David Letterman hosted his final “Late Show” Wednesday, marking the end of a legendary late-night career that changed the tone of American comedy — and delivered some great moments with Midlanders along the way.
A collection of those memories follows, presented in the only manner suitable for the moment.
Drumroll, please ...
When Letterman mentioned on air that he liked the word “wahoo,” residents of Wahoo, Nebraska, sprung into action. The town lobbied hard to be named “home office” of the show’s Top 10 list and eventually wrestled the honorific away from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Wahoo wasn’t the only Nebraska locale to earn the title (Omaha and Lincoln held it, too), but it certainly made for the longest-standing and best-remembered.
9: Letterman touts Bright Eyes, throws a shoutout to vinyl
Conor Oberst’s band Bright Eyes appeared on “Late Show” multiple times, but its 2003 TV debut stands out. While introducing the band, Letterman made quite a commotion about its album (“Lifted”) being available on vinyl — it would be another few years before the format reached full comeback status.
“Look at what they have here,” Letterman said, holding up the record at the top of the show. “This is what music used to be.”
8. Dave gets corny
In 1995, Letterman engaged in a typically nonsensical quest to find the world’s sweetest corn. Naturally, the endeavor led him — or rather, his crack team of investigators, including a maintenance man from the Ed Sullivan Theater — to a farm in Irvington, Nebraska. It was a classic Letterman bit: more peculiar than funny, and yet another example of the host doing something inane simply because he could.
7. Dave gets upstaged
That same year, a Hastings College student named Lindsay Miller got the better of Letterman during their brief on-air exchange. Asked how she and her pals from Nebraska got all the way to the big city, Miller’s deadpan response brought down the house: “Cows. ... No, we flew, Dave.”
Her quick wit served her well. Twenty years later, Miller said she is a writer, an editor and a recipe blogger living in the Kansas City area.
6. Cursive rocks, swollen or not
In 2009, Omaha band Cursive rose to the occasion with a killer performance of “From the Hips.” Letterman didn’t make it easy, drawing a laugh from the audience over the band’s album title — “Mama, I’m Swollen” — right before they launched into the song.
5. Jurassic mark
Devise a bingo card of late-night show tropes and some usual suspects will appear: wild animals on set, cooking demonstrations gone awry and child guests saying adorably weird things. In the mid-1990s, 6-year-old Carsten Froehlich from Council Bluffs provided the latter, educating Letterman about his favorite school subject: dinosaurs.
Now 27 and living in Omaha, Froehlich has fond memories of his trip to New York. There was the moment he and his parents arrived at the Ed Sullivan Theater in a limo to hear fellow guest Richard Simmons shouting “hello” from a few stories above. There were the kind words of encouragement from well-known stagehand Biff Henderson right before Froehlich made his entrance. And there was the dinosaur roar he shared with Letterman on national television.
Froehlich didn’t follow his youthful passion into paleontology. He veered instead toward creative writing and now makes his living in corporate communications. But back in college, he did sneak into his friend’s “Age of the Dinosaurs” class. He even took a test.
“I did OK,” he said.
4. Cheers to Letterman
It’s hard to overstate how big it was when Letterman left NBC to start “Late Show” in 1993. But not everyone was convinced about the new show. Early on, local CBS affiliate KMTV delayed its “Late Show” broadcast by a half-hour so as not to disrupt its popular time slot of “Cheers” reruns.
The delay actually kept with local Letterman tradition. In previous years, NBC affiliate WOWT also delayed “Late Night with David Letterman” in order to broadcast (wait for it) “Love Connection.”
3. Sioux City, meet irony
The aforementioned delays were nothing compared to a Sioux City, Iowa, affiliate’s decision not to broadcast “Late Show” at all for the first year. Letterman responded, tongue firmly in cheek, by giving the city “home office” status.
2. Toe-tapping pays off
In 2006, Omaha’s Tilly and the Wall made its television debut with a performance of “Bad Education.” The group’s boundless energy and percussive tap-dancing registered as one of those breakthrough TV moments, giving an audience of millions something they’d never seen before.
1. The biggest wicker fan in Omaha
We end back at the beginning. In 1986, while still on NBC, Letterman got the idea to call up someone at random in the middle of the country and enlist him as a show “correspondent.” He found his man in Arnie Barnes, a Coors-drinking, Omaha Steaks “meat shaper” who casually carried on with Letterman as though answering a telemarketer’s survey.
“That first time I didn’t even believe I was on television,” said Barnes, now a 48-year-old bricklayer in Omaha. “I thought it was a friend messing with me.”
The run was good while it lasted, even if Barnes felt like Letterman was making fun of him. He scored some free drinks around town (even though legally underage) and received an occasional check from the show — all for providing a bizarre glimpse into his life every so often.
“Arnie, let me ask you,” Letterman said one night, looking at a Polaroid of Barnes’ bedroom. “Is that the biggest wicker fan in Omaha?”
It was odd. It was unpredictable. It was vintage Letterman in every sense. By then, four years into his late-night career, the messy-haired host commanded a hyper-loyal audience whose devotion to his offbeat show left others baffled.
And that’s easy to forget, but worth remembering, at the end of a historic, 33-year late-night career: Letterman brought something so patently different to television that it set a new course, becoming so influential and oft-imitated as to feel almost standard today. His was the trademark that became a trend.