Why you should care
Because sometimes television fulfills its promise as an intimate, emotional medium.
One night in the fall of 2002, late-night television made history. It wasn’t with unscripted gags or an epic performance, but with a show dedicated to a genuine goodbye between two old friends. In musician Warren Zevon’s diary entry dated Oct. 29, he writes: “No time to sleep … I have to leave for New York and a TV appearance with my old friend David Letterman,” a performance that he notes will “probably be my last.” Diagnosed that August with lung cancer and given three months to live, Zevon will be the only guest on Late Night with David Letterman. By now he’s appeared on Letterman’s NBC and CBS shows a total of 34 times. But this one will be much different.
YouTube videos of many of Zevon’s Letterman appearances offer a time-lapsed view of their developing friendship. From the first interview in 1982 it’s already clear, despite the initial awkwardness, that the two share a sense of humor. From there, as the singer-songwriter returns to promote album after album, or to co-host when band leader Paul Shaffer is out sick, you can watch as their banter comes easier and gets better. By 1990, Letterman refers to Zevon as “our old friend,” and while introducing him on the show one night in 2000, he waves away his card prompter, saying, “I don’t need cards for this, Larry.”
They stare down the worst life can throw at us with sharp wit and unflinching humanity.
Their friendship makes sense. Each of these performers originally found his niche somewhere between the cracks of accepted pop-culture humor and sensibility, in a smart audience not afraid to laugh a little uncomfortably at times, be it at irreverent jokes or death-obsessed lyrics. One night Letterman quips that after the show the two will take Tylenol PM and “just drive.” During another show, after a joke the host makes about licking envelopes, Zevon begins penning a song he calls “Licked by a Stranger,” and sings a partial rendition at the end.
Get to know Warren Zevon’s music.
But in that final appearance in 2002, they stare down the worst life can throw at us with sharp wit and unflinching humanity. What’s most remarkable is that the show never gives in to the temptation of cheap sentimentality or artificially uplifting moments. Shaffer’s band plays Zevon’s “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” to introduce him, and Letterman’s first question is about the diagnosis. Everything about the show says that this is the last appearance he’ll ever make here, the last time he and Letterman will see each other.
At moments, Zevon is disarmingly light. He jokes at one point that he might have made a “tactical error in not seeing a doctor for 20 years,” and that such a diagnosis means “you better get your dry cleaning done on special.” But despite the jokes, it’s clear we’re not watching a man in denial about his impending death. When Letterman asks if he has any new insight on life, Zevon’s sincerity is at its peak: “You put more value on every minute. … You’re reminded to enjoy every sandwich.”
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After the interview, Zevon plays a heartbreaking, piano-heavy performance of “Mutineer,” among other songs, and struggles against his illness to hit a few of the high notes. It’s the last time he’ll play live, his last performance anywhere. Just shy of a year later, Zevon will be gone, and what makes this night of television so good, and touching, and real, is that no one pretends otherwise. Instead, they say goodbye the best way they know how: by sharing acerbic wit and great music.