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David Letterman: Resurrection After Midnight

Is he the new king of late-night TV or just the pride of Indianapolis?

Comedian, late night, television host, David Letterman

Comedian and late night television host David Letterman warms up his NBC studio audience prior to the taping of his popular television show at Rockefeller Center on April 23rd, 1982.

George Rose/Getty

As in so many sectors of the United States economy, a once seemingly invincible profit magnet, the talk show, is suddenly facing the specter of decline. The problem is that old industrial bugaboo, aging equipment; in this case, the talk-show host. Just look at the inventory: Merv Griffin, a Model T in a Toyota world; Mike Douglas, obsolete; John Davidson, bankrupt; Tom Snyder, closed for repairs; Dinah, out of business; Donahue, boring. Even the mighty Carson Corp., once the Sony of talk shows, now suffers Nielsen slippage, and its bid for foreign export is meeting stiff resistance in Britain, where consumers can’t digest the durable Johnny jape without a bilingual dictionary.

Perhaps the one factor preventing total collapse of the industry has been the inability of the Japanese to dump their slimmed-down, economical, superefficient talk shows on the American market, because of that apparently insurmountable language barrier.

Faced with this massive challenge, U.S. television executives have risen to it with their usual flair, accomplishing almost nil. In truth, only one individual has attempted to revitalize the fading industry. Let us now examine his strategy, tactics, style, sex life, taste in clothing and favorite restaurants so we may determine, insofar as is possible, whether the talk show as we now know it will survive into the twenty-first century or will be replaced by video games.

YEARS OF CRISIS

Every great man (or woman! or child!) at some time in his (or her or its) career faces the inevitable time of testing, the defeat from which he or they either bounce back – and become rich and famous – or curl up and die, never again being written up in a major magazine article like this one. Think of Napoleon on Elba. MacArthur and the Philippines. Garber of Batavia. (See? He couldn’t bounce back, so you never heard of him.)

For David Letterman, the crisis came in the fall of 1980, when his first talk show expired after eight months on NBC. Letterman faced this crushing setback with all the grit and determination that have characterized this country from the start.

“I just figured, well, my one shot on TV has come and gone, and that’s it,” he recalls, “and I would be destined to doing guest shots on The Love Boat for the rest of my life.”

For an upcoming captain of show biz, he’s kind of a worrywart, this Letterman.

He has all kinds of worries. He worries that one day he’ll cease being funny, like a ballplayer losing his legs. When it gets hot out, he worries that the earth has broken out of its orbit and is speeding toward the sun. Nail biting seems to him an eminently reasonable philosophical stance.

“I think if you have any sense, you’ll adopt the view of life,” he says matter-of-factly, “that if the bucket of shit can explode, it will explode.”

His fears of disaster confirmed, his career totally and forever shattered, Letterman retreated to his house in Malibu to feed his beloved Bob and Stan, jog up and down the beach and learn whether he could successfully do nothing.

Not everyone was as pessimistic. His head writer, Merrill Markoe, did not desert him, although, in truth, to do so would have necessitated moving, as she was living with him and the beloved Bob and Stan. His key staff members kept in touch, even in exile. “The spirit of the group was that we were coming back,” says Barry Sand, the producer. “It was just a matter of time.”

There was some objective evidence to support this position. Even though he was a canceled man, Letterman had been kept under contract by NBC to the tune of either $600,000 a year (New York Times estimate) or “a handsome living” (Letterman estimate). Moreover, millions of ordinary Americans continued to believe that someday Letterman would succeed Johnny Carson.

Indeed, there was a kind of global consensus formed around the conclusion that the failure had not been Letterman’s but that of NBC’s programming department. To this day, bushmen in Papua New Guinea, will tell you, “Lettah Man? Daytime slot murdah him.”

On morning TV, eighty percent of your guests must be experts on the price of cellulite. Or so it seems. Far from unleashing Letterman’s gleeful mockery, such dullards finally clogged the joke pores and wearied him. His sly-boots smirk congealed into a mask of frozen horror. “It was a strange land in which we found ourselves,” he would later reflect.

