Tom Kelly On David Letterman

In the 1990s most high school boys had pictures of Cindy Crawford, Kathy Ireland or some sort of Sports Illustrated model in their locker. My locker had a magazine cover of David Letterman’s first CBS “Late Show” from 1993.
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I don’t think I’ve ever truly wanted to be a stand up comedian. I have always said I wanted to host a late night talk show. In college, a professor called my work on the college TV station a “cheap Letterman knock off”. The thing is, he was right. That’s what I wanted to be.

It sounds trite to say David Letterman inspired me to become a comedian.  If the hosts of Jimmy Kimmel Live and The Tonight Show say Letterman inspired them, who cares that the warm up comedian at “The View” says he was inspired by Letterman?

The difference between most of my peers who say they were inspired by Letterman and I is that I remember the exact moment I decided I wanted to be a comedian. It was January 2, 1991.

My dad and I were in a pretty horrific head on car collision with a drunk driver.

As a high school freshman, I was at the most reclusive part of my life. Dad had driven me up from our home on Long Island to the mountain town of East Durham, New York for some father / son bonding where after dinner . . . my father’s Datsun was hit head on by a drunk driver.

The few minutes that followed the crash were terrifying to a young and pure nerdy kid. The woman in the other car must have been lying on the steering wheel. The horn for her car blared. Through the beeping horn, you could hear her moaning in pain. For a second or two . . . I couldn’t move my legs. Then once I realized I could move, I had trouble opening the car door.

In the darkness, my father said to me “Don’t worry, Tommy. This is all a bad dream.”

And for a second I thought it was . . . I turned to him and asked “Really?”

“No, no it’s not.” Dad’s face was covered in blood. His head hit the steering wheel. His forehead was cut pretty badly.

Speeding through the gruesome details of the story, the night included listening to the woman bellow in pain. Being brought to the hospital tied down in an ambulance and listening to my dad try not to scream as the plastic surgeon pulled the glass out of my dad’s head and sewed up the cut on my dad’s forehead.

My mother was 4 hours away. We needed someone to pick us up at the hospital.

The ordeal ends with my dad calling our only relative in the Albany area, “My Cousin The Clown”. “My Cousin The Clown” is an actual circus clown. He and my father have a stressed relationship because at some point in his life my father told “My Cousin The Clown” “Don’t be a clown.”

My father is stressed. He’s wondering if we have enough car insurance. He’s worried about the woman who hit us. He’s worried about the mental health of his already awkward 14-year-old son.

You could smell the tension boiling up.

“My Cousin The Clown’s” wife Cousin Nora, a beautiful and kind nurse plopped me in the living room while the grown ups talked. Realize it’s 1991. It’s before cable TV or Netflix was ubiquitous. I think you could get 5 channels over the antenae in East Durham.

There wasn’t many viewing choices. We turned on “Late Night With David Letterman”.

By today’s standards it was a forgettable show but yet . . . it was everything I needed at that moment. The monologue was funny. The desk bit was “Funny Funny Maplethorpe Photos”. Letterman showed silly small town pictures. But what I loved was how he just kept repeating . . . “Funny Funny Maplethorpe Photos”.

He beat the joke to death. That’s something I emulate still in my personal and stand up lives.

The show was quiet. It felt like I was in a secret club. He made fun of his bosses at GE. He captured my teenaged 90s angst with his humor.

He made me forget the horrors of the car accident just hours before. The next day I woke up and said “Wow, I want to be able to do that.” I wanted to help people forget the drama, the bull crap in their lives and the stress of their days . . . even if just for a few minutes.

The irony about my love of David Letterman is that an agoraphobic comedian with few social skills . . . laid out the gateway for my social skills. I charmed the cool kids by emulating his humor.

In high school, I sat in Math Class writing “Top Ten Lists” to read during class. I did a Letterman-esque talkshow at Quinnipiac and I eventually pursued stand up comedy. My high school year book is filled with friends writing “Hope you get to work for Letterman” and “See you on David Letterman.”

It breaks my heart to realize, I will never do stand up on the “Late Show With David Letterman.” The good news? I filmed a set of me doing stand up comedy on “The View” the night of his last regular show. Through audience warm up work and stand up comedy, I’ve performed at Radio City, I’ve hyped up crowds of 20,000 and I have played some of the most interesting dives on Earth.

And through all of those performing work, I’ve had one simple goal . . . that maybe there is a kid or someone in the crowd going through a rough night . . . and my stupid humor helped them forget their troubles for a while.