David Letterman: The Rolling Stone Interview - Rolling Stone
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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.

David Letterman

David Letterman at his Press Conference at CBS Building at 51 West 52nd Street, January 13th, 1993.

Jack Smith/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

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!”

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?

If you’d gotten ‘The Tonight Show,’ would you have dared – as did Leno – to go on the Monday following Carson’s final Friday? Isn’t that a no-win scenario?
No, if the circumstances had been different – by which I mean, if they’d given me the job! [laughs] – sure, I would have done it. This is not to demean what Jay accomplished, but were it I that night, it would have been handled much differently. Because you can’t just turn off over one weekend that six-month period of genuine emotion and interest and care and concern. You have to address that, and I would have done it. Now you could be criticized for trying to make yourself look good by kissing up to Johnny. But there was so much positive feeling about this man that it would have been hard to make too big a mistake there. I’m confident that we would have done a really nice job for that first show. Now, I’m not saying the rest of the week would have been anything. It would have sped downhill immediately.

You’re not a big fan of change, are you?
No, but I certainly recognize the importance of change in the context of our show. Probably the most stringent ongoing self-criticism I can make is that we don’t do enough new things on a regular basis. And I would take all the responsibility for that. Ultimately, the biggest roadblock to getting a lot of new stuff on the air would be me. I guess that’s the difference between me being thirty-five and forty-five.

So you’re a pretty discerning judge of material?
Who are we kidding? I’m a maniacal asshole.

Some of your former writers are working on ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’ a great neurotic satire of talk-show life. Does this suggest that you are the real Larry Sanders?
Every time I watch that show, I think: “Hey, wait a minute! That’s me!” But I don’t know if it really is me or if they have the talk-show machine so well assessed that it looks like me. During almost every episode, I think, “Boy, didn’t that happen here once?” They’ve all had an eerie effect on me. In the one I saw most recently, Larry and his girlfriend were fighting, and she was threatening to go back home to Chicago.

Déjà vu there?
No, that one didn’t ring true. Had it been Cleveland, then maybe – but Chicago? No.

You’re famously brutal about your own performance. For instance, your recent session with Walter Cronkite – while genial to the naked eye – left you greatly unhinged.
I really felt like I had screwed that up, because I was just overwhelmed by the guy. He sits down, and you think, “Oh, my God, it’s Walter Cronkite!” So I just yammered all over him and just fumbled it.

Your postshow drill, then, is to come back to your office and review the tape, dwelling on the mishaps?
I have my own little ritual, yeah. But I should. If you’ve got men on base and you can’t drive them in, how come you’re getting major-league money? That’s the point. At this stage, I ought to be able to do a better job. I just felt that not only did I let the show down, I let Walter Cronkite down and I let myself down.

But do you recognize you’re being hard on yourself –
No! No! Why let yourself off the hook? If I fucked it up, I fucked it up. So obviously you come back the next day and try it again. Fortunately, we had Marv Albert on and got right to his blooper reel. Smooth sailing!

Do you buy the notion that awkward TV is good TV?
Yeah, if it doesn’t involve you – absolutely.

To a certain degree, if a guest brings out visible discomfort in you, it’s actually kind of entertaining.
I’ve heard people tell me that many, many, many times. And I guess if you provide yourself the luxury of some distance and a little objectivity, that couldn’t be more accurate. But at the time, you just think the studio is filling up with room-temperature saliva.

Pee-wee Herman was that type of catalyst. You introduced him to the mainstream, but then he disappeared from the show.
Something about a Florida movie theater, I think. Did you hear anything about that?

Before all that. Was he banished?
No, Pee-wee Herman was always great for us. There was a very small falling-out – I think it had something to do with The Arsenio Hall Show. I don’t know whether it was him or us or both of us.

Would you have him back?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. You know who I really miss? There’s a song on the new R.E.M. CD that I listened to like six times before I finally realized, “Holy shit, this is about Andy Kaufman!” Andy would orchestrate and rehearse each of his appearances for maximum impact. And when the impact worked, good or bad, he would savor it. If we could have one guest like Andy – to me that’s worth six months of new material. Steve Martin also does it for us. He comes on and actually performs. There’s nobody else like that now.

