One of my favorite silly games they play on David Letterman is “Will It Float?”
As a long time fan I’ve seen more than my share of silliness on his show over the years. Actually, I’m not sure they play that game anymore. I’ve noticed that some games or skits they do on The Late Show for a couple months or even a couple years and then they’re gone. (I almost wrote Late Night instead of The Late Show because that’s the show he was originally on on another network. THAT’S how long I’ve been a fan.) Usually.
“Will It Float” is/was simple. Dave and Paul Shaffer, his sidekick and bandleader, would guess whether something would indeed float when they dropped it a large container of water. I think it was about the size of a small above-ground swimming pool. It could be anything. Sticks of butter. A television set. A flashlight. A suitcase. A bongo drum. A watermelon. I don’t know that they ever used any of the specific items I just listed, but you get the idea.
Then they would have just a little bit of musical fanfare, maybe a drumroll and then they dropped the object or objects into the water and everyone would see if it floated.
Part of the silly fun was the presentation of it as similar to a game show. And how they took it relatively seriously. My kind of humor. One of them, anyway.
I’m pretty sure what he did originally was drop stuff off a multi-story building into a sidestreet or maybe an alley and of course the fall demolished just about everything that they dropped. I believe that was the original bit and I don’t think anyone was doing anything as absurd as Letterman at the time. Now we Letterman-esque stuff on Leno and other shows, but my memory of it was that no one was doing it quite as slightly twisted as Dave.
Johnny Carson did some great skits over the years and Letterman acknowledges him as the master. But Late Night with David Letterman and The Late Show with David Letterman seemed to be more edgy. It wasn’t completely unprecedented. I remember seeing an old bit from the original Candid Camera where Fanny Flag actually drove a car through a bank wall. Really! This was in the time before they had widespread, or perhaps any, drive through banking. This bank had a sign up that advertised drive through banking coming soon or something and she drove the car right through the wall!
This was a kinder, gentler time in some ways and the bank manager and employees were flabbergasted. They didn’t seem to be incredibly angry or quick to phone the police. Fanny calmly explained that she wanted to take advantage of the drive through banking.
But this skit seemed the most outlandish even for Candid Camera and Allen Funt, the original host. I didn’t see the original. I’m not that old. What I saw was a special episode that was devoted to stuff that Candid Camera did in the old days and this episode was in black and white. Later there was another edition of the show with Funt’s son, I think. This was LONG before Punk’d.
Letterman is goofy and bizarre and warm in his way. He became a lot softer to people after he had heart surgery. When I saw Julia Roberts on his show after the surgery she was so loving with him and they seemed like really wonderful friends. Later he became a dad and that softened him further.
My wife didn’t used to like to watch him because he was so harsh to people – especially when you compared him to Johnny Carson or Jay Leno.
My friends and I went to the Johnny Carson show -technically The Tonight Show – but that’s what most people called it. Or they would say that they were going to watch Johnny Carson or just Carson. Here’s Johnny became so famous that many people imitated it. I don’t watch him much but don’t they say, “Here’s Jay Leno!” on The Tonight Show now? David Letterman respected Johnny enough that his introduction is different.
That’s another thing that’s slightly bizarre about Dave. His introduction is almost always fictitious. The announcer will say something like, “And now, the man who made outer space safe for democracy…David Letterman!”
I’m not sure exactly when I realized that I prefer my humor offbeat, but it might have been with Steve Martin and to a lesser extent, Robin Williams. Robin Williams seemed to say things that were literate and (to my teenage ears) naughty.
Steve Martin had an album called Let’s Get Small where he imitated being pulled over by a highway patrolman while a person is high on marijuana. It wasn’t explicit, but that was the undertone. Getting “Small” became a euphemism for getting high. And the skit was really absurd. I think Martin studied philosophy and that was the basis for some of his humor.
I found a video with a sample of Steve Martin from that time period, but it doesn’t have the Let’s Get Small bit. Here it is: Steve Martin Funny Balloon Animals
I strongly recommend getting Let’s Get Small if you are not easily offended. Steve Martin was the first comedian I’m aware of who actually played stadiums as a headliner and that was the point at which he decided to move on from stand-up comedy.
Along with the video above I’ve found an actualy episode of “Will It Float?” from David Letterman.
You’ll see what I mean about the game show atmosphere and he, Paul Shaffer and Alan Kalter are having great fun with this bit. This was in 2004 and I know for sure that they did this until at least 2007.
Some of you who are real long-time fans will also remember Larry “Bud” Melman who became a minor cult celebrity in his own right. Part of the bizarre appeal was that he was not an attractive man and he seemed to not be competent and he didn’t deal with Letterman in a respectful way sometimes. There was also Brother Theodore who was really out there. Usually angry and spouting some quasi-religious or philosophical nonsense and really not treating Dave with respect. How could this be part of a regular television program and yet it was.
Many will also remember “The Guy Under The Seats”, Chris Elliott, who went on to movies such as Cabin Boy and a supporting role in Groundhog Day with Bill Murray. Here’s Chris Elliott on Letterman.
For my money Letterman is head and shoulders above others on television now, especially Jay Leno. Jay’s not a bad guy but I guess his humor seems more “square” to me. Plus I don’t think he has treated people well over the years. Just my opinion…