No audience? No problem for David Letterman

If your TV was knocked out by Sandy, you missed David Letterman’s storm show Monday. Too bad, because it was the kind of more intimate entertainment you’d want to share by candle light, if you had some sort of magic TV generator. Faced with the emergency shut down of Manhattan, Letterman was forced to either cancel or do the show without a studio audience. He chose the latter (as did New York-based Jimmy Fallon), stripping everything down to the essentials, getting by on sheer personality rather than video tricks or even writing.
This didn’t work as well in the opening minutes, when Letterman usually takes his energy from the studio audience, riffing on some couple from some hometown for the first five minutes.
Instead, Letterman sat at his desk and read the monologue jokes. The bit had the effect of allowing viewers to witness a Letterman rehearsal, strange since Letterman hasn’t rehearsed his show for years. He said the original plan was for him to walk out and open with, “I got up this morning and listened for the talk show closings,” which was cute. Then the jokes:
“This storm could mean the biggest power outage since the Yankees,” he read off a card, practically demanding drummer Anton Fig punctuate the dead air with a snare beat. “I haven’t seen people this soaked since that Facebook IPO,” he continued.
Half way through the jokes, announcer Allan Kalter ran in soaking wet and mad as hell, like he didn’t get the memo that the old fashioned energy was no longer part of the shtick.
Shaffer stepped up the patter to fill in the dead air, which just made it deader. As always, Shaffer’s best contributions were musical, like when he played Bad Moon Rising or Frankenstein. A remark that many staffers hadn’t made it in and that they were down to a skeleton staff–then a cut away to a mannequin behind a camera–provoked Shaffer to observe that the gag might have been funnier if it was a skeleton. “Too much effort” seemed to be Letterman’s response.
Which was fine. We get it, we can fill in the blanks. On this night, Letterman seemed to be evoking a “What Would Ernie Kovaks Do” attitude. Kovaks would roll with it and invent. That was all the cue Dave needed.
It was revealing to see how little the studio audience actually matters to the host. You could see how he does play almost exclusively to the audience at home. You get the feeling he might even prefer it this way, without all that laughter and applause to occasionally acknowledge.
The Top 10 List was hit and miss as always. Among the rejected names for the Frankenstorm were “Al Frankenstorm,” “Wetzilla” and “Oprah Windy.”
There was a remote bit where Dave talked to Biff who was standing outside in the driving rain. Biff said he remembered Hurricane Hazel, which makes him old; Hazel ripped through Toronto way back in the mid-’50s. Dave tried to coax Biff up the street to where the crane was dangling and barriers were being errected. Biff was having none of that Rupert Gee nonsense. The show worked best when guest Denzel Washington came on, as much because the two seem to have a natural affection for each other. You believe Washington would not venture out in such a storm for anybody but Dave. It was just two guys talking, as you can start to see in the above clip.
Generally, Letterman’s 500 guests in the studio do add another dimension to his show, but it is fun to see him screw around with things once in a while. Colbert without his frenzied studio audience would be an even odder show, I imagine.

Leave a Reply