Sandra Bernhard is a terrific foil.
We haven’t had her in a while because she and I sort of wore each other down. We had maybe done it too many times. She’s very nice. The only thing we’ve ever really wanted from anybody is that they just sit down, start talking and take over, for God’s sake. And Sandra is good in that sense. I mean, we’re continually surprised by people in show business who come out and don’t seem to have any idea that the proceeding is being televised. Although I guess you could make a case for that.

And then there’s Howard Stern. Are you a listener?
I’ll listen to him a lot for a while, and then I won’t listen to him a lot for a while. Over the years I’ve tried to figure out a satisfying evaluation of Howard. And I just can’t. There are times when he seems so bright and witty to me, I just think, “Damn, this guy’s blue-chip!” And then other times I think, “How can a person possibly say this?” I listened one day when Howard was giving away pairs of movie tickets to the first five guys who’d come down to the station and expose themselves. And I thought, “Oh, man – the movie company must be down on their knees giving thanks to God!” You can’t buy PR like this – guys are in there taking their pants off! I mean, can you do that? Can you invite somebody in off the street and have them undress for movie tickets?

During the campaign, Bill Clinton appeared on your program, telephonically, and went on to become president. Correlation or coincidence?
He had no clue to the damage he was doing there. He knew what he was doing by appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show – but if he’d known what he was doing in our case, he would’ve had nothing to do with us.

You supplied him with a campaign slogan: “We don’t have a clue, but we don’t have a Quayle.”
It’s so embarrassing to me. I can remember early on – right after Clinton did the 60 Minutes thing – I was talking to Tom Shales, and off the record he asked, “What do you think of Clinton?” I said: “The guy’s a pretender. He doesn’t have a chance in hell. This guy, he’s not a president.” Two days later this shows up in the Washington Post – my assessment of candidate Clinton, where I just completely write him off as a loser without fiber. [Laughs] And now he’s the pars-dent. So I know I’m going to pay for this. I know something ugly will happen, and he’ll be behind it. Some huge tax audit, or he’ll start nosing around my domestic staff.

You’ve got a domestic staff? Do you have a houseboy?
Don’t we all?

What about your housewoman? That is, Margaret Ray, the disturbed woman who kept breaking into your home in Connecticut. Were you ever genuinely frightened by her?
Yeah, it was cool – and I say “cool” only because it’s now over and done with. But there were two hilarious scares in particular. One time we had come back from vacation around two in the morning. There was an immediate sense of something not right. Things had been moved in a way that you would never move your own belongings. The kitchen sink was full of dirty dishes. So I realized that somebody was in the house. We got out and called the police and watched – it was odd – the police going from room to room turning on lights. They finally found her asleep in bed and bounced her.

The incident that was most frightening came a week later. We had just gone to bed. For some reason, I thought I smelled smoke, which is not a good sign. So I sat up in bed, and at the end of the hallway I could determine the silhouette of the woman standing there. That scared me. It scared me for a second, and then I realized, “Oh, I know what this is, there’s no trouble.” I rolled over, and I called the New Canaan police.

I heard that you once gave her a half-hour to get away.
Yeah. She was on the property and wanted a glass of water, and I went in to get her one – well, first I said, “Finish raking the yard, then I’ll get your damn water.” So I went inside and called the police. But then I thought, “She’s never threatened me, it’s not like I have children that she’s terrorizing, it’s not like I’m finding dead raccoons in my disposal.” I just felt like “Wait a minute, this is lopsided.” So I went back out, and I said, “Margaret, I’ve phoned the police; you better get out of here.” And she – not went nuts, she is nuts – she started shrieking, and then took off and the police picked her up.

So there was never any threat of bodily harm?
No, never. There was a time when I felt frustrated and annoyed by it. But I never really felt I was the victim – this woman is the victim. She’s had a very sad life. She’s got like six or eight kids and is estranged from them all. We gave her many, many benefits of the doubt. Finally, she went to jail for about a year and got out last fall. I don’t think we’ll hear from her again.

And all along her fantasy was that she was your wife?
Oh, no, that part’s true. Oh, God, we were married, what, eight, ten years. A beautiful woman.

