By Greg Roth

3 great lessons in David Letterman’s Pearl Jam tribute speech

Over the weekend, the 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony featured a retired talk show host David Letterman honoring and introducing Pearl Jam. Originally, Neil Young was slated to give the speech, but was unable to make it. Letterman stepped in, big wispy beard and all, and delivered what was very arguably one of the best induction speeches the Hall has ever had. (The ceremony will be officially broadcast later this month).

As I’ve referenced before, the “tribute” is one of the 5 essential types of presentations every speaker should be able to deliver. Besides being well-written and personal, here are 3 things Letterman does that help make the whole thing a classic offering.


1. His unique cadence as a storyteller
Despite wearing a suit every night and making tens of millions of dollars over the course of his talk show career, Letterman has a unique style as a salt-of-the-earth speaker, albeit a comic and clever one.

You know the song “Black.” There was a period in my life when I couldn’t stop doing this: do-do do-do-do-do do [the crowd joins in]. Great. Now we owe them a lot of money. Honest to God that’s all I could hear running through my head. I kept wondering how many times does this refrain occur in the song? I finally had to go to my hypnotist to get it to stop: do-do do-do-do-do do. One night on the show, I’m doing it and the stage door bursts open, in walks Eddie Vedder. He sings the song with Paul and the band. Then he comes over to me and looks me right in the eye and he says, “Stop doing that.” And I was cured, ladies and gentlemen.

Letterman has always been a person who uses the language of the populace. There are no flourishes of prose, no big words, hardly any rhetorical devices beyond mimic plain old conversation. One of things this means is, his stories are lean and the pace is usually brisk. Despite him being on the air five nights a week for 33 years, I challenge you to find a clip of Letterman being verbose. He does not drone on about anything. He does not offer excess insight as to what the bigger picture is. Letterman tells you what happened.

2. His use of silliness as humor
A hallmark of Letterman’s appeal over the years was his out of left field approach to irony and humor. He was always willing to say a line that was inherently ridiculous, or ironic in a way that just enjoys the chance to say a combination of words or thoughts he happens to like for some reason. A lot of his humor has a “just for fun” feel to it.

He peppers his narratives with these throwaway jokes and lines, sometimes to change gears for his own amusement, or to surprise you into a laugh you didn’t know was coming.

“I can’t even begin to tell you what an honor and a privilege it is to be out of the house.”

“Why isn’t Neil Young here? The truth of it is the poor guy just can’t stay up this late. That’s what it is. Either that or he swallowed a harmonica.”

Talking about the anger in Pearl Jam’s music from the beginning of their career in the early 1990s.

“I was almost 50 and even I was pissed off. And it was also easy to dance to but that’s another deal.”

After talking at length about Pearl Jam being a band that speaks its mind and takes a stand, he’ll happy do a 180-degree turn to even poke fun at the whole convention of connecting results to activism.

“And because they did, because they stood up to the corporations I’m happy to say, ladies and gentleman, today every concert ticket in the United States of America is free.”

There’s almost a celebration in saying things that aren’t true or haven’t been said quite this way before. Using humor like this, in this way, is encouraging folks to just enjoy the moment. The approach is disarming in its inessential nature, yet, strip out these little chestnuts and you have a much different speech with a much different feel and tone. This is Letterman’s “ear candy” for listeners; it gives folks a breather from the over-arching importance of the speech. The more sobering the topic, the more important — and effective — ear candy can be.

3. His ability to be personal without being maudlin
When he made his final appearance on the Late Show before Letterman retired, Norm MacDonald said the host “is not for the mawkish and has no truck for the sentimental” before offering a heartfelt thank-you.

The danger in doing tribute speeches such as this one is that it’s very easy to become emotional. That in and of itself isn’t bad, but it walks a tightrope between the honoree being the star and the speaker claiming a bit too much spotlight. Emotion is good. Maudlin can be sabotage.

One way for the speaker to keep the balance is to address the issue of sentimentality, to be self-aware about how you may be presenting yourself. In this case, because a man known for not being sentimental is going to possibly be sentimental, he offers a qualifier that buys him some credibility:

“So, if you’re in show business it’s likely there’s a good strong streak of cynicism in you, and I would be the president of that club except for things like this. This letter to my son from Eddie Vedder, May 18th, 2015, three shows left. I’ll read you this letter now if you don’t mind.”

Letterman goes on to read the friendly letter the Pearl Jam singer gave to his young son, along with a small guitar. He closes this tribute perfectly by summing up both the historic and personal nature of the moment:

“There are quite a few reasons why these people are in the Hall of Fame, but forgive me if this personally is the most important reason.”

Final thoughts
If you break apart this speech, you can probably guess how it was built. Letterman certainly knew he wanted to end with story about his son. He then probably considered how he could provide a unique perspective on the band through both its career and it’s 10 appearances on his show, which led to a few of the highlights he mentions. The jokes and ear candy very likely came once most things were in place. Once he had a draft, chances are, he went back through it to see if he was missing any important details (notice he mentioned Paul Shaffer, to applause).

The beginning, which is usually the last thing you’d write, was directly inspired by how he ended up there — as a replacement. There was no attempt to disguise that fact. Instead, he got a few jokes out of it and then moved into the heart of what he wanted to talk about.