Letterman is Gone and I Don’t Care (Kind of)

letterman kaufman

Last Wednesday David Letterman gave his final show. Having hosted two consecutive night shows on NBC and CBS for 33 years, Letterman bested Johnny Carson by three years. Letterman had announced his retirement some months before, and apparently there was a six-week build-up on his show that included big-name celebrities coming by to say their final farewells. I have to use the word “apparently” because I haven’t had cable for almost a year, so I wasn’t watching. Even when I had cable, I hadn’t watched him for fifteen years plus.

For most of the ’80s, there were two late-night talk shows: Carson and Letterman. Carson was old school, polished, and in with the celebrities, whereas Letterman threw tvs off roofs, did stupid pet tricks, and was brash and sometimes rude with celebrities. Even in the early 90s, when Carson retired and Letterman jumped networks and became late-night king, he was still contemptuous and full of spunk in the Ed Sullivan Theater.

I was a young kid in the 80s, so I missed most of his NBC show, though I did see the odd episode during the summer. Had I watched Letterman regularly, I would have been in awe of those shows: Andy Kaufman’s staged fight with wrestler Jerry Lawler, Crispin Glover’s kooky behaviour, and the black-and-white photos before and after commercial breaks. During his first year at CBS, when I was watching, I loved it: Surajul and Mujubar’s cheap Statue of Liberty novelty item on Letterman’s Christmas tree, Madonna’s vulgar-enhanced interview, Drew Barrymore’s flashing her breasts on his desk.

But his show lost touch with me, even by the late ’90s. Letterman had his heart attack and became mortal. The 9\11 attacks changed and saddened him. And in an age when cheap tv and reality shows are king, there became a proliferation of talk-show hosts interviewing the same guests over and over and doing the kind of gags Letterman invented twenty years ago.

As I write this, I’m thinking of all the shows that have been on tv way too long for their–or anybody’s–good. Some, like The Simpsons, started off good but limped into crap; others, like Survivor and American Idol, were a phenomenon for one season but were stretched into multiple junk seasons; and some, like Dancing with the Stars, were never good to begin with. And for every one good show like Breaking Bad or Boardwalk Empire, there are ten junk shows like Judge Judy and Steve Wilko. Add the proliferation of online video services and pirated tv, who pays for cable?

That’s why I didn’t watch Letterman’s finale: no cable. The CBS online service is blocked in Canada, and I don’t have the patience to find pirated sites. I’m sure somebody’s posted it on YouTube, but at this point, I can’t be bothered. It’s too late.

When Carson’s last shows aired, I watched. I watched Bette Midler, as his last guest, serenade him. And I wasn’t even into Carson. I considered him an old guy my grandparents watched, along with Sinatra and Dean Martin. Letterman was my generation. And I didn’t watch his last show. So in a way, I’m sad. For me, tv is dead.

Sam and Marlon

Hot Docs is an annual ten-day festival devoted to feature-length documentary movies. This year I had complimentary passes and saw two movies that shared a haunting theme: two hoarders who, through their egos and sense of self-importance, recorded themselves for prosperity.  As similar as these two people are, their lives took very different trajectories.

Sam Klemke’s Time Machine, features Sam, who in 1979 at age 19 begins to obsessively film key events in his life, including his annual summary of events. Sam, a travelling caricature artist by profession, relates his ups and (mainly) downs.  He doesn’t have an easy time in life: Over the years he becomes profusely obese, has difficulty keeping jobs and making money, is constantly moving in and out of his parents’ house, and has difficulty relating with women.

Sam began his video diary the same year that NASA launched Voyageur, a space capsule that not only explores the planets of the solar system but also contains relics of human life should it encounter extra-terrestrial life.  It has a map to Earth, pictures of people, and a gold-encased vinyl album containing human voices and music.  In the movie, Sam’s videos are broken up by a documentary of Voyageur (in French!) that is as tedious as any documentary you had to watch in school.

As Voyageur transmits pictures of Jupiter and the outer galaxy to Earth, Sam recounts his life in these video diaries.  He dreams of being big-time movie maker, at one point landing a job at a local station as a tv host (it doesn’t seem to have lasted long), but Sam wails into the camera year after year that he’s getting fatter (he tips the scales at 300 lbs) and he’s unable to keep a job.  His fall back is as a caricature artist at shopping malls, drawing people’s faces for a few bucks.  He lives out of his car, pees in a cup, and lives like a slob.

But is success any better?