The night Sonny and Cher reunited on your show, you spoke of the futility of mixing business and romantic partnerships. You were alluding, I guess, to your relationship with Merrill Markoe, with whom you created this show.
Right, right. One night I think maybe Merrill and I will get back together on the show and do a couple of songs. I’m still very fond of her, and she’s one of these people to whom I owe a great debt. Sadly, I haven’t talked to her in years. This is so silly, but in the time that has elapsed, Merrill’s mother died, and I never knew about it. Two more years go by, and her dog Stan dies. So I sent her a note of condolence over the death of Stan – completely ignorant of the fact that her mother had passed away. I somberly wrote, “I now take pen in hand…” and she must have thought: “Yeah, but what about my mother? She’s been dead for a year and a half, and you never said anything!” But with Stan, word came to us that he’d somehow eaten an entire ham. Oh, God. [Chuckles] And it just killed him. Too much ham.

As I recall, your dog Bob was on the West Coast with Merrill when he died. That must have been a tough night for you to get through the show.
Yep, yep. At the time, Merrill and I were estranged. It turned out Bob was ridden with cancer. He had eaten a Presto log, and as a result, his lungs were covered with tumors. But they give off a nicely colored flame if burned – very festive for the holidays. So she called and said the vet thought we should put him to sleep. I said I’d be off the following week and would come out. But the vet said we couldn’t wait. So they put him to sleep right there, which was – it was sad…. But I can’t – I’m not sure I would have been much good had I been there.

Merrill recently published a tell-all book about life with Bob and Stan, didn’t she?
We wanted her to be on the show to promote it, but the only request we made – because of her relationship with me and the show – was that we wanted her to do our show first. It made a difference to me. But because of scheduling, it couldn’t happen. She did every other show: Howard Stern, Arsenio Hall, Jay. Which is fine. She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever known in my life. I mean, we haven’t had a good idea since she left.

For the last four years, you’ve been involved with a mystery woman. Does she enjoy her anonymity?[Laughs, embarrassed]
Well, no. Her name is Regina Lasko. Of the Ohio Laskos. When I met her, she was equipment manager for the Rangers. Marv Albert introduced us one night between periods. She was leaning on the Zamboni, and I knew then my life would never be the same. [Ms. Lasko, a former Late Night staffer, has since become a production manager for Saturday Night Live. – Ed.]

Is there a downside to being in a relationship with you?
Do the words moody drunk mean anything to you?

Many would imagine you’re every gal’s dream.
Yeah, you’d think so, wouldn’t you? But I’m no day at the beach, let’s just say that.

Do those lingering hugs you lately give to fabulous babe guests cause any trouble at home?
You know, almost everything I do represents trouble at home. The truth of it is, as I get older, I’m actually getting away with far less. That’s why if an opportunity presents itself at work, I feel like I have an obligation to exploit it. But some of them are genuine. I remember with Goldie Hawn, I’d always wanted to do that, so here she is, why not?

You could say you’re doing it for the guys at home.
Believe me, I ain’t doin’ it for you at home.

Does fatherhood beckon?
Well, I get very excited about kids. A while back, all of my friends started having kids, and I was spending more time with infants than I had ever spent since I was an infant. And I found them just a wonder. It was something that I hadn’t really thought about until the last two or three years. So I’ve decided that as soon as I get everything in my life just perfect, then I’ll start having kids. I’m looking at maybe six, eight months of fine-tuning, and then we’re on to the family.

Are you feeling pressure to get yourself hitched?
Well, you know, I’ve had that kind of pressure for as long as I can remember. In fact, the only one who didn’t pressure me was the woman I was actually married to. And I think she was greatly relieved when we were no longer married.

 don’t know, it seems like I’ve spent way too much time in my life concentrating on just one thing – the work. And the older I get, it now seems like maybe that was not necessarily the thing to spend all my time on. Because after almost eleven years, it’s not like we’ve got it figured out. I think to myself, “We’re doing something wrong, we’ve misplaced part of the instructions,” because after all this time, it’s still hard, and you would think at this stage of things it would be easier. I don’t think Carson ever went home with his stomach in knots because Sharon Stone was in tears.

Sharon Stone was in tears?
In fairness to me, Howard Stern made her cry in the greenroom – it wasn’t me. What a baby.

