My Talk Show Life: O, Meatball Tree (and other Late Show traditions)

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For many people, the holiday season means tradition. Where you sit at the dinner table, the meals you’ll have, the topics of conversation you’re prepared for (and prepared to avoid) — the same things happens every year. Some find it comforting, and some find it annoying, and others still find comfort in finding it annoying. What if, one year, your most beloved traditions were taken away? How do you start a new tradition?

I struggled with that very dilemma on the night before Thanksgiving last year. For years, I had watched David Letterman play “guess the pie” with his mom in Indiana via satellite. Though in recent years, Dave’s mom may have been too frail to appear as regularly as she had in the past, references and reruns featuring her mysterious, legendary pies marked the Thanksgiving holiday for me. Last year was the first Thanksgiving without a Letterman-hosted late night talk show since the early ’80s, and definitely in my consciously choosing what to watch on TV lifetime, and only then did I realize how beloved Dave’s mom is to me. You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.

Remembering “guess the pie” reminded me of other regular The Late Show With Dave Letterman holiday segments I’ll never see again. Every year, commercial bumpers starred men and women in the armed services wishing their families a happy holidays. Of course, Late Show title cards would feature snowy scenes of New York City. Dave often interviewed someone familiar with the latest Christmas toy trends, and the show-and-tell segment usually ended with Dave awkwardly driving a Power Wheels car into the band, or something. Though I didn’t watch Letterman every night, I always managed to catch those bits, and though I knew they were annual staples, they always delightfully surprised me. It was like my internal clock was in sync with their timing.

The absolute best and most beloved holiday segment on Letterman was Jay Thomas’ Lone Ranger story, and their football throw competition to topple the Late Show Christmas tree meatball. Over a dozen times, Jay Thomas (best known for playing Carla’s husband on Cheers, but also a great radio host) visited Dave around the holidays to tell what Letterman called “the best talk show story of all time.” I won’t ruin it for you here, but you must know it features Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger. Thanks to YouTube, the tale will never be retired, but it lacks the spontaneity of Dave and Jay’s banter. Now, it’s a little dated, but still definitely timeless.

These television moments were as poignant to me as A Charlie Brown Christmas and Frosty the Snowman are to others, and they’ll always hold a special place in my heart during the holiday season. Letterman’s strength was his blend of irreverence and class, bringing subversiveness to the format popularized by Johnny Carson so a new generation could find it both avant-garde and respectable. In that spirit, what can I do in the absence of The Late Show With Dave Letterman that would both honor its traditions and make it viable for a new audience?

December’s episode of my own local talk show, Phoenix Tonight, is my answer to this challenge. The 10th episode of Phoenix Tonight will be a Dean Martin/Comedy Central-style roast of Santa Claus. Boasting both irreverence and respect for old television tradition, I’ve managed to gather some of the best local comedians, writers, and performers to rake old Saint Nick over the coals — the very coals he’ll undoubtedly put in their stockings a few weeks later. It may not have the charm of Dave’s mom, standing stove-side, but the entrance fee is an unwrapped toy we’ll donate to the Phoenix Children’s Hospital. That way, even if you find a roast’s raucous humor annoying, the charity will help you find it a little comforting … if not just annoyingly so.

Phoenix Tonight Presents The Roast of Santa Claus
Saturday, Dec. 10, 10:30 p.m.
Space 55, 636 E. Pierce St., Phoenix

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