Things had gone wrong from the start. The original producer quit the week before the show’s premiere, throwing its first weeks into chaos. Then NBC parachuted in a concept worse than chaos, a vision of Letterman playing father to a warm TV “family,” even as had the great Godfrey, the Australopithecus of talk-show hosts, back at the dawn of video. Straight man to a bunch of second bananas, Letterman got lost in the shuffle and felt uneasy in the no man’s land between sketch and interview. It was miscasting. Give him a real FBI-man guest to chew on, and it’s funnier than having him mock-interview a comic doing FBI shtick.

Doom intruded, with its usual lack of humor. Even though the show began to find itself in the final weeks – Letterman loosened up, the supposedly cretinous daytime audience began to wise up, the ratings rose, the critics cooed – sorry, it was too late. There is a bizarre and fatal effect whereby when too many big-market affiliate stations drop a show, it can no longer possibly get survival ratings. Several affiliates had bailed out immediately. The end was inevitable, and everyone knew it. Letterman backpedaled and tried to clinch, feeling bruised. “Every day, I felt like I was in Vietnam,” he reminisces, throwing his arms over his head like some reeling, battered, bleeding pug trying in vain to avoid a rain of killer blows, “and people were screaming, ‘Stop the fight! He’s out on his feet!'”

A HOOSIER LAD

He grew up, like so many boys, young, thin, American, white, male, sports-loving, gaptoothed. He was neither a varsity hero nor a distinguished scholar nor an aspiring felon; no, just sort of an ordinary, normal, decent teenage jerk like you and me – except for one nascent quirk that at the time seemed like an annoying habit but would later change the course of late-night scheduling at a major American television network.

But put it in your own words:

“I never had a whole lot of friends, but I was in the group of people that was always making fun of everybody else. You know, we weren’t in the honor society, so we made fun of the honor society. And yet we weren’t the guys stealing cars, so we made fun of the guys stealing cars. We couldn’t do much. My grades weren’t good, and the guys I hung out with, their grades weren’t really good. And we couldn’t go out with the really good-looking girls. We would egg their houses. We’d find the best-looking girl and without ever even asking her out – we’d just assume she wouldn’t go out – we’d just go egg her house on theory, you know, just, hell, ‘Screw you, I know you’re not gonna go out with me, so we’ll egg your house.'”

Yes, he could make fun of, a talent that has reached its apotheosis in late twentieth-century urban America, where you can make a fortune doing what you once did just to let ’em know you were alive, as good as they were. I scoff, therefore I am.

Indiana, this occurred in, Indianapolis. Unexceptional background: middle-class family life – Mom, Dad, sisters, that sort of thing. Letterman got into college with little help from his grades, Ball State U. (no jokes please) in Muncie. What to study? After the most serious career consideration (“You don’t need to be doing something that involves heavy lifting. Don’t look for that kind of work. Look for something you can do easily”) he majored in radio-television.

The decision led, with awesome finality, to work in radio and television.

It was on the air in Indianapolis that David Letterman began to emerge in a recognizable form. He held a series of conventional jobs – weatherman, DJ, booth announcer – but he always played against the conventions, injected a kind of merryprankster humor and even picked up a small following of hip misfits in his job drifts.

Some of the shows were on at such odd hours, Letterman could do anything he wanted. There was Clover Power, on which poor, unsuspecting 4-H Club kids demonstrated their projects, collies herding sheep and such, only to be ridiculed by the host. There was also a late movie for which the host would lead the stagehands in food fights during intermissions. As a weekend weatherman (“In the event that harm came to the regular weatherman, I was just a heartbeat away”), Letterman strove mightily to battle clichés: Tired of hearing about hailstones the size of peas or baseballs, he once reported an onslaught of hailstones the size of canned hams. Another time, Letterman announced that the city’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument had been shipped to Guam to be replaced by a miniature-golf complex (“My, oh my, that created some turmoil”). He also liked to issue bulletins on late-breaking developments in the life of Jane Pauley, then a fast-rising newscaster in Indianapolis. One morning, he came on the radio with the news that it was her wedding day, causing her to receive gifts and congratulatory calls. It wasn’t.

