At a loss for words as to why Letterman loses in Baltimore

December 20, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

I have this letter I'd like you to see. It's from a friend who has a very important question maybe you can help me answer.

Dear Mike,

What's the deal?

Your pal,

Dave.

Dave is, of course, David Letterman. In most towns, I wouldn't have to explain that. But, in our town, Dave's Q rating is right behind Pablo Neruda's.

So, let me introduce you: Dave's the wacky guy with the gap-toothed grin who defines middle-age, white-male hip and is loved by college students, Connecticut state troopers and everyone who really digs a guy in a double-breasted suit.

He's got his own late-night TV show, Dave does. It's sort of a nationwide sensation. Here's how big it is: Try to imagine Monday Night Football in the old days if, at halftime, Howard Cosell had produced a Top 10 list.

And yet, for some reason, we're not tuning in.

They put the local TV ratings out the other day. And the news is all bad. Paul Tagliabue has a bigger following in town. Dave loses to Ted, Jay, Arsenio and, on really stressful nights, to LaToya Jackson's "Psychic Network." He actually loses to "COPS," a police show on which -- if you can believe this -- nobody is ever naked. Like, what's the point?

Nowhere in this great and wonderful land we call America is Dave -- who will get naked if you ask him really, really nicely -- a bigger flop than he is in Baltimore.

We're No. 1.

What is the deal? There are three possibilities that come to mind.

* Dave is overrated.

* Baltimore is unhip. (Hey, nobody ever said this was Carnaby Street in the '60s, but we can't be that unhip, can we?)

* We're too dumb to find Dave on the dial.

We'll start with overrated. I guess I have to ask: Compared to what? He's not as smart as Ted, nor as unctuous as Arsenio, nor as boring as Jay. He does happen to be funnier than any of them, though.

He's Dave. He's the Davest of Daves. You can't explain him exactly. It is, to borrow a line from John Sebastian, like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll. You get him or you don't. To get him, it helps if you enjoy snide, cynical, we're-the-only-ones-cool-enough-to-get-the-jokes humor. Also, if you think the expressions "monkey-cam" and "pasty white thighs" are inherently funny.

Overrated? No chance.

The hipness angle has got me a little scared, though. We just lost the Charles Theater, the big art-film house in town. Not enough people wanted to go.

Now, there's hardly anyplace to catch a movie about 50 years of Chinese history played out in the Beijing Opera as seen through the eyes of two homosexual lovers. In subtitles.

O, paradise lost!

We also lost Frank Zappa, the Baltimore native whose hipness quotient was matched locally only by John Waters. Good health, John.

But does that carry over to Dave? I mean, is it possible we're less hip than Indianapolis or Duluth? I don't think so.

That leaves only the dumb angle.

Here's the theory: Dave, as you may or may not know, is shown here on Channel 54, not a "regular" station. He's there because Channel 11, the local CBS affiliate, is run by a bunch of "dolts" who thought Dave wouldn't cut it at 11:30.

Since most people who are up that late watch the 11 o'clock news (I can't sleep myself if I miss Norm Lewis' exclusive time-line weather forecast), they don't turn the channel at 11:30. This is known as the lead-in principle, and explains how George Bush ever got elected president. He always came on after Reagan.

But I'm not sure this holds anymore.

We are in the era of the information highway. And the vehicle we're riding is that little baby affectionately called the clicker.

Mine will do about 150 cpcs (that's channels per two-minute commercial spot).

Half the time I don't know what channel I'm on -- only that, with luck, Sharon Stone would be on the next one.

But I always come back to Dave, eventually. I thought everyone would. I don't know what to think.

Dear Dave,

Don't have a clue.

Your pal,

Mike

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