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David Letterman: The Rolling Stone Interview

Here is Letterman, the tortured king of comedy, as he awaits the moment when he must decide whether to remain where he is or hie away to CBS. It is during this uncertain time that he submits to the long and merciless debriefing contained herein.

February 18, 1993 12:00 AM ET
David Letterman, RS issue 650
David Letterman on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

Here is Letterman, tortured king, fully ascended. Here he is, running Comedy. Like Carson before him, he stands alone, above the fray, whatever side of midnight. Unlike Carson, he can do nothing about his hair. Nevertheless, he has become television's most powerful fellow, paid an epic sum to mock convention and intimidate weasels. "I'm six two, I weigh 170, I have the strength of ten men!" he will boast, and woe to those who would challenge him. Even on his driver's-license photo, he glowers. "I could take Clint Eastwood, don't you think?" he says, champing cigar and looming large. He is forty-five, shy, dark, decent, obsessed. He is a caged storm. During commercial breaks on his program, he stalks the set, full of fret and fury. He suffers no fool gladly, and because he is our Greatest Fool, he suffers always.

David Letterman Retiring in 2015

Here is Dave, true broadcaster, unbound. He entered this, the Year of Dave, asleep on Barbados, in denial. Back in New York, he is now bearded and beset. He presides at the seat of Worldwide Pants, as he calls his television empire – itself the spoils over which a historic battle between two networks is being waged. When the smoke clears, NBC, having employed Dave for eleven years as host of Late Night With David Letterman, will lose him to CBS, which promises him an 11:30 time slot and a $14 million-a-year salary. The Carson throne – The Tonight Show and its coveted time slot – will remain in Jay Leno's possession. Blood will spill, men will weep, and lives will change forever. "None of it could be more silly," Dave is saying, pensively, fielding all bulletins from the front. Rose, his faithful assistant (played by dancer Laurie Diamond), reports, "They're looking for a picture of you hosting your show for Business Week." Dave: "I don't do a show for Business Week." Rose: "I tried to explain that." Dave: "Well, maybe I do. Check the assignment board." It is during this uncertain time that he cheerfully submits to the long and merciless debriefing that follows.

How are you sleeping at night during these heady times?
By and large, I sleep fitfully. And when I wake up, the sheets are drenched in perspiration. But the experts believe it's just a lack of amino acids. So we're trying to correct that with the cigars.

Has all the pressure driven you back to smoking?
For Christmas, somebody gave me a perfectly humidored twenty-five-year-old cigar, and it was so pleasant, I just thought, well, I'll try these again for a bit.

Aren't those Cuban contraband?
[Cups cigar away from view] Uh, these are White Owls! You can get these anywhere!

I heard you only smoked Cubans.
You got the wrong guy. You don't know what the hell you're talking about! Call the IRS. I pay my taxes.

How David Letterman Reinvented Television

By the way, now that you're getting the big dough, do you have any plans to acquire a better hairpiece?
[Laughs] By God, when they build a better hairpiece, I'll buy it!

Have you spoken to Johnny Carson lately?
Not too long ago, Peter Lassally, who came to our show as an executive producer after doing the same for Johnny, told a newspaper that Carson used to come in to work at 2:00 each afternoon and that I was coming in at 10:00. And so Carson read this and started calling my office at 10:00 that day. I didn't get in till like 11:30, and as soon as I got on the phone with him, he was screaming and howling: "Oh, get in at 10:00, huh? Where ya been? Car trouble?" The last time I saw him, at the Emmy dinner, he just seemed great and happy. He's really getting a kick out of everybody else's troubles.

Are you more comfortable in your relationship with him?
I'm more comfortable now that he doesn't have a show. I can maybe relax a little bit and try to have a more honest human exchange with him. For a whole generation, he kind of established the model of how cool guys behaved. I just had so much respect for him that right or wrong, it was an inhibitor for me.

On the air, he was always inviting you to come over to play tennis with him. Ever go?
Yeah, I finally said to myself, "This is a living legend – you're stupid if you don't screw up the courage to go!"

And?
He beat me. He's very good. He can stand in one place, never break a sweat and run your pants off. But in my defense, how can you just go to Johnny's house? First of all, his house is like a goddamn Olympic venue. Johnny's court is like a stadium where they have the Davis Cup trials. He's got this state-of-the-art tennis surface – something NASA developed when they went to Neptune. The whole experience was unnerving. And his wife was very nice to me. But there wasn't a second I didn't fully expect to just kind of turn abruptly and destroy a $6000 lamp or vase. I just felt, something's going to go wrong, like I'm going to kill Johnny's wife with the ball machine. "How could you have killed his wife with the ball machine!" It's just like I'm too big, I'm too dumb, I'm too clumsy.

Is it true that for years you wouldn't watch his show?
It was too depressing for me. I know what it takes to just get something on tape. Hosting this show, I always feel like "Man, I'm struggling, I'm like a drowning man in quicksand!" And then you turn on Johnny's show and say [daunted], "Oh, it's fuckin' Johnny!" He's just easy, cool, funny. He looks good, he's got babes hanging on him, he's saying witty things and making fun of Ed. It so intimidated me that I couldn't watch it. But I guess like everybody else I watched him pretty much every night during the last month or so.

How did your own Johnny grief manifest itself?
I can remember watching that last show and just being woefully depressed. I couldn't sleep, I was up the whole night – which maybe tells you more about me than I would like. I know it sounds like I'm a complete ninny, but I felt a sadness for weeks after. It was sort of like a doctor telling you, "Well, we've looked at the X-rays, and your legs are perfectly healthy, but we're still going to amputate them." You think, "Whaaa? Why is he going?"

But as with most aspects of his career, he did this retiring thing at the right time, the right way. And I look at the mess I'm in now, and I think [as Dumb Guy], "What the hell am I gonna do now?" I have no clue. But Carson just figures it out and carries it off with great skill, grace and aplomb.

One week before he retired, you went on 'The Tonight Show.' At the end of the program, you said to him, "Thanks for my career."
I knew at the time it might have sounded flip, but it's certainly the case. He's the only reason I'm here. There have been a lot of people in my life who have been very helpful to me and have really done me favors and helped me in ways I'll never be able to repay. But if there's one person to whom I owe the most, it has to be him.

By the way, when Bob Hope came out onto the panel that same night, did you get the feeling that he wasn't fully aware that Johnny was leaving?
[Laughs] See, if you consider ways to end up very successful careers, Bob Hope could have done a similar version of what Carson did – kind of step aside. I watched a lot of his early films over the holidays on AMC, and Jesus, talk about a guy who was sharp and on the money and appealing and fresh and charismatic. Then I saw his Bob Hope Kodak All-American Football Team Christmas Special With Eva Gabor – and it was tough to watch. If it had been a funeral, you would've preferred the coffin be closed. It was sad. I mean, can he be gratified by that?

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