A living witness to Letterman’s Indianapolis Period is the very rich cartoonist Jim Davis, who draws the very well syndicated comic strip Garfield and who knew Letterman slightly in college. “He would announce fictional sporting events on the radio,” testifies Davis, who still lives in Muncie and likes it fine. “In one sport, the ball was supposedly about eight feet in diameter, and the object was to get it out of the stadium and into the opposing team’s bus. He would sit there and announce the darn thing on the air. Some people believed it.”

THE MARCH TO THE SEA

Like so many plucky young lads from the provinces, our David was increasingly drawn to the wider world outside Indiana. God, he wanted out. He’d worked in Indianapolis for six years. But the wider world laughed in his face. Something wasn’t working. He had tapes out all over the country, in the way of ambitious young broadcasters. Nobody wanted them. Perhaps he was ahead of his time. In those long-forgotten days, weather guys read the weather. Straight. Today, of course they all have to banter with the sports guy, even though not one in a million can do it with a trace of wit. Then, funny weather didn’t go. Or maybe his tie was wrong. Something. Anyway, he made the now historic decision. The big risk. May 1975. Letterman migrates to California. He would be a comedy writer. “You sit at home and you watch TV every night, and you say to yourself, ‘I betcha I could write some of that.’ And the sad truth is, you could.”

And did.

Letterman was married then, unlike now. He’d wed at twenty-one, “your typical college-sweetheart situation, where it’s more of an excuse to get out of the house than anything.” The marriage lasted eight years, ending after the move west. Success there for him came ridiculously easily, at least in retrospect. Both Letterman and his wife quickly landed jobs, she as a department-store buyer, he as a joke writer for Jimmie Walker at $150 a week. He got other writing jobs and soon afterward tried his luck as a stand-up comedian at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, the Aberdeen Proving Ground for West Coast comics.

He makes it sound easy. Oh, sure, a couple of obligatory bombs (“It’s embarrassing, and you get your feelings hurt”), but then he found his style. A big influence was a comic and actor named Jay Leno, whom Letterman had seen working the clubs. He still considers Leno one of the best. “His attitude was so clearly defined, and he was so bright and so contemporary and he did it so effortlessly, it just seemed like an extension of his personality. And that really crystallized for me what I wanted to do.”

Shortly after meeting Merrill Markoe, who taught painting at the University of Southern California before drifting into TV writing, Letterman joined the cast of a new variety show starring Mary Tyler Moore. Markoe was one of the writers. Letterman was in the troupe of mostly young, bright-eyed second bananas. There, he came close to suffering terminal embarrassment, compelled to undergo the nightmarish ordeal of forced dancing. “It was just horrible,” he says, stammering and giggling, remembering the trauma. “I was just mortified; I was like a spring that was coiling ever more tightly.”

Letterman needs to maintain his dignity. You can’t picture him dressing up as a carrot as, oh, Carson would do if it promised a “yoke.” Markoe did her best to protect her boyfriend. She’d casually inquire what the other writers were up to, and if someone was indeed writing David into the carrot suit, she’d enthusiastically point out what a great vegetable one of the other fellows would make, that it was just the thing for him. “Because later I’d have to go to dinner with David,” she says, “and hear him say (her voice becomes a strangled scream here), ‘I DON’T WANNA DO IT!’ So I was just trying to keep dinner easygoing.”

The Mary show didn’t last long, but as a stand-up, Letterman was thriving. His Carson stock soared. It’s well known by now that The Tonight Show is the official starmaker for young comics. As Letterman puts it, “You want America to think that Johnny thinks you’re funny.” You rise in the New York and L.A. clubs, and that gets you to Carson, and if he gives you the old wink and circled thumb and forefinger after your act, next you’re sitting on his panel, a promotion. After that comes guest host, and you’re among the elect. People remember your name. Seemingly without effort, Letterman rose to be king of the guest hosts and was more and more compared to Carson himself. Here’s TV critic Tony Schwartz doing it in the New York Times: “Indeed, Mr. Letterman’s style is much in the tradition of Mr. Carson’s. Both are boyishly handsome, clean-cut MiddleWestern fellows…turned slightly naughty in the big city.”

