Ray Romano on Why He'd Be an Uber Driver Without Letterman
Don Rickles and Billy Crystal also pay tribute to the longtime late-night host, who signs off from his CBS show May 20.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
When David Letterman says goodbye to Late Show, he won't just be leaving a void in late-night TV. He'll be leaving a giant hole in the comedy community, a reality that's hitting some the biz's funniest performers in a very hard way.
Here, three of the genre's biggest figures — Ray Romano, Billy Crystal and Don Rickles — reflect on how Dave changed their lives, his contributions to the comedy canon and why he should be remembered in the same vein as late-night legend Johnny Carson.
Ray Romano (comedian, actor)
I don't want to make this out to be more than it is, but my life has been affected more by David Letterman than anybody else's.
My first appearance on the Late Show was 20 years ago — May 1995. I'd been a stand-up for six years and done everything a working somewhat successful comedian could do by then — Johnny Carson, an HBO special, Evening at the Improv, VH1 showcase. Then Johnny retired and Dave became the next mountain to climb. He was the guy, the successor. By then a lot of comics were getting development deals for sitcoms — and I wasn't. (Laughs.) And that was OK. But it was the Late Show spot that changed everything.
My appearance was on a Wednesday or Thursday. Then on Saturday I get a call at my house — I was living in Queens — from Late Show producer Rob Burnett. My wife brings the phone out to the backyard where I was with the kids. She said, "They're on the phone!" I didn't know how they had my number! Rob says, "Dave loved what he saw. We all loved it. He thinks you're very accessible and we want to sign you to a development deal. Don't sign with anybody until you talk with us!" I said, "Nobody else is asking. It's a Saturday in my backyard. You're it!" Without that moment, I'd be your Uber driver today.
Dave was involved in developing Everybody Loves Raymond in the sense that he liked what I was doing when we showed him the scripts. Beyond that he said, "Do your thing." He was very supportive in helping to convince CBS to buy the show. I knew that he enjoyed when I went on the show after that because he was a fan. That's all I needed! It always felt good knowing that he believed in me and wasn't embarrassed by the show. Because let's face it, a sitcom can go a lot of different ways. It can be corny.
Dave was never nearly as old as my father, but our friendship has kind of always been like father and son in that I knew he loved me, even though he never told me. (Laughs.) But there were a lot little things he did. Like on my birthday he paid for me and the Raymond writers to go go-kart racing. It was the coolest thing. He also did a special Top Ten list after our first season: "The top ten things overheard at the Raymond wrap party."
Then, when I was planning my wife's 40th birthday party, I surprised her with a bunch of videos and one was from Letterman. It was a list I wrote just for her — "Top Ten complaints of Anna Romano" — and he did it in front of a live audience during a commercial break. The number one complaint was, "How's a girl supposed to live on a million a week?" He was hysterical.
He was never the typical talk show guy. He was irreverent and went against the grain, yet he was still a great interviewer. As silly as he can be jumping against the wall in Velcro or working at a McDonald's, I still wanted to hear him talk about the important things in the world, you know? To talk to the country after 9/11 the way he did and still be this crazy, irreverent guy who could handle the worst interviews. Even when it was going nowhere with a guest, it was never uncomfortable to watch. He would make it funny or caress it. It's just like performing comedy: You can always tell a seasoned, great stand-up comic when he's up in front of a bad audience.
I got very emotional when I saw John Mayer perform "American Pie" on Late Show recently. I grew up with that song and I was thinking of the lyrics, "The day the music died." Now I'm thinking, "Well, May 20 — that's gonna be the day that the comedy dies, too."
Billy Crystal (actor, writer, producer)
I knew Dave a little bit before I did my first appearance with him on NBC. I remember feeling that edginess that to me made him so endearing. It also reminded me of Saturday Night Live. He had that anti-show business air about him, following Johnny, it was so refreshing, He was doing a very different show.
To young comics, and even his contemporaries, doing a good Letterman shot brings with it a great deal of satisfaction. He has presented comics beautifully over the years, giving young comedians a chance to perform in the best venue on network television. The theater is an awesome place to work in, the audiences are terrific, the mood is perfect, and it's freezing so everyone is alert. He kept the tradition that Ed Sullivan created by introducing stand-ups on the very same stage. He is an icon to young comics with the same kind of crown that Johnny wore.
All the late-night hosts are funny and irreverent and tremendously talented at what is a most difficult job, but Dave has always had an certain extra dimension to him, and over time, became the beloved curmudgeon. He is fearless, charming and extremely intelligent. His show is definitely his show.
I did my last Letterman in April and had a great last show with him. I will miss my three-times-a-year visits because frankly, I love making him laugh.
Don Rickles (comedian)
Listen, Johnny Carson was my life — I absolutely adored him. But David became really close to becoming Johnny in his own unique style. He has a great way with people and was exceptionally kind to me. I appreciate that he always had a way of making me look good! He is very unusual in the sense that he's a great listener, but also he's very shy. When the lights go on, and it's business, he's terrific. He doesn't like big crowds. He's uncomfortable in his shoes. But when he's with you as a friend, he's wonderful.
There was an affair for me in New York last year [Spike's One Night Only: An All-Star Tribute to Don Rickles] and it was a big thrill that, even though Dave is a bit of a loner, he showed up to speak about me in front of all those people. I still thank him for that. There are a lot of young people coming up right now, but it takes a lot of years to be the pro that he is.