Back in the 2000s, Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu didn't have a single mall where you could hang out with friends who could speak English. Hollywood blockbusters were always a distant dream, forever niche for any of the city theatres to risk their daily collection. And, believe it or not, my English tutor taught us the language in Tamil, my mother tongue. The hundreds of 'English Tuition Centres' proliferating in the town were no help either: Many of the locals running these classes could never even spot the spelling mistakes on their advertising billboards.
This was my childhood.
By the time I reached college, my phobia for the language had taken deep roots: I would clamp up every time I was with fellow students from other metros like Chennai and Delhi, always conscious of my own language skills, or the complete lack of them. I was a loner, mostly tongue-tied, and always scared of being around the 'metro' kids.
But I couldn't hold on to my secret for long. One day, I was sucked into a discussion with my classmates on the merits, or demerits, of new movies, and when it was my turn to speak, I blurted: "Did you view that film?"
Even before I finished my sentence, I knew what I'd done. But there was no going back. And then, one of the 'metro' kids did what I feared the most: "You can't view a film. A film can only be seen," he corrected me in front of everybody else!
Something snapped inside me that moment, and I could hear it. The embarrassment of that day stays with me even today, and it still pains.
That was when David Letterman entered my life in the form of videos. I never knew his name back then. One of my friends had a 32 GB hard disk filled with videos of a bespectacled old man speaking non-stop in a studio and his every sentence was punctuated by fervent laughter from the audience.
The way he held and threw the pencil, the way he interacted with a bald musician (much later I learnt that guy was Paul Shaffer), his quirky one-liners, the way he delivered the top-ten, his monologues, everything shaped me in some way or the other.
I learnt how to be sarcastic but still stay within limits. Letterman was, and still is, the only host who can pull-off such questions without leaving a bad taste.
David Letterman taught me why self-deprecating humour is the best ice-breaker when interacting with strangers. Letterman's jokes on himself, especially on him being an old man and thus was unable to handle his son, often elicited peels of laughter from the guests.
I learnt when to pause when rendering a joke. Letterman paused mid-sentence, sometimes he never even completed many of his jokes, which clicked with the audience as the joke ended in the receiver's imagination and for each one it was a different ending.
I learnt how to jump from one issue to another seamlessly. Letterman had this uncanny ability to connect two issues with a joke and thus starts speaking about the next issue before we even realise it. When you are listening to his monologues, you would not know when the joke kicks in and when it ends.
I learnt how to handle myself when meeting somebody more talented than me. The way Letterman handled Bill Cosby, where he allows Cosby to interfere but then pounces on him at the right time and gets his share of claps from the audience.One particular video that gave me enormous confidence was when Letterman interviewed Aishwaya Rai during the promotion of her film Pride and the Prejudice.
Rai's cheeky answers for Letterman's taunts were epic! I still watch this video from time to time whenever I feel down and out.
I was a changed man in the second phase of my college life. People started listening to me, and even took interest in what I'm saying. I vividly remember how my friends clutched their stomachs and laughed at my monologues. When someone referred to me they said, "Oh, that guy who cracked jokes continuously?"
In fact, my ability to speak fluent English fetched me a job with a top multi-national company after I graduated.
Today I'm a confident man. I write and speak English much better than I used to. I owe it all to David Letterman and his late night show.
Letterman's glittering career came to an end today. But his wit will live for years to come, thanks to thousands of videos and my friends' hard disks.