Son of Carson, they were saying. Heir apparent. We’ve already seen how Letterman reacts to bad news, so we can guess how he’d greet good. “I never really believed any of that. It was very flattering, but I just couldn’t see any mortal – from my vantage point – filling in right after Johnny left. I just couldn’t see it as being a smooth transition that America would react to warmly.” On the other hand, what else can one in his position say? “It would be a snap; I could do it standing on my head“? That would hardly do.

TRIUMPH OR DIE

Sadly placing the beloved Bob and Stan in the hands of stand-ins, Letterman and Markoe made for Rockefeller Center, a massive East Coast entertainment-and-dentistry hub built by the son of a gnomelike ectomorph who gave dimes to strangers on the advice of a public-relations man. There they begat round two of the David Letterman talk show, this time dubbed Late Night, apparently because it’s on late at night.

Back in business. NBC had not abandoned its young Tom Joad to languish in the treacherous California paradise. The sinister and mysterious men known to the outside world only as “television executives” had gone into their dark take-a-meeting rooms, tossed the newt eyes into the kettle and made video. Bad mumbo jumbo was done to Tom Snyder, voodooed right off the air, his slot falling to our low-key boy from Malibu. Somewhere, Nancy Friday was crying. Once, his crisply defined head planet-big against a sea of innovative black space, Ol’ Tom had loomed up as though a rising sun, jabbering aggressively into the void. It was like 2001. He seemed unstoppable. Then the weekend satire kids got their teeth in his haunches, and he was silly. But I’m babbling.

Dave was back. He’d heard about his own resurrection in the form of a rumor from a TV columnist, but it was true. This time, program assemblage went smoothly. After all, the Letterman show had had a twenty-six-week on-air tryout. Wisely, NBC kept hands off. The key personnel returned. The music would be lively rock & roll by Paul Shaffer, who’d led the band on the original Saturday Night Live. Most important, there would be no discussion of cellulite.

Off the air, things were less smooth. Said Merrill in a burst of laconic understatement: “I’m fed up. It sucks. It’s so awful. This is just the most terrible experience of my life.” Seems the comic duo had run smack into New York City’s most creative large-scale practical joke: housing.

The joke is this: there is none.

First of all, Letterman has moved around so much in the past few years that when you ask him where home is, he isn’t sure. Now he and Markoe were living in a hotel room, working long hours and cruising the suburbs on weekends trying to find a rented house that would satisfy the needs of the beloved Bob and Stan. They found nothing but real-estate anecdotes, fun for David to relate but impossible to live in.

“The one that suited our needs most recently was a nice house on about eight acres of land on the North Shore of Long Island. We breathed a sigh of relief because our prayers had been answered. And then about halfway through the house, the real-estate lady said, ‘Oh, by the way, there is a man living in your basement. But he doesn’t seem to bother anyone.’ It was like the beginning of a bad horror movie, you know, Roger Corman. He’s recently been released from the state hospital, and he seems to be coming along.”

In another ‘burb, they were turned down on a house for being degenerate showbiz types.

With no cozy retreat, Letterman’s workday was endless. For several years he was chronically unable to sleep late (an enigma to him), so he would rise ludicrously early and head for the Rock at seven or eight. The show doesn’t tape till six p.m., so there he’d be, all day, a man and his coffee. Soon a state of extreme fatigue was attained, described by the subject as that time when “you can feel your brain drippin’ off the top of your skull.”

And you thought comedy was fun.

With an NBC security pass (easily obtainable from any living former CIA director through the forfeiture of your right hand), you could have popped up to the Late Night offices any weekday and witnessed this tired but game comedian and his handpicked crew of young humor workers systematically mining their environment for those eternal raw materials of comedy: the stupid, the weird and the absurd.

