Top 10 perks of being an Olympic athlete (2004)
No. 6. It’s fun to watch the bellboy try to lift my bags.
Top 10 ways to get Americans excited about soccer (2014)
No. 9. From now on, you can’t use your feet, either.
Top 10 ways to make chess more exciting (1992)
No. 8. Topless queens.
Top 10 signs your college basketball team is not going to make the NCAA Tournament (2008)
No. 8. Coach keeps pronouncing NCAA “NICKAHHHH”
* * *
Every so often, one of the writers would pitch a really obscure sports joke to David Letterman for the show. He always liked those kinds of sports jokes, especially if they involved one of his cherished Indiana Pacers of the old American Basketball Association or some little-known baseball player or something to do with 1950s wrestling.
“He’d laugh,” says Justin Stangel, who, with his brother Eric, served as Letterman’s head writers for 14 years, from 1998 to 2013. “Then he’d say, ‘Sure, nobody’s going to get it. But that’s fine.’”
“Probably three people thought it was hilarious,” Eric says. “But those three people thought it was REALLY hilarious.”
In a way, that tidbit explains why David Letterman meant so much to me and everybody I knew. Letterman was one of us. And by “one of us” I mean David Letterman was (and is) a sports fan, deep down, through and through. He’s not a “celebrity” sports fan — you know, the kind who is seen at places or who might hold his own in a 30-second sports conversation.
No, Letterman is a sports fan, a you-and-me sports fan, the sort of guy who cares too much, the sort of guy who will come up with all sorts of theories about Tom Brady and deflated footballs, the sort of guy who would rag Eric Stangel endlessly whenever his beloved San Diego Chargers lost.
“I’ve been a Chargers fan since I was nine years old,” Eric says. “Back then, the Chargers would lose on a Sunday, and I would be sick because now I have to go to school, and I know everybody is going to mock me. And then, suddenly, as an adult, I’m feeling the same thing because of Dave.”
* * *
Top 10 good things about George Steinbrenner (1990)
No. 7. Except for maybe six or seven times, never fired a manager on Christmas.
Pete Rose’s Top 10 prison activities (1990)
No. 7. Playing Tevye in the all-tax-evader version of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Top 10 Secrets to the Boston Red Sox comeback (2004)
No. 1. We got Babe Ruth’s ghost a hooker, and now everything’s cool.
Top 10 New York Mets excuses (1993)
No. 1. No one named “Mookie.”
* * *
He had his favorite sports bits, of course, like Babe Ruth’s hookers and the San Diego Chicken and the Mets. For fans, these became as familiar as Paul Shaffer’s laugh and the stupid tricks, both pet and human. If a few days went by without a good Steinbrenner swipe (“Top 10 signs you have no friends: No. 6. Your initials are G.S. and you own a Major League Baseball team in the Bronx”) or an Indy 500 gag (“Top 10 Indy driver pet peeves: No. 7. Going fast is scary!”), we felt just a little bit cheated.
Then, he would fall in love with a ridiculous sports story. There was the time he called relief pitcher Terry Forster a “fat tub of goo” (Forster ate a sandwich when he appeared on the show).
There was the time, as Pete Rose closed in on Ty Cobb’s hit record, that he started keeping a hit counter for light-hitting Kansas City Royals shortstop Buddy Biancalana (“Buddy Biancalana: 11 hits. Needed to catch Rose: 4,181″).
There was the time he had comedian Frank Caliendo appear on the show as John Madden without ever letting on that he WASN’T John Madden. (Letterman: “Let me ask you about Brett Favre”; Madden: “Ah, Brett Favre … you know the Greek Gods? He’s one step above them”).
Justin Stangel remembers one hysterical bit where semi-regular Chris Elliott would come on the show wearing a Marv Albert hairpiece and then would say nonsensical sports things and show routine highlights — ground ball to short, a missed jab during a fight — and get excited about them.
“It wasn’t even an imitation of Marv,” Justin says. “It was just, you know, Chris talking, and whatever happened, you found it funny even if you weren’t totally sure what was going on.”
If Letterman — and that’s what everyone always called the show, “Letterman,” no matter its real title — were only that kind of stuff, it would have been great. Elevator races. Dave’s Mom at the Olympics. Tony Randall at the Super Bowl. The Stangels don’t like to call the humor edgy, they just think he offered a slightly different twist from what people expected.
But, beyond that, there was something else on the show you saw as a sports fan, something that seemed to cut against the whole David Letterman vibe … something (dare you say it) sweet and touching.
“When it was Late Night, I remember when (former football player) Art Donovan would come on,” Eric Stangel says. “I don’t think I would have known who that was then. But he was this very specific kind of guy, a tough guy, a manly man … and he was really, really funny. He would tell these great old football stories, and Dave would laugh, and it was just great.”
It WAS great, not only because Donovan was truly hilarious, but because you could see just how much it meant to Letterman. He was not exactly deferential — Letterman couldn’t play that part — but you could see how much it meant to him to be around great athletes and coaches, the people who played the sports he loved. I will never forget when my friend, Negro Leagues great Buck O’Neil, appeared on the show.
“What was the quality of play?” Letterman asked. “If a Negro League team would play, like, the New York Yankees, how would that go?”
