Welcome to our weekly feature Video Rewind. Every Friday, a CoS staffer shares a video clip dug up from the depths of the Internet. Yesterday, David Letterman announced his retirement from the Late Show, effective in 2015. In early commemoration, Ryan Bray looks back at one of Letterman’s finest musical moments in his 32-plus-year run.
Having spent 32 years holding court on late-night TV, there’s not a lot that about David Letterman’s profound influence on comedy, the medium of television, and American people as a whole that hasn’t already been said a thousand times. Letterman’s acerbic wit and sense of comedic detachment have influenced an entire generation of comedians and social commentators, individuals who look at the absurdity of society from outside the bubble with rose-colored glasses. Simply put, he’s an American cultural treasure (albeit a cranky, irascible one).
Still, there’s at least one component of Letterman’s legacy that, while not outright ignored, is often lost in the discussion. Going back to his Late Night days, Letterman has always made the case to invite in new, innovative, and occasionally risky musical acts to his little block of programming. While counterparts like Carson and Leno kept their eyes squarely on the Top 40, Letterman has demonstrated time and time again a keen interest in a plethora of up and coming bands who either flirt with the mainstream or are irrevocably off-kilter. When no one else on network television was looking at Devo, The Pixies, or The Flaming Lips, Letterman was there to give these now-prolific acts some of their first exposure on American television. Even to this day, at the spry age of 67, Letterman’s enthusiasm has generated several meme-worthy reactions to fresh-faced bands like The Strypes, Eagulls, and The Orwells.
Perhaps one of the most definitive demonstrations of Letterman’s musical prowess and influence came in the summer of 2004, when he invited the Beastie Boys to drop by the Ed Sullivan Theater. The merry trio had just emerged from a near-six-year hiatus with To The 5 Boroughs, a decidedly-old school-influenced celebration of New York’s deep hip-hop roots. Perhaps trying to make a splash upon their return, or even recognizing the vitality and influence that abounds the Letterman stage, Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA didn’t treat this appearance like any other promotional stop.
While the audience awaited action on stage, the Beastie faked left, beginning their performance of “Ch-Check It Out” outside the theater, making for a truly surprising and unexpected television moment. A camera crew tracked the trio with a fish-eye lens from the subway and past a crowd of spectators before sneaking in through a stage door, where they were greeted by resident DJ Mix Master Mike. The Beasties’ innovative approach to the garden variety late-night performance was exciting in and of itself, but the trio saved the best moment for last: closing out the dynamic endeavor by serenading the King of Late-Night right there at his desk. Letterman’s got one of the most expressive faces on basic cable, and the mix of child-like glee and “oh boy howdy, look what we’ve done” was especially apparent on that warm summer’s eve.
The Beasties’ 2004 performance is just one of a plethora of memorable musical moments Letterman has presided over since taking the desk back in 1982. It’s sad to think that his role as TV’s foremost musical champion will come to an end in a year’s time, leaving a huge crater of uncertainty in the late-night landscape. Letterman might be one of the funniest dudes in the business, but his commitment and dedication to ceaseless musical exploration is anything but a laughing matter.