Writers galore you’d have seen. A detailed computer analysis reveals the average Letterman writer to be a bearded twenty-three-year-old male in glasses, a plaid flannel shirt and corduroy pants, who regularly reads the official newspaper of the pasta industry on the chance that something amusing may have happened in fettuccine that month. On one particular day, you would have found several of these same writers in a conference room screening an old instructional film entitled How to Read a Book, in which two young men earnestly discuss, well, how to read a book. The writers were cackling as though viewing early Mel Brooks.

In her office with its framed photos of the beloved Bob and Stan on her desk (“I miss ’em terribly. I have anxiety attacks about them”) was Merrill Markoe in gold hoop earrings, jeans, sweater and sneakers, her dark straight hair with bangs. More New York-style than California, Markoe produces billows of fast, funny talk, zooming off on long comic tangents, then doubling back suddenly to intercept the lonely and abandoned topic at hand.

She was poring over the Yellow Pages. “I’m the only person who actually reads the phone book,” she said. “I find stuff in here for the show that you just can’t imagine would exist.” She had just cut out, in fact, an ad promising, “If you can walk, we will make you a popular dancer in three hours.” This had made her laugh, and she was thinking that perhaps some audience member might be sent to see what – God could only guess – he’d be made into in three hours.

Working as Letterman’s head writer while living with him, she said (since I asked), has advantages – for instance, she gets to know him so well that she has certain knowledge of what he’ll find funny – and also disadvantages, such as taking each other for granted, which can diminish the effect of say, praise from the boss.

“I guess the real hard part is that we talk about the show too much. You know, we go to dinner at night and we talk about the show, we wake up in the morning and we talk about the show. We promised ourselves that we were gonna try to have a life this time and that after the show was over, it would be an off-limits subject, so that you would have a normalized situation. But it hasn’t worked out that way, because we don’t have a house or anything, so we just stay here twenty-four hours a day.”

We left her yearning for normalcy as the host entered the building, a lanky, copper-haired man in jeans, Berkeley T-shirt, heavy work boots (a departure from his normal Adidases) and a bulky, quilted blue jacket. His head was pulled down deep inside the collar, apparently to forestall recognition. Yet an orally fixated stranger nabbed him in the elevator, telling him that she was a big fan and found him really sexy, what with those cute lacunas in his dentition.

“Oh, my,” said Letterman, sounding like some hip rustic, perhaps a creation of Peter DeVries’.

Past his secretary he strolled into his office, which at that juncture still owed more stylistically to its former occupant. Some Letterman touches were popping up. There was a typewriter now on Big Tom’s fancy, oval superdesk. “I think this was Perry White’s on the bridge of the starship Enterprise,” said Letterman, anxious to disown the outlandish artifact. There were pencils sticking out of what was once Big Tom’s ceiling. (Letterman has mastered the difficult art of stalactiting pencils with a flip from chair level, a fast-growing pastime wherever ceilings are soft.) There was nothing on Big Tom’s metal-and-glass shelves but a TV set, off, and a portable radio, on, rockin’ & rollin’.

Here, in this sanctum, Letterman could worry, write comedy, guzzle coffee, launch pencils and encourage any staff members who dropped by with his happy-warrior brand of high-spirited good cheer:

LETTERMAN: “What’s happening? Is anything wrong? Has anything gone haywire?”

PRODUCER: “No, everything’s great.”

LETTERMAN: “Anything exploded in our faces?”

From here, Letterman could issue stern directives to galvanize his staff: “It’s just American TV. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Late Night commenced on February 1st, not a moment behind schedule. On top, the jumpy Shaffer music and night stills of America’s most dangerous city evoked SNL. Letterman literally officiated on a set resembling not the usual talk-show ersatz living room but an office. (Merrill:”We were trying to think back on the old Steve Allen show, that level of loopy formality.)”

The long, loquacious line of guests and jokes began trekking out across the set and into your living room. A talk show had been born…again. Soon Letterman could look out at it and allow himself a note of cautious pessimism. “I think this show will be harder to screw up than the last one,” he said. “But by God, I’m gonna work around the clock to try.”

