Humor: Letterman and Thoreau

By Shady S. Shebak, MD

Psychiatry Resident, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, Roanoke VA

David Letterman

David Letterman

It wasn’t until my college years that I read more about his persona, his feuds, and his special relationship with the Dean of late night talk shows, Johnny Carson. After reading more about him, I noticed that the person we saw every night was the real David Letterman. In today’s world of facades, there is something uncomfortable about seeing realness, and yet, this was where Letterman was masterful, and probably why he lost the ratings battle to the talented, but more comfortable entertainer, Jay Leno. His realness is probably why he got the hype from fellow comedians, bidding him a farewell, and is probably why his fans have been so loyal to him. Ratings really didn’t matter as much as doing his job the way he wanted to do it.

What is it that makes today’s world more interested in the “fake”? Today’s society is much more interested in compartmentalized human beings, rather than the full human being. An entertainer is an entertainer when at work, and that is the depth that people expect. A physician is a physician when at work, and that is the depth that people expect. The teacher is a teacher when at work, and that is the depth that people expect. It’s an unfortunate flow of events that led us here, and some people worked tiresly for this very situation we find ourselves involved in and defending. Not many people like the current situation of facades and compartmentalized living, but we defend it. How do we defend it? We come up with terms like “professionalism” and “barriers” and “boundaries” and “evidence based” and “home life versus work life”. The list is endless and yet the same, it seeks to keep us from realizing our full potential in all the situations that we face, day in and day out. We take on personas instead of taking on a full on personality.

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life– Thoreau

It’s a fake way of living, and it sucks the marrow out of life: the marrow that we are supposed to be sucking out of life, and leaves us with a piece of rock-hard calcium, with no flavor, and rigid boundaries. We have and continue to trap ourselves in the monotony of being fake, and this fakeness has now overtaken the realness of human life. Let me provide an example. There was a time when teachers would teach their pupils real lessons, and would instill in them ideas to be agreed upon or disagreed upon, and they commanded a level of reverence. Today, teachers are being forced to teach to various exams, there is little room for bonding with their students, and if they do form a close connection with their pupils, the professional police come in and remind the teacher of their “professional boundaries”. Mentorship is all but gone, as teaching has become a job of technicians rather than human beings invested in the passage of knowledge to other human beings.

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau

Anyways, I went off on a tangent, but that is why I hold Letterman and the likes of Letterman in high regard. It’s because he did not become fake, and used his own honest and at times uncomfortable demeanor to deliver late night laughs, and helped launch the careers of fellow comedians in a real and effective way. He treasured the mentorship that he received from Carson, he cherished the physicians who operated on his heart in a very heartfelt manner, on his show, and he did not allow comedy and his comedian profession take away from the rest of his persona.


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