“Ben Dougan”

Really enjoyed tuning in to Late Show With David Letterman the other night.  No HelyTimes reader should miss the above clip.

I hadn’t watched the show in awhile: it brings back visceral memories of eating moist takeout on the 14th floor of the Ed Sullivan Theater, watching the taping alone on a little TV in my office.

Watching the show again I thought came closer to understanding the show than I ever did then.  David Letterman and Paul Schaffer operate in some shared inbetween land of irony and genuine, earnest love for the thing they’re being ironic about.  It’s like they’re making a parody of a TV show, but a parody that comes from an almost painful longing. Paul is more joyful.

Consider this, from a 1984 Playboy interview with DL:

Playboy: Paul Shaffer’s comical character provides a nice counterpoint to your cynicism. Was that something designed, or did it just happen?

Letterman: Paul was originally hired solely for the music. We wanted old R&B stuff and good, solid rock ‘n’ roll—the kind of music you never hear on TV talk shows. But while we were talking with him, we were reminded of all the wonderful things he had done on Saturday Night Live,playing Don Kirshner and Marvin Hamlisch. And he is a very, very funny guy. So we just naturally began utilizing more and more of his talents.

Playboy: But where did that character come from?

Letterman: From Paul, who really does love showbiz kitsch. It’s his hobby. He records The Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon and plays back Jerry introducing Chad Everett 100 times in a row. On vacations, he goes to Las Vegas and listens to lounge comics and lounge piano players and memorizes their clichés. It’s not that he’s making fun of it; he’s fascinated by it.

Playboy: What you say makes us wonder if the character he plays really is a character.

Letterman: When people come up to me on the street, probably the most asked question is “Is Paul Shaffer for real?” What he does is an extension of an aspect of his personality. So it would not be inaccurate to say, “Yeah, that’s him.” But he’s also a very nice man; a sweet, sensitive human being. See? Maybe it is impossible to describe Paul without lapsing into those stupid showbiz clichés. You know him, you love him, you can’t live without him.

Another interesting thing from that interview:

Playboy: Your college years were 1965 through 1969, the anti-Vietnam war protest era. Were you involved in the radical politics of that time?

Letterman: Ball State was pretty much isolated from all of that. I’m not sure why, since Kent State was not far off or too different. And I was not what you would call politicized. While other campuses were staging major demonstrations, our biggest worry was “How are we gonna get beer for the big dance?” I was hardly aware of the Vietnam war until a friend of mine flunked out and was drafted and [snaps fingers] was dead like that. One day, here’s a guy setting fire to the housemother’s panty hose, and the next day, he’s gone. That got my attention.

It’s no wonder DFW thought so much about Letterman.  I’m not gonna try and articulate something that stumped that dude.

A shame this above clip cuts off before a callback about Ben Dougan’s nose for a free lunch.  That was pure joy.


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