THE ULTIMATE QUESTION

These are anxious times. Today’s skittish audiences are unwilling to invest large amounts of anxious time on untested commodities. People come to me for advice. “What about this Letterman?” they say. “Can he sustain? Should I chance staying up that late? I have to be at work by nine, you know.”

I weigh my replies carefully, fully cognizant of my responsibilities to the multitudes who live by my talk-show advisory service. Let us analyze, I say.

The critics in the main have taken a wait-and-see attitude, bullish on Letterman but finding Late Night uneven. Some point out that the talk show needs time to find its tone and its pace. Indeed, it is an odd form, a patchwork quilt that the adroit host drapes artfully around himself to emphasize his best features. Chaired by a comedian like Carson, Allen or Letterman, the talk show becomes two programs in one, offering both the traditional chat-with-the-guest segment as well as prepared comedy spots. Mixing them well isn’t easy.

In the second category, Letterman and his writing team hit the tube running, brimming over as they were with good ideas that played. Though possessed of a sensibility not very far from SNL-SCTV‘s, Letterman eschews the sketch, specializing in a kind of reality piece that draws on actual people. In “Alan Alda: a Man and His Chinese Food,” he’ll go out and interrogate a restaurant owner in solemn TV-documentary style on how the star – whose picture adorns the restaurant window – handles his chopsticks. Or he’ll place a long-distance call to Nebraska – right from his talk-show desk – to closely question a woman about her activities in an organization named the Porkettes (his writers peruse nearly every newspaper in America). Or putting a twist on an old Steve Allen routine, he’ll narrate candid footage of people walking down the street as though he were an announcer describing “New York’s February 8th Day Parade.”

He’s been taking risks, pulling surprises, playing with the talk-show form – all to the good. One show opened with a brilliant device: A minicam moving in front of Letterman gave us the host’s point of view. The viewers saw not Letterman but everything he would see – first, the backstage crew; then, the clapping audience heaving into view; the cue cards, the cameras, the producer signaling, the first guest coming out. If they’d kept it up for the full sixty minutes, it would have been an instant television legend. On another show, after Letterman interviewed Hank Aaron, the old slugger ambled off the set only to be ambushed in the hall by TV sports reporter Al Albert, who conducted a postinterview interview, asking Aaron how he assessed Letterman as a talk-show host and whether he was in Carson’s league. This kind of fun has helped the show justify its publicity slogan: “Expect the unexpected.”

The guest segment, soul of the modern talk show, has developed in a more tentative fashion, however. Indeed, it presents the trickiest problems, particularly for a comedian-host who must find a tone, navigating between information and laughs. Timing, experience and interviewing skill all play important roles in the vital guest-chat arena, but perhaps most important in the long run is the host’s ability to take charge and implant on the amorphous process the stamp of his singular personality, marking his territory distinct from that of other talk shows.

This, Letterman has yet to accomplish. James Wolcott in the Village Voice complained that the show’s pace is so bustling, so many things are packed into each episode, that the guests seem to be flung in and out of their chairs before you can get a fix on them. Slow down and relax was his prescription. Do less. Time and fine tuning may achieve the desired effect here.

Letterman seems to have the right instincts and equipment for interviewing (and the staff has been trying hard to pull for interesting and underexposed guests – no easy matter). He’s smart. He listens – an amazingly rare talent – and can ask pertinent questions. Or he can go for laughs. He has good moves: wit, whimsy, charm, sarcasm. His insult whip snaps the air; it doesn’t cut flesh. He wears well. He has high growth potential. (His ratings numbers so far have been only slightly higher than his predecessor’s, though Letterman has been pulling a significantly younger audience. Networks like young.) So check in; watch the charts; look for the right moment to jump in. Individual taste comes into play, with timing all-important. You could tune in tomorrow or next month, or in two. Watch for the spring upturn. It’s a young issue, but someday it could be blue chip. Who can say? As of now, it’s not consistently compelling, but it’s watchable. Watchable means a show that can actually be watched, by humans, without vomiting. This is no small thing. This is no backhanded compliment. There are so few watchables on the wasteland at any given time, a new one is precious. Late Night will not upset your stomach. 

In This Article: Coverwall, David Letterman

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