Opinion » Bill Cope

The Letterman Goeth

Now who's going to tuck me in?


Young people, I'm talking to you today. I want you to know what you're in for, 25... 30 years from now, on that day your favorite late-night talk show guy, or lady, retires. Don't think of it as advice, and don't think of it as some old fart telling you snot-nose Gen-Millen-Xial Slackers what you ought to be doing about it. There's nothing you can do about it. It's going to happen and when it does, you're going to feel a little like something inside of you tipped over and a portion of whatever was in it spilled out and evaporated.

I'm not saying it's in your soul, this hint of the void you will feel. Nor is it in your intellect, your mind, or your heart or your gut, your chest or anyplace I can identify. In fact, I'm willing to believe there is place, a thing, a secret, inside of us that hasn't been discovered yet. Nobody has run across it while they were dissecting a cadaver. It can't be an organ, or there would be one in a jar somewhere, floating in formaldehyde. And like I said, it can't be part of your ethereal presence, your soul or spiritual nature. At least I hope not. I'd hate to think there are people whose spiritual nature is so shallow, it goes dry just because a late-night teevee host calls it quits.

No, I think this place, this secret thing, is neither solid like a liver or a spleen, nor is it entirely abstract, like a soul or whatever it is that makes us unique and individual. But I know it's there. Whatever it is, I have one. I feel it. I feel it every time a piece of my routine drops off and is left in the irretrievable past. I feel it every time I can no longer do something by habit because the element essential to the practice of the habit is no longer available. I feel it when I can no longer rely on the same thing happening, just as it has happened all through those years and years I got accustomed to it happening, because now it has stopped happening.

Hey, excuse me if I sound a little vague here, but you gotta understand, you young people. There are things we don't think about until they aren't there anymore. And a person doesn't fully absorb that reality until they have a few years on their body and a few habits and routines themselves, accumulated not intentionally, but more like how cows get accustomed to heading for the milk barn. Cows don't do it because they're thinking about doing it or planning on doing it. They do it because they did it yesterday, and the day before, and on and on. And you can no more ask a cow why she does it than you can ask a human why he has... just off the top of my head... watched David Letterman before heading to bed, night after night, for 33 years. He probably just started doing it and never stopped.

We know for sure this much: Americans—or at least a hell of a lot of them—like going to bed with a laugh fresh in their mind. Before television, there was Ma and Pa Kettle on the radio, and Amos and Andy. Jack Benny and Jimmy Durante. With television came Jack Paar and Steve Allen. Then Carson. For untold millions, Johnny Carson was the last person they saw before Mr. Sandman took over. Carson was the chuckle that lingered in your throat even as your brain quit thinking and your eyes quit seeing. It's not surprising Carson got to be a habit, a routine, for so many. He made the day seem better than it probably was.

And that's how it happens, young people. As much as the thought of a routine may seem like a drag to you now—a bummer, a downer, a choke collar on your spontaneity, a ball and chain on your rebel spirit—as the years go by, you will come across more and more things that seem to make life a little more pleasant. A little more enjoyable. A little more livable. And you will, probably, without realizing it, come to look forward to those things, to count on them being there the next time. Without intending to you'll mark it on your inner calendar: Do that again. It felt good and made me happy.

They don't have to be big, imposing things, these incremental building blocks of a routine you don't realize you're falling into. It could be something as small as having a Fig Newton before you turn in. It could be following the same cartoon strip in the paper for years and years. It could be saying "Sleep tight... don't let the bedbugs bite" to everyone in your household before turning out the lights, or going out to breakfast every Saturday morning. And of course, there's a good chance it will be settling on one particular late-night talk show host with whom you enjoy spending the remaining moments of the day.

I chose Letterman 33 years ago. Others chose Leno. Now look what that ya' got. Jimmy... Jimmy... Conan... Colbert... that chubby guy... that Seth guy... did I miss anyone? But let me tell you something. It's not a matter of which one is better. It's a matter of whom you're comfortable with. Like a mate or a dog or a pair of house slippers, it's about which one you can see going the long haul with.

Yeah. Go ahead and snicker, junior. But you'll see. You'll find out. In time, you'll know what I'm talking about. Because no matter which one you chose, it can't last forever. And what makes it worse... the more comfortable you get with the one you go with, the more you will feel that melancholic hollow spot when they hang it up. So go ahead and laugh. You'll see.