Do you have a message for young comedians, of which there continues to be a glut?
Well, my message to young comedians, as it has been for the last ten years, is, don’t do it, stay home, go into another profession, we don’t want you, there’s plenty of competition, I’m having trouble hanging on to my job, I don’t want you breathing down my neck, don’t bother me, don’t give me something else to worry about, we have enough professionals now providing all the laughs this country needs, we don’t need you!

Try to be more clear.
I guess I’ve been accused of being snobbish on this topic. But we used to have a lot more stand-up comedians on the show. [Co-executive producer] Bob Morton and I have this conversation once every six weeks: “Do we have anybody, is there anybody?” And I’m told by these people who spend a lot of their time traveling around to clubs that no, there isn’t. The product is not as strong as you would like it these days.

When was the last time you were inside a comedy club?
It’s been years and years and years. I actually get cold chills and sweats in clubs. I can’t enjoy the experience because I remember my own difficulty in doing it.

Did you ever subscribe to the notion that comedy is the new rock & roll?
I think I read that issue.

What do you think?
Well, I think what’s happening now is that rock & roll is the new comedy.

You’re actually a proponent of loud rock music.
Yeah, yeah. We like no-nonsense, knock-people-down and blow-the-roof-off-the-dump music

Carson always maintained that all comedians long to be singers. Do you harbor the urge?
No, my true love will always be ballroom dancing.

Word is, you’ve given up your dream of movie stardom and paid back Disney the production-deal money they gave you.
It just seemed unrealistic to believe that I was going to star in a movie. So we settled up the contract. They needed the cash. They were working on this EuroDisney thing and needed a little seed money. I did what I could.

By the way, you actually turned down $25 million to be a pitchman for Ralston-Purina dog food?
Yeah, years ago. I know it was a long time ago because people haven’t offered me any money in a long – well, I can’t say that now. Anyway, the Ralston deal came down to $5 million a year for five years. And I never even had to mention the product…. Jesus Christ! And I said no? I suppose I thought that was the cool thing to do. But, jeez, what a fool I was!

You’ ve hired CAA superagent Michael Ovitz, the most powerful man in all of show business, a formidable man who’s universally feared Do you think you could take him?
Maybe. Not in any kind of martial-arts discipline, but maybe straight fisticuffs. I don’t know. I have nothing but positive things to say about this guy. He lives up to all his advance billing. I’m very comfortable with our association – that is, until he starts squeezing me for commissions. Then there’s going to be trouble.

The Talk Show Wars were first made a gruesome spectacle when NBC fired Leno’s irascible manager-producer, Helen Kushnick. Did you ever feel the effects of her hardball tactics?
It was mostly just something in the air that we’d rather have done without. We were closely tied to it because we’re back-to-back on the same network and booking a lot of the same guests. But it was more of a nuisance in theory than in reality. She was just trying to do the best job she could possibly do for Jay and for the show. People operate in different ways.

Let’s address your geographic quandary: New York offers energy and attitude. L.A. offers greater guest supply. Where do you want to host your show?
Well, you become comfortable wherever you happen to be. Right now, I like doing this show here. I can’t imagine doing this show at 12:30 in Los Angeles – although we would have better luck getting all those fabulous TV stars.

But you want to be on television at 11:30.
I’m too old to be on at 12:30. There’s nobody watching – just guys on death row who haven’t lost their TV privileges. No one’s watching. I’m too tired to watch – not tired of being on at 12:30, because I’m lucky to have had a job for this long in television. It’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do. I just feel that in order to extend my career, my public life, I’ve got to make this change.

You’ve often said you couldn’t do this show at 11:30.
Maybe you could. But I think people spend too much time addressing that issue. We’ll do a show that we’re happy with that’s also palatable for the time period. Automatically, there are things that we would change if we were on at 11:30, although the changes may not be that dramatic.

What’s the most obvious change you’d make?
The only thing I can think of – and we’ve discussed this with consultants – is for me to go with the jet-black Wayne Newton hair and the pencil-thin mustache. And I’d oil it back.

Do you belong on prime time?
No. I have no interest in being on prime time. It doesn’t make any sense. Whatever the future holds, my hope is that I’ll be able to continue to do the show – an hour talk show. I wouldn’t know what I could do if I didn’t have this as a creative outlet, and I use the term “creative” in only the wildest interpretation.

