The official YouTube channel for David Letterman’s talk shows launched earlier this month, streaming a collection of the host’s interviews and regular comedy bits that grows by the day. It gives anybody who missed Letterman’s 33 years in late night some insight into why he’s considered such an important figure in comedy, while letting long-time fans relive moments that they might have forgotten. Personally I kind of straddle those lines; I wasn’t old enough to watch his earliest years on NBC, but I watched much of that era when it was briefly rerun on cable in the ‘90s, and was old enough to catch his last couple of years on NBC whenever I was able to stay up late. There’s still a ton of classic material I’ve never seen or even heard of, though, including the bit I’m writing about today.
Steve Martin’s a little goofier than Letterman, a little more eager to please, more California to Dave’s Indiana, but they still share a lot in common when it comes to comedy. They both acknowledge the fundamental insincerity of the entertainment business and its lack of substance. Martin often glories in the shallowness of entertainment, using it as an opportunity to be as silly and over-the-top as he can get. Letterman’s more cynical about it all, of course, frequently mocking show business and the idea of celebrity. They took different routes but wound up on the same block, and those differences and similarities made their interactions snap. It makes sense that Martin was a frequent guest of Letterman’s, and one of his favorites.
A number of Martin’s appearances on Letterman’s shows are now on that YouTube channel, but there’s one in particular that you really need to watch. In this bit from February 9, 1984, Martin shares his collection of priceless Chinese ceramics with the audience before taking it to the Met for an exhibit. Even if the YouTube title didn’t spoil what happens, you’d probably be able to guess just by hearing that setup. The humor here isn’t necessarily what might happen to those vases, but is found in the increasing level of absurdity behind the destruction, and the complete deadpan both Martin and Letterman maintain even as this patently ridiculous nonsense breaks out around them. Martin plays the chaos off as no big deal, while Letterman peppers his response with only a few of the wry chuckles he’d use to let the audience know he realizes how stupid something is. It’s just a really funny, clever idea for a bit that combines the lowest brow humor with the kind of irony that both men are known for. It’s almost 40 years old, but it’s as funny today as ever, and still feels fresh. Check it out.