As you are probably aware already, last month after more than 6,000 airings David Letterman hosted his final episode of “The Late Show with David Letterman.” No matter where you stand on the Letterman-Leno continuum, you cannot deny the fact that Letterman had an incredible career and made an enormous impact on the lives of millions. Even though at first glance you may not think of this goofy, self-deprecating comedian as someone who influenced several generations of Americans, when you really think about it, you realize that this amazing entertainer spent 22 years trying to bring happiness to others. Whether he was feuding with Oprah, running through the nightly “Late Show Top Ten List,” or throwing things off of the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theater, he was always doing his best to make us smile. Every night we could turn on CBS, take a 60 minute break from our lives and problems, and just sit back and enjoy whatever hijinks Dave was up to. While he may have touched the lives of countless people throughout his career, the impact he had on my life in particular runs deeper than laughing mindlessly watching “Stupid Human Tricks.” For me, Letterman was much more than a brief escape from reality. He was a nightly reminder of the happy, fulfilling life I wanted to achieve, during a time when I felt that I had very little to fight for.
Right after I survived my brush with death and got my trache when I was 15 years old, I entered a very dark period in my life. I was never “officially” diagnosed with depression, but anyone who knew me during this time would certainly tell you that I was not the optimistic, positive thinking person you know and love. You would think that the mere fact that I was alive, home, and well would have been enough to put me in a permanent state of bliss after nearly losing my life to pneumonia, but this was not the case. For about six months or so after being discharged from the hospital, I had a really hard time finding reasons to be happy and keep fighting to create a fulfilling life for myself. Looking back, it makes perfect sense that I had such a difficult time, since my whole world was changing, and I definitely had a lot to get used to. Physically, I was trying to recover from pneumonia, getting used to having a trache, and learning to live with a whole new level of chronic pain. At the same time, I was mentally coping with my near death experience, working through the reality that I would never get my old life back (the life I had pre-trache), and trying to put together a new life that would make me happy. And on top of all of that, I was also your typical, hormone-filled teenager, who are borderline depressed to begin with, so it is no great surprise that I felt so down.
Justified or not, this was an extremely difficult period for me. I rarely smiled, and I had a hard time finding any reasons to be happy. I felt like every part of life that I enjoyed had been taken away from me. My body hurt more and was weaker than before, which meant I could no longer do many things like I used to, if I could still do them at all. My freedom and independence were greatly reduced, since I now needed either a nurse or parent constantly by my side in case I needed to be suctioned (and what teenager wants to have adults hovering all the time). Even eating, one of the most basic parts of life (and one that I have always thoroughly enjoyed), was unpleasant at this time, because my throat was sore from my trache surgery, which made swallowing painful. I felt like I had beaten death just so I could experience a life filled with pain and suffering instead. Even though I still got out of bed every day, went to school, and did the things I needed to do, I was mostly just “going through the motions” so that my parents would not worry. Inside I was a broken man, and I really did not see a reason to keep fighting so hard to try to create a great life for myself, because in the end my failing body was going to take it from me anyway.
Despite my complete apathy towards life during this difficult time, there was still one thing every day that I looked forward to. Every night, while my nurse and I went through my nightly care, we would turn on the television and watch “The Late Show.” My nurse and I would flip on the little 12-inch television in my room and laugh at Rupert Jee, discuss the current events that came up, and watch Dave bumble through his interview questions, as I got ready for bed. I do not know if it is the fact that both David and I are Indiana boys, our similar-style of self-deprecating humor (except he is funny), or just random happenstance, but for whatever reason watching Letterman was the one thing that could still make me smile. This was the one part of my day that always made me happy, which is something I desperately needed at this point. By having things like “The Late Show” to keep me smiling and giving me a reason to keep fighting, I was eventually able to work through my issues and adjust to my new world and limitations. As strange as it may be, it was the goofy antics of a weatherman turned talk show host that helped me to get through this troubling time, and move on to create a happy, fulfilling life for myself.
Of course, at the time I did not see how influential watching “The Late Show” was on my life. Even years after I had gotten through this difficult period, as I looked back and reflected upon how I was able to work through my depression and adjust to my new life, I still failed to see just how important Letterman had been to my personal growth. It was not until just recently, after receiving a text from my sister about his final episode (she knows I am a Letterman fan), that I was able to recognize how influential he had been. As I thought about the thousands of hours I had spent laughing at Dave, and the fact that I would no longer be able to turn on my television late at night and see him, I finally realized how much watching Letterman had meant to me. His late night shenanigans had been a beacon of light at a very dark time in my life. It gave me a reason to smile and be happy during a period when few things could. Even more than bringing some joy into my life though, watching that hour of mindless humor every night was a constant in my life. At a time when everything in my world was changing, and I felt like I had no control over anything, Letterman was always there. I knew that each night, I could escape from my troubles, watch his show, and relax. It was something I could count on, something I could control. For those 60 minutes every weeknight I knew what I would be doing. Having this hour every day to get away from everything I was going through is what gave me the mental space to eventually work through my feelings and get on with my life.
David Letterman will always be remembered, along with Johnny Carson and Jay Leno, as one of the “Kings of Late Night.” He will be remembered as a great entertainer and comedian, who gave millions of viewers an hour of humor every night for over two decades. You will remember his “Top Ten Lists,” his banter with Paul Shaffer, and the time he put up a billboard on the New York-New Jersey border that said, “Attention Motorists: Jersey Is Closed.” To me however, Letterman’s time hosting “The Late Show” will always mean something more. I will remember him as another small town, Hoosier boy that was not afraid to dream big. I will remember the way he used his gift of being able to make people laugh to bring happiness to others. Most importantly though, I will remember him as an unwavering, positive force in my life at a time when I truly needed something to grasp on to. I will be forever grateful for how he impacted my life, and I will miss having him there every night to make me smile, but I hope that he enjoys his retirement. Perhaps now that he has called it quits and I have told my story, he will finally be recognized for everything he has accomplished and achieve his lifelong dream of having I-465 named “David Letterman Expressway” (I can dream right?).
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