Life at NBC turned especially ugly before the holidays. You labeled it “the Happy Network.”
That last day it just seemed like the sky had opened up. There was all this friction – and it had little to do with me. Even if Johnny were still hostingThe Tonight Show, I’d do myself a great disservice if I didn’t explore other possibilities after ten, eleven years in one spot. The thing that’s made it so dramatic is the situation with The Tonight Show and my alleged bitterness. But Iwas disappointed that I didn’t get the show. I would have loved to try to follow Carson.

If you had aggressively campaigned for the job – which Jay reportedly did with NBC big shots – do you think things might have turned out differently?
Well, in regard to The Tonight Show when Johnny was still there, it would have hurt my feelings if he’d thought that I was politicking for his job. I mean, Carson was still sitting up and taking solid food. Who am I to be sidling up and saying, “Oh, by the way, Johnny, when you step down – and we’re not saying you’re close, you understand – let’s grease it for me to step in”? Who could be that presumptuous? So what I did was take every opportunity, if asked, to go on record as saying, “Yes, I would like to be considered for the job.” I wasn’t comfortable with anything more than that. Because in essence what I would be saying was “John, the clock is ticking, it’s time to go.”

This is you, on the record, six years ago in the ‘New York Times’: In the back of my mind, if I weren’t asked someday to do it, I’d feel kind of sad. Yet, doing It – that’s my worst nightmare. That I’d be foolish enough to take the Carson position if offered to me, that I’d die a miserable death in that time slot, and meanwhile NBC had given my old show to someone who was quite happy to keep doing it. Maybe the prudent thing would be to let some other poor bastard walk into the fray for several months and then try doing the show.”
Those are wise words, children. That was a wise, wise man speaking years ago…. Well, those were honest expressions. I stand by that.

Have you spoken to Jay amid all this stuff?
I speak to Jay now with the same regularity that I have always spoken to Jay. Which is not much. There’s no ill will personally. If I felt I was deprived of something that was rightfully mine, if I had fantasies about being hoodwinked or misled – then there might be ill will. I’m not the kind of person that wants to see somebody else fail on television. Whatever the future holds, I’m in pretty good shape. So, no, I’m not upset with NBC, I’m not upset with Jay.

I guess a case could be made that maybe Bush is upset with Clinton, because George didn’t get the job and Bill did. So what? Who among us hasn’t endured disappointment in our life? But for me to be upset with Jay, you would have to suppose that he did something hurtful and awful to me by being hired as the host ofThe Tonight Show. And I would guess that you could look long and hard and not find evidence of that.

Your relationship with him has great ironic overtones in that you’ve credited him with being among your primary comic inspirations.
Oh, without question. As he’s probably been for a whole batch of other guys who came after me. He was the best – and still is – as far as stand-up comedians go.

On the flip side, he’s said repeatedly that he wouldn’t be where he is if you hadn’t given him a showcase on ‘Late Night.’
Well, he’s being gracious, because he did as much for us as we did for him – maybe more. He could have accomplished for himself what he did here on any other show. But for us, like I said earlier, to find a regular guest who could always come out and who really could deliver, jeez, that was money in the bank.

So, if one thing’s probable, there’s going to be a gaping hole at 12:30 on NBC. Whom would you handpick as your successor?
I hear a lot of talk about this Dana Carvey. There’s a boy we ought to look at…But you know, I started watching The Dennis Miller Show before it was canceled, and I thought, if you’re looking for a guy to do a talk show at 12:30, Dennis would be a pretty good choice.

How long might you disappear from the air before reappearing in some new incarnation?
Having been out of work at one point in my television life for over a year, it’s my hope that I wouldn’t have to be gone any longer than it would take for the reconstructive plastic surgery to heal. So what are we talking about here? If you get yourself a good doctor in Switzerland? What? Six, eight weeks?

On the first day outside parties were permitted to bid for your services, you opened your monologue by saying, “I feel like a million bucks!” Just how does a million bucks feel?
Beats me. I’m just tickled by the phrase.

You’re saying you’ve yet to feel like a million bucks during any of this?
No, no. I’m embarrassed by all the attention.

So what kind of dollar value would you place on how you feel?
I feel like a million bucks.

This story is from the February 18th, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone.

In This Article: David Letterman


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