NEW YORK — The man leaps out of the shadows and into the light, a silver blur in a white shirt and violet tie. He bounds across the stage toward his desk, brakes and turns and scampers back stage right, grabs the microphone by its cord and swings it around, letting it thunk on the ground next to his caramel-colored loafers as the CBS Orchestra plays frantically. The audience is on its feet. A fake cityscape frames the man as he hits his mark: a red sticker on the iridescent-blue stage floor of the Ed Sullivan Theater in midtown Manhattan.
The band music ceases, the applause dwindles and David Letterman, jacketless and loosey-goosey, warms up his audience before the 3,759th taping of “The Late Show.” His color and vigor belie the fact that he’s spent more time on late-night television than anyone, including his idol, Johnny Carson, who reigned for 30 years. Dave passed that mark in February — half a lifetime doing “the dog and pony show,” as he routinely belittles his livelihood.
Eleven floors up, the actual New York skyline twinkling outside her dimly lit office, Jude Brennan, Dave’s longtime producer, has this to say about her boss getting the Kennedy Center’s big rainbow necklace for “exemplary” contribution to the culture:
“We’re very proud of Dave. But it’s probably the worst thing that could happen to him.”
His finest hour
There are only a handful of people in the country who put on a suit every weeknight and sit behind a desk on TV to riff and razz on America. There are the third-generation hosts of late-night TV: Fallon and Ferguson, Kimmel and Conan, Stewart and Colbert and Maher. Decades after Joan Rivers guest-hosted “The Tonight Show,” women are staking claims on the format (Chelsea Handler on E! and Kathy Griffin on Bravo) and in January ABC will tugboat Jimmy Kimmel, 45, to the 11:35 time slot to compete with the second-generation elders who’ve hauled the template into the 21st century: Jay Leno, 62, and Letterman, 65, sons of Carson.
One of these sons is now a Kennedy Center Honoree, a title bestowed on Carson in 1993.
“I know it’s not on merit.”
This is Dave in mid-November, 20 minutes after wrapping No. 3,759.
“I know I’m not worthy of it.”
His ostrich legs are crossed in slim dark jeans. He’s wearing a sourpuss face italicized by clear-rimmed glasses and a silvery dollop of hair, and a white T-shirt underneath a tuxedo jacket with shiny silk lapels.
“I’m thrilled for my family. They’re looking at me like, ‘He’s not this dumbass now.’ It’s ‘Oh, my God!’ So that’s good. To me, I’ll take that. I’m looking forward to it.”
“But please, I want people to understand: I know it’s not right.”
Any true perfectionist would be suspicious of praise, interpreting it as a misunderstanding of what an art form truly requires, and therefore believing a commendation is really an invalidation. But this doubt, this self-defeatism — it’s all an essential part of who Dave is and what he does. And it’s an essential part of why it’s worked for so many years.
There are those Americans, after all, who want to feel coddled and anesthetized as their eyelids droop in front of the television. There’s at least one late-night program that satisfies this want; it does slightly better in the ratings.
Then there are Americans who want to teeter on the abyss, cackling with glee at the terrible absurdity of life, as they fight off a fitful sleep. These Americans watch Dave. Dave’s the guy next to us on the edge, howling into the void. The show is what keeps him on the edge instead of jumping off it. The show is life.
“Forget everything but the hour of the show,” Dave says. “That’s just it. I don’t like anything — well, I endure every other aspect of the day. But the part of it I enjoy potentially is the hour of the show.”
But don’t read into this too much, into why this isolating admission makes him the perfect host for our millennial anxieties and hysterics. He’ll resist any consideration that isn’t masochistic in nature. He’s slippery, this self-described “towering mass of Lutheran Midwestern guilt,” and tough to hook.
Finally, a desk job
Here’s what we know: He was born the second of three children, on April 12, 1947, in Indianapolis. His grandfather, a miner and then a farmer, played the curmudgeon with tongue in cheek. His father, a florist, was goofy and noisy, and his mother, Dorothy, later a sweetly deadpan fixture of “The Late Show,” was “the least demonstrative person on the planet,” as Dave described her in Bill Carter’s book “The Late Shift.” Weaned on irony and inanity — as well as on the hostmanship of Ed Sullivan, the antics of Steve Allen, and Carson’s gentlemanly combination of both — Letterman struck out for broadcasting when he discovered his comfort with extemporaneous speaking in high school. In the late ’60s, he hosted a madcap radio program at Ball State University and then was the booth announcer and weekend weatherman for a local TV affiliate. He couldn’t get hired out of the market, so in 1975 he moved to Los Angeles, intent on eventually succeeding Carson, his boyhood model of adult male coolness.
Three years later — after ingratiating himself at the Comedy Store, performing on Mary Tyler Moore’s floppy variety hour and guesting on nearly every game show under the Californian sun — he did his first comedy set on “The Tonight Show.”