“Well, in my day, if we played the New York Yankees today,” Buck said, “I think we might have beaten them.”
“Really?” Letterman asked.
“You know,” Buck said, “we won the majority of the games against the Major League all-star team. It wasn’t that we were better than the Major League all-stars. But the fact is that the Major League all-stars were actually just making a pay day. But we had to prove … we were trying to prove to the world that they weren’t superior because they were white, and we weren’t inferior because we were black.”
I’ll always remember the way Letterman looked at Buck and listened to him and nodded. This wasn’t the guy throwing pencils and trying crazy stunts on New York streets or reading Top 10 rule changes in the NFL (“No. 7: Goalposts will be crawling with clever monkeys who will try to swat the ball away”) or Top 10 things you don’t want to hear at your Super Bowl party (“No. 6. ‘Cool, Dick Butkus is here … Oh, sorry ma’am.'”) This was a someone you knew, someone who honestly felt lucky to be there.
“Dave is a great interviewer,” Eric Stangel says. “He can do a political interview like he’s conducting ‘Meet the Press.’ He has an incredible comic sense and timing. He is better prepared than anyone. To use a sports metaphor, he’s a five-tool player. And I don’t know if there are any others.”
* * *
Top 10 rejected bowl game titles (1990)
1. Manute Bowl.
Top 10 signs Lance Armstrong is getting cocky (2005)
8. Is only giving 109 percent.
Top 10 least popular Dr. Seuss books (2000)
5. If I ran the Knicks.
Top 10 signs your kitty is nuts (2006)
2. Believes Barry Bonds never used steroids.
* * *
My favorite Letterman Top 10 pick actually is not a sports one. It was in the Top 10 calls received by the Oreo hotline.
No. 8: Will you walk me through how to eat these things one more time?
I can’t fully describe why I love that joke so much, why it always makes me laugh, but, then, it’s hard to sum up what David Letterman’s show was all about and what it means to the generation that grew up watching him.
“It never was an act,” Justin Stangel says. “I think that’s different. If Dave was having a bad show, the theme became ‘Dave is having a bad show.’ If Dave was stuck in traffic, the show would tell that story. … From 11:30 to 12:30, you tuned in to watch Dave. The show was his personality. Everything about the show was him.
“‘Saturday Night Live’ can change casts and change hosts. ‘The Tonight Show’ — you can’t argue that people loved Carson and they loved Jay Leno and they love Jimmy Fallon, and that’s great. But the show can change hosts and it’s still ‘The Tonight Show.’ ‘The Late Show’ is Dave. That’s all. Even if (new host) Stephen Colbert keeps calling it ‘The Late Show’ it’s still a different show. Because nobody ever said, ‘Tonight I’m staying up to watch ‘The Late Show.’ They say, ‘I’m going to watch Dave.’”
Everyone knows he changed the landscape of late-night television (“Everybody on late night,” Eric says, “has a little bit of Dave’s sensibility … it’s all very Lettermanesque”) and his show has been a living scrapbook of the times.
Everyone knows about the crazy stunts he pulled — sports stunts included having John McEnroe serve tennis balls across 53rd Street, having the U.S. women’s soccer team kick balls off the roof above the Ed Sullivan Theater, having Jerry “The King” Lawler slap Andy Kaufman, having the great rocket chair race called by Bob Costas (“Costas: ‘Dave did you have any problem with the G-forces out there?’ Letterman: ‘Bob Iet me just say, generally, this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever witnessed network money spent on. And frankly, I’m proud to be a part of it.'”)
Everyone remembers the news-making interviews, like the one with a comatose Joaquin Phoenix (“I’m sorry you couldn’t have been here with us tonight,” Letterman said) or the uncomfortable interview with the recently released Paris Hilton (Letterman: “New York City’s exciting though, isn’t it?” Hilton: “I was born here, yeah.” Letterman: “Yeah? Good for you. How’d you like being in jail?”) or the one that was canceled with John McCain.
But, still, none of that quite gets at the power David Letterman had over us. Right at the top, I wrote that what connected me to Letterman was that he was so vividly a sports fan. But the truth is that political junkies could see that he was one of them. Music fans could see the coolest acts on there — just the other day, Eddie Vedder performed a most fantastic version of “Better Man.” The best comedians killed on the show. The biggest celebrities gave a little bit more insight than usual. Each of the last eight or nine Super Bowl quarterbacks appeared, so did U.S. Presidents, so did a girl who could play the violin and pogo at the same time.
“He can do an interview every bit as well as Charlie Rose can,” Justin Stangel says, “and then he’s throwing balloons full of marbles off the roof. You could have pastries that look like celebrities and an incisive interview with the President on the same show. He was as silly as could be, as funny as can be, and then he’d give you something a little bit surprising.”
Something surprising. Four years ago, Letterman had Henry Aaron on the show and he asked about pitcher Bob Gibson. “I heard horror stories about what a grueling competitor he was,” Letterman said, “and he was not afraid to bring it right in there.”
“Yeah, and he would even knock you down in the on-deck circle,” Aaron said.
And, with that, David Letterman laughed and laughed and laughed.