, during my senior year, I became very active at my college TV station. I think this made my intern application stand out. I was also a “talent wrangler” at the Country Music Awards, a fact that was brought up numerous times during my internship interview. Listen, you can’t go to to school for TV production in Tennessee without seeing Reba McEntire in person at least once. I got the internship. I moved to New York.
The interns all worked in confined quarters and all fit a type; there were partiers, over achievers, people from different parts of the country and other countries. We were our own version of the New Mutants, and we were all being instructed in the ways of television production on the consistently second-most-watched late night TV show.
I can’t speak for other internships, but “Late Show” put you on the frontlines. Whereas those frontlines didn’t involve Sentinels or the N’Garai, they did involve searching through old “Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp” tapes for funny monkey moments and counting how many New York City buses had Katie Couric’s face on the side — two tasks I performed for the research department. We worked long hours; if our bosses were there, we were there. Sometimes guests would have to be booked last minute, which led to us watching the Season Two premiere of “Lost” in the research department from behind stacks of every celebrity autobiography ever.
It wasn’t as glamorous as everyone back home assumed it was. Celebs didn’t roam the hallways and the 11th floor copy machine became my own personal Phalanx — in that it was a menacing machine that sucked out my life energy. This annoyed other interns a little, as the rewards didn’t seem to outweigh the grind; like Colossus in “Fatal Attractions,” they became a bit disenfranchised. But guys, I stayed Cannonball — I was completely devoted to the mission, even if that simplicity of purpose made me one of the less interesting “characters” in this scenario. Dani Moonstar would have been over taking show notes so fast! But parts of it were kinda glamorous. I mean, I was featured on the show twice, and you better believe I’m embedding those videos.
This team parallel I’m working up in my head really crystallizes when I think about my year spent as a “Late Show” page. We all wore blue and gold — the Xavier School colors. We were even more of a team than my intern group; we actually had to work together to make those five shows in four days happen as smoothly as possible. Pages are — or actually were as of this article’s publication — an arm of the audience department and responsible for ticketing, hyping up and seating the entire audience. My specialty while I was there — my super powers, I guess — was checking the IDs of 400 people in one hour and making sure that they were over 18 and were on our list. Then, I delivered a massive ten-minute long speech to a large chunk of that audience that just told them to laugh like maniacs — friendly maniacs — at everything Dave said. I usually capped off my day by assisting with seating people on the main floor while dancing to “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black-Eyed Peas. Five times a week. We were young adults doing the grunt work of wrangling tourists in an oft-overlooked department; if being an intern was being a New Mutant, then being a page was being in X-Force.
Moving to New York set off a chain reaction that, nine years later, has me doing things I never thought I would do. Like the fictional Professor X, the real David Letterman changed the world and rallied around him a system and exponentially growing group of like-minded people. I got to be a tiny, tiny part of that team, for a brief — yet definitive — period of my life. I don’t care if that metaphorically makes me a small-time X-Man like Maggott, because Maggott still got to live in the X-Mansion and see A-Listers like Storm and Wolverine do their thing. Being an X-Man changed Maggott’s life for the better — and then he died in a mutant internment camp and was resurrected as an undead minion of Selene. This isn’t a total one-to-one mapping.
X-Men metaphor aside, I flat-out wouldn’t be doing this job without David Letterman because that internship plucked me out of my surroundings, where I was pretty comfortable, and forced me to evolve in a new city. That internship led to me pursuing comedy and that internship got me a job in the TV industry; the latter kept me in New York City while the former introduced me to a “Wizard Magazine” freelancer. Proximity and connections got me a job at Wizard Entertainment, which, domino knocking into domino, leads to where I am in 2015. Everyone’s life is made up of a series of dominos, I realize that; I still can’t believe that one of mine — a big one of mine — is “The Late Show.”
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He makes videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the sketch comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).
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