Johnny liked him. That was enough to hang a career on. Dave guest-hosted “The Tonight Show” 29 times. In 1980, NBC gave him a short-lived live daytime show that proved too zany and prickly for 10 a.m. Less than two years later the network put him at 12:30 a.m., after Carson, who would eventually favor him as a successor. The Feb. 1, 1982, premiere of “Late Night With David Letterman” began with an introduction cribbed from the narration in the 1931 film “Frankenstein.”
“We are about to unfold a show featuring David Letterman, a man of science who sought to create a show after his own image without reckoning upon God,” intoned Calvert DeForest, whose hapless TV persona Larry “Bud” Melman would embody the non-sequiturial rhythm of the enterprise, which at its outset looked like it was shot in a black-box theater by a bunch of college students and their gap-toothed ringleader — some beanpole wiseass with duck lips and a hyena laugh.
“Late Night” was indeed a Frankenstein’s monster, in that it was cobbled from different gimmicks of Letterman’s scattered young career, stitched together in the spirit of Carson, electrified by its post-midnight positioning, and set loose by a young team of writers and producers who were intent on changing the face of television by doing everything “The Tonight Show” did not, or at least doing it in a way that reeked of wry self-awareness.
“The talk show had become such a controlled environment when we entered it, it was strangling itself,” e-mails “Late Night” co-creator Merrill Markoe, one of Dave’s earliest collaborators and a former romantic partner. Dave “loved all the traditions of the talk show, [but we] laughed at a lot of the same kind of surreal, absurdist, silly-yet-cerebral stuff. . . . So I think what we did was combine things from Column A with things from Column B. The stuffy traditional talk-show format with a desk and chairs held the crazy material in place.”
Nearly a decade later, after NBC gift-wrapped his dream job for Leno but before he made the move to CBS, Dave appeared on the Aug. 30, 1991, episode of “The Tonight Show.” Carson’s last question for Dave was this: “We’re gonna finish at almost 30 years in May; can you envision yourself 20 years from now doing the ‘Late Night’ show?”
An incredulous cackle overtook Dave, whose eyes flared in mock shock that he might become his own institution. When he recovered his breath, he said, “Good one, John!”
Twenty-one years and couple months after that, Dave paces during breaks while taping show No. 3,759. Dave sucks down coffee. With the stage lights dimmed and the CBS Orchestra clanging away, Dave yodels and yawps and barks like a mental patient with devilish energy to exorcise. Dave takes off his jacket and grabs his elbows underneath his suspenders and plants his foot on his desk and stretches as he confers with producers. Dave flips through his blue cue cards. Dave turns around and stares out over the fake skyline backdrop.
After closing the show, he takes the elevator up to his corporate offices on the 12th floor. Once considered a miserable boss, and once given to hurling dressing-room furniture in a depressive self-critical rage after shows, Dave is less kinetic with the postmortem of No. 3,759.
“If we could do a show like this every night I think at the end of the year we’d have a solid C-plus,” he murmurs, sitting in his small meeting room. “I don’t know that we average a C-plus.”
Surely, though, in his mellower autumnal years, he’s able to admit that certain bits or moments in his late-night career are memorable.
“No,” Dave says. “You look at Carson for example and there’s a half a dozen that come to mind readily. I wish we had one or two.”
From the home office
Here’s 10. Drum roll please.
No. 10. “Is This Anything?” In the early aughts, a curtain would rise and some activity would be taking place — a man cracking a flaming whip, for example — and then Dave and bandleader Paul Shaffer would discuss whether this activity was, in fact, anything. The serious consideration of a ridiculous act was classic Dave.
No. 9. The flammable 50th wedding anniversary. On his live morning show in 1980, Dave broadcasted an on-set party for a random Long-Island couple, and the ensuing controlled chaos became a hallmark of his late-night career. During the party’s big finale, as the credits rolled and a wedding singer crooned “Can’t Smile Without You,” plastic rose petals fell from the ceiling and ignited on sparklers the guests were waving.
No. 8. Larry “Bud” Melman greets tourists at the Port Authority. When he himself wasn’t on location to excavate humor from pedestrian life, Dave deployed his merry band of misfits. In November 1983, Melman, a walking anachronism with his big glasses and Looney-Tunes voice, distributed hot towels and daffy words of welcome to terse travelers.
No. 7. “Oprah Call Dave.” Dave spent most of 2005 inflating a narrative that Oprah Winfrey was ignoring his invitations because of a long-standing feud. Nearly every night he documented his pathetic disappointment in an “Oprah Log,” demonstrating how to make a gag funnier by running it into the ground.
No. 6. “How Many Guys in Spider-Man Suits Can Fit into a Jamba Juice?” With a camera positioned outside, Dave began dispatching Spider-Men into the Manhattan juicery in 2007, just to see what would happen if he futzed with the rhythm of everyday city life. “Oh man this is stupid,” Dave said just before he gave the go-ahead to “send in a Fat Spider-Man.”
No. 5. Dave heckles the “Today” show . In 1985, rankled that NBC was trumpeting “Today” with full-page ads while ignoring the third-year anniversary of “Late Night,” Dave opened the window of a high-rise office across from 30 Rock and badgered Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley as they taped a segