David Letterman and New York ... They go together, these two, and almost always have. Placed side by side, they form a nice, easy, wholly apposite and digestible phrase, like "bagels and lox," or "Mo 'n the Yanks ..."
Dave 'n New York ... They are a team!
A team about to be broken up ...
Much has been made about a certain retirement to take place May 20, or have you noticed?
Next to nothing, however, has been noted about what this means to a certain city where this host has been based over the last 33 years.
New York will get over Dave's departure: New York does that. New York is not sentimental.
But we pause this moment to explore what Dave has meant to the city.
This is of necessity and, to a certain degree, one of those subjects that can be approached from many angles, but the best angle to approach is from West 53rd, looking north on Broadway. That blue awning designating the home of "Late Show" will be coming down soon; another will rise, featuring Stephen Colbert's name.
There will be real symbolism in that moment, not a little emotion either. A span of years will be gone. Something deeply -- resonantly -- meaningful to New York will be gone.
Let's start with the facts. The New York City Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment, which is right upstairs from Letterman's production offices on Broadway, above the Ed Sullivan Theater, says that in '93, when "Late Show" launched, "69 films shot in NYC and only a handful of episodic series were based here. In 2014, 242 films were shot here, and the 2014-2015 television season saw 46 prime-time episodic series produced on location in New York City."
Of course there are many reasons for this production boom, most notably the largesse of Albany (or New York taxpayers), and its generous performance-based Excelsior tax credits, which have lured so many to the city, and which will keep Colbert here, too. But tax credits go only so far (and dozens of other places have them too).
Letterman and "Late Show" -- by far the most visible New York TV export over the last 20 years -- go the rest of the way.
I suppose one could argue that "Seinfeld" or "Friends" or even "How I Met Your Mother" led to the New York TV boom/renaissance. If so, they sold the city by proxy, from 3,000 miles away, on some sound stage in California. They were borrowing New York's glory; they weren't reflecting or embracing New York's glory.
One could say "Saturday Night Live" has done plenty for New York TV production as well ...
Sure, why not. Fine. I'll concede that. But that is a once-a-week production (off during the summer) while the city, as backdrop or comedic partner, is largely incidental. Yes, "SNL" is hugely important, but symbolically important. Letterman and "Late Show" weren't about symbols; New York was the setting, stage, partner and co-star.
The TV boom can in fact be traced directly to the move to the Sullivan. That stretch of Broadway was bleak back then, the streets were not clogged with tourists from Norway. Around the corner from the Sullivan was a porn shop of some sort. Down the street was Times Square. It was then the Times Square of our collective, grim memory, not the Disneyland East it's become.
Letterman also had something to do with the Times Square renaissance: In 1994, just after the move from 30 Rock, he even agreed to have his face used for a revival campaign launched by the Times Square Business Improvement District. The tag: "Times Square: Everything You Want in a Neighborhood." Dave's face leering from that huge billboard -- if memory serves -- did not convey sincerity, but rather irony. Nevertheless, the message was a powerful one.
That neighborhood eventually improved, depriving the talk show host of some of his best material.
The move to the Sullivan wasn't a sure bet. CBS wanted him to take the show out West to Television City, where there were movie stars, otherwise known as "raw material" in the trade. Why would movie stars come out to New York to do "Late Show"? They already had Jay and "Tonight."
The Sullivan was a funky space, too. Haunted -- or so some said -- it was indeed rat-infested. Ed Sullivan, who died in 1974, had been gone from there for years. The place was later boarded up. I remember vividly that when CBS was overhauling the building, a gun was found in a ceiling space. (Who put it there? A mystery to this day, I believe.)
Letterman considered LA. Hal Gurnee, the great "Late Show" director, long retired, told me last year: "CBS had just built three enormous new studios and I went out there and Dave said, 'What do you think?' and I said it's like doing a show at NASA. Just acres and acres of parking and a building in the middle.
"You've got a better shot at booking a celebrity here rather than there [because] when they're in New York, they're there to sell a picture or a book or themselves and they're happy to come on the show."
Gurnee wasn't merely right, but prescient: Many movies open in New York City now. Those stars are already here.
The Sullivan immediately became part of the show and identity: those magnificent polished stage floors, and the grand view of the skyline behind Dave's desk. This dusty haunted rattrap with ordnance hidden in the ceiling had suddenly become a New York landmark, the city's face to the world.
The show was telecast -- in Alan Kalter's booming praise -- from "the greatest city in the world!!"
The show embraced the city and vice versa. There was found comedy to be found everywhere -- some of it even next door, with Mujibur and Sirajul or Rupert Jee. The city seemed to flow in the doors off the street, and sometimes the show flooded out those same doors onto West 53rd, or up to the roof. There was a remote cam on the Broadway marquee -- Letterman would yell at passersby through an attached mic.
The concerts from West 53rd almost rivaled "Today's" summer concert series. (At least the bands were always more interesting.)
Not everyone embraced the idea of this TV gentrification led by "Late Show." New York magazine even dismissed "Late Show" and its ilk as arrivistes who were luring the rabble to their fair isle.
"Welcome to Television Naked City," the magazine snarled in 1995, "because from now on, as far as 250 million non-New Yorkers are concerned, this is where you live ... this is the New York that Letterman begat, that Seinfeld made popular, that 'Friends' made inevitable ..."
It continued: "Letterman long ago perfected the use of the city as a big box of comedy props, mostly people who look and speak funny ... key to the conceit is that while Letterman has hung around the city, he never became a New Yorker. ... Letterman is a permanent tourist ..."
Will New York miss the permanent tourist who led millions to believe that maybe Central Park wasn't so bad after all, if you didn't count the squirrels? Or that everywhere you turned the camera, there was vibrancy and beauty?
Will New York miss the permanent tourist whose show each and every night decried it as "the greatest city in the world!"
Will New York miss the permanent tourist who helped lead the production boom and almost certainly helped convince NBC by example to move "The Tonight Show" back to 30 Rock after a 40-year-plus absence?
Let's leave that question to Cynthia Lopez, commissioner of the Mayor's Office for Media and Entertainment, who said in an email: "The 'Late Show with David Letterman' has been a mainstay of New York City as entertainment industry since its premiere more than two decades ago."
The office helped mount some of the show's most memorable moments, including the Paul McCartney concert on top of the marquee, and a human cannonball launched on 53rd Street.
She added: "Letterman and his creative team are trailblazers, who were bold, took risks, and made us weep with laughter. The show will be missed."