Listen to Me Marlon is equally fascinating. Director Stevan Riley, who also edited the documentary, had unprecedented access to famed actor Marlon Brando’s estate.  Marlon, like Sam, was obsessed with recording himself. Only he used audio tapes.  And he had his face digitally recorded shortly before death.  Riley edited Marlon’s recordings, which include recollections of his early life and career, with interviews Marlon had done throughout his career. The movie is book-ended by the sensationalist 1991 trial of Marlon’s son Christian, who was charged with the murder of the boyfriend of his sister Cheyenne. As an aside, I remember the media coverage of the trial; I was in either grade nine or ten, and although at the time I had no idea who Marlon Brando was (I wouldn’t see The Godfather until grade 11), I remember seeing the news clip of Marlon sobbing while testifying on his son’s behalf.

In the early 1940s, Brando attended the New School and studied acting with Stella Adler, and after some summer-stock roles, he created the role of Stanley in the stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the tender age of 23. By the age of 27, he stared in its screen version (only his second movie) and became an overnight sensation. In the next couple of years, he followed that up with two more classic movies, On The Waterfront and The Wild Ones.  A sex symbol who became famous for revolutionizing movie acting, success came easily to Marlon. And it came at a cost.

Marlon was an introvert and loner who turned to acting to hide.  Yet by hiding in plain site, he had to constantly dodge publicity while fleeing from it.  During his early success, Marlon uses his fame to his advantage: “I was good looking,” Marlon says on tape, “and I was going to use it”; 1950s tv clips show Marlon unapologetically flirting with attractive female reporters who coyly and shyly flirted back.  Yet Marlon wasn’t happy.  Marlon explained that his mother had run away when he was young and his father was a tyrant; a tv clip from the same era showed Marlon and his father during an interview and when Marlon’s father is asked if he’s proud of his son, he says “I’m proud of him as a man but not as an actor”; Marlon smiles and slaps his dad’s knee.  Marlon looked hurt, but on tape he says he and his dad always joked around.

For all his good points–fighting on behalf of the civil rights movements in the 60s and Native American rights in the 70s (plenty of clips are shown)–Marlon became frustrated by his early success and stint of bomb movies in the 60s, and we see Marlon on one film set rolling his eyes as he’s hoisted on a crane.  After he did Mutiny on the Bounty, Marlon becomes obsessed with escaping to Tahiti, where he buys a house.

Marlon’s fast track to success stinted his approach to work, an ethic that he seems to have shared with Sam.  Sam was never able to keep a job long and we see him lose girlfriend after girlfriend because he resorts to travelling to malls to draw shoppers (one girlfriend “never stopped nagging me.”)  Marlon, even after his resurgence in the 70s (The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now) became a nightmare to work with. “I see movies as something I have to do three months per year to make easy money,” Marlon said on tape.  We see stock footage of Marlon reading his lines on cue cards on the set of Superman, and Marlon arrived on Francis Ford Coppola’s set having rewritten the director/screenwriter’s script because it “was a mistake.”

As I write this, I realize that Marlon isn’t as iconic as he should be and Sam isn’t all that bad.  Sam is an easy scapegoat: He never made a lot of money, never had a career, isn’t physically attractive, and has eccentric habits (peeing in a cup in a car, anybody?)  And did Marlon really deserve the easily obtained adulation? For if you take away Marlon’s acting ability, his charisma, and his good looks, (which he did lose later in life), who are you left with?  You’re left with Sam.

People talk about how easily obtainable fame is today, because YouTube and social media supposedly make it more accessible.  It’s an argument that I don’t buy; millions of people are on the internet, and sure, Justin Bieber may have started on YouTube, but he’s one in a billion.  The internet’s littered with cat pictures, and none of them are famous.  Marlon is famous, and Sam is not.  Fame is random, bizarre, and ultimately meaningless.

In his movie, Sam looks directly into the camera and says he never had kids because he never really wanted them and it “just kinda didn’t happen.”  When I watched this scene, I had internalized, socialized bigotry.  “You never had kids,” I thought, “because you’re a fat slob with no job.”  Yet Marlon had kids, and in his movie, Marlon stated he feared becoming the kind of “tyrant” father his dad was.  Marlon, with his good looks, career, and fame, came into fatherhood easily.  But after his son Christian’s conviction and sentencing and daughter Cheyenne’s suicide shortly thereafter, it would be fair to say that Marlon did not endure parenthood easily.

I now realize that I should never admire or hold disdain for Sam and Marlon, I shouldn’t worship or or curse, and I shouldn’t prefer one over the other.  Yet I had that initial negative reaction towards Sam.  And it probably says more about me than Sam.