In the midst of one the most turbulent and horrific periods on the American political landscape, there was Dave Letterman receiving the Mark Twain prize for humour at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.. And after he had paid homage to those who celebrated his 33-year television career as a host of Late Night, asking rhetorically if the prize could not be presented posthumously, he ended with a Twain quote on patriotism:
For Twain patriotism meant loving your country all of the time, and your government when it deserved it.
Such a nuanced and clarifying moment, in the midst of the political chaos that is contemporary Washington, serves as an fitting tribute to the man who served up a cocktail of interesting interviews, comedic moments and a health dose of reality checking each week-day night.
Having watched probably hundreds of hours of “Letterman” I could not be surprised by whatever mayhem spilled out of the television screen. For me, Letterman was “appointment” television, after the debacle over the sunset of the Johnny Carson show which was purportedly going to pass to Letterman, yet went, strangely, to Leno.
As the President of the Kennedy Center, Mr. David Rubenstein noted in his presentation address, Dave was both “class clown” and “valedictorian”. And it was that capacity to bridge the divide that exists in every high school graduating class in Canada and the United States, always able to laugh at himself, and never forgetting his roots, including his spotty academic record, until he enrolled in public speaking and later spent time on the radio station at Ball State. Both experiences (where there were no maths or languages) gave a podium and a microphone for one of the more memorable icons in American entertainment.
Having been “helped” by many, and taking the opportunity to acknowledge their significant contribution to his career, he reminded this audience, through PBS, of the benefits of helping others, an act after which one will always feel better.
For all of the pomp and intellectual complexity of much of the public debate and the policy analysis of an era in which the “expert” has become ‘god,’ Letterman reminds us that real ordinary people with courageous and independent values really matter, especially when those values are served on a menu of variety and interesting people from a multitude of walks of life.
Noam Chomsky in The Essential Chomsky, too, reminds us of the importance of the “value-oriented critic” of foreign policy. The “experts” in foreign policy will always disdain the “generalist” because his/her analysis is missing the details of the narrative, that always “make any issue more complicated” than the generalist perceives and posits. However, Chomsky assertively pays homage to those generalists among us. (Chomsky himself is an academic linguist with a deep and penetration intellect, who from his lair at MIT has been shifting wheat from chaff in public utterances by public figures for decades.) The fact that all of the miniscule details of any issue are not included in the generalist’s assessment of any political situation does not, and for Chomsky must not, make his critique any less valid.
Letterman’s most recent ‘gig’ involves a new contract with Netflix for $15 million, to host some modest number of shows. And it was Marty Short, the comedian from Hamilton Ontario, Canada, who, in separating Letterman from Twain, used two words, “Netflix sellout,” in what has to be the most prescient and penetration satire of the evening.
Dressed in Elizabethan garb, former recipient of the Twain prize, Bill Murray welcomed Letterman into the “king”-dom of winners, while munching on food he ordered as part of his schtick. Paul Schaffer, Letterman’s orchestra leader for all of those decades, in his comparison of Twain to Letterman, “I actually was invited to Twain’s house.” The reference is to the total and utter privacy Letterman has sought and secured in his private life, although both his renowned son Harry, and his wife were seated beside him. And there was a brief, but memorable appearance by Letterman’s Columbia University Psychiatrist, “shrink”…who repeated the comic’s litany of self-deprecating whining and “pity-party” utterances from his sessions, and then wondered abruptly, “How do I get out of here?
Sardonically, when Letterman appeared to accept his prize to a standing ovation, he quipped, “Oh right, a standing ovation on PBS!” a spontaneous quip about his checkered history with television networks, with PBS having the smallest audience.
Humbly and accurately comparing himself to his renowned benefactor, in whose name the award has been presented for twenty years, Letterman noted the many writings of Twain, compared with none by himself, and also underlined how each of the guests this night are “far funnier that I”.
The “Moses” beard and balding white hair documented the sunset years of the man whose untameable personal angst “Shadowed” his public performance and persona, giving all others the hope and the promise that if he could do what he did for decades, successfully, there is hope for all of us, no matter how self-doubting we really are.
Thanks for the memories, Mr. Letterman, and to the Kennedy Centre, thanks also for once again recognizing the important glue and paste that attempts, often without recognition or even notice, to hold a culture back from violent rupture.