Treasured Stories: “American Squalor” (1988)

« People think the show gave Letterman an opportunity, but they don’t see the table with 10 guys in shorts wearing baseball caps pitching jokes for things for him to say. They don’t see the index cards that say: ‘Ask this first.’ It’s all spelled out for him, and everything is pre-interviews. He’s basically had to be this hand puppet, with everybody’s hands up his butt to tell him what to say and do. » — Joyce Brabner on David Letterman

We already snuck a peek at the darker side of DC Comics’ short-lived ’80 mirage Wasteland (18 issues, 1987-89), but the title’s modus operandi was variety… within a set format. Here’s another highlight from one of the earliest and strongest issues, before its co-authors The Second City comedy legend Del Close and Grimjack co-creator John Ostrander lost the plot, interest, or both. This is American Squalor (Wasteland no. 3, Feb. 1988, DC Comics). The underrated Don Simpson, the Wasteland bullpen’s utility player, its most versatile and loyal member, gets to strut his stuff, albeit in a lovely Crumb ersatz, down to the lettering.

« Our next guest works as a file clerk at a Cleveland hospital… »

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What I find so impressive about this story is the scope of its ambition, fulfilled on several unlikely levels: it achieves success as a parody, a pastiche, a tribute, and as its own, standalone bit of workaday folk philosophy. Clearly, calling upon the trappings and rhythms of Crumb and Pekar’s American Splendor was just the starting point.

I’d love to track down (Close’s old Second City colleague) the Severn Darden monologue Close claims to have used as a springboard, but not everything was dutifully recorded for “posterity” in those days…

« I loved Harvey. He was a wonderful guest. The kind you don’t see anymore. The only real problem with Harvey was my immaturity. » — David Letterman

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