David Letterman has been a staple of late night television since the day’s broadcasts ended in the wee hours of the morning with “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing over a fluttering flag (remember that?). I wasn’t quite five when NBC started broadcasting Late Night With David Letterman, but I do remember falling asleep in our living room as a kid during summer vacation and waking up to Dave’s familiar gap-toothed grin. I was in high school when he made the shift to CBS and The Late Show with David Letterman, and my first trip to New York City in college wasn’t complete until I’d found the Ed Sullivan Theater and bought soda from Rupert G. at Hello Deli around the corner. David Letterman has been a fixture in my life for almost as long as I can remember. He’s given me a lot of laughs over the years, whether from Top Ten Lists, Stupid Pet Tricks, or from him taking a guest to task. But he’s played a much bigger role in my life than just a comedian–he got me through a dark time in my life.
I returned to college in the spring semester of my freshman year only to experience panic attacks for the first time. I thought I was dying. I thought I was going crazy. After a discussion with my mom, I found out that they were common in my family, which was both slightly and not at all comforting. I spent a lot of time at the college’s counseling center learning to deal with them, trying to absorb relaxation and coping techniques, figuring out which medication would be best for me. One of the things that stuck with me, probably because it resonated with my Type A personality and actually worked, was to schedule everything in manageable chunks. Break a semester down, break an assignment down, break a day down. Even something as mundane as knowing what I would be watching on television on a given day helped things seem less overwhelming. And that’s how I found myself in the dorm lounge every night watching Letterman.
Our dorm rooms were just starting to get cable at that point in the late 90s, so the lounge wasn’t as packed as it would have been five or ten years earlier. I was often the only person in the lounge at 11:35pm, which was just fine by me as I didn’t have to force myself to be social. With the lights down low or off entirely, I could focus on the routine of the Late Show: monologue, Top Ten List, guests. As Dave and Paul ran through their familiar schtick, my brain could begin to cycle down for the night, to stop running like a hamster on a treadmill, to relax. After Letterman was over, I could actually sleep.
I spent three months watching Letterman from that couch on the second floor of Baldwin Hall in 1996: February to May. By the end of the semester, I was back on a more or less even keel with the help of some meds and Dave. I got used to watching him, and I have done so off and on ever since. I might not have watched every night, but I watched fairly regularly, and I’ve always found the same level of comfort in doing so. And now, as Dave approaches his retirement on May 20, I wonder where I’m going to turn when he’s not on TV anymore. I’m a big fan of Stephen Colbert and am looking forward to seeing what he does during his tenure with the show, but somehow I know I won’t have the same level of comfort watching him. After thirty-odd years, I know what to expect from Dave. He’s like a family member I can always turn to, and although I’ve never met him I’ll miss him. I know I’m not the only one.
I’m sure a lot of people have stories like this, stories about a celebrity who will never know what a difference they made in someone’s life at a critical time. But those people might not have the platform that I do to speak. And even if they do, they might never feel the time is right to tell their story. But at the end of several weeks of celebrity guests telling their favorite memories of David Letterman, I figured it was my shot. I’ll miss the laughs, Dave, but I’m forever grateful that you helped me get through one of the roughest spots in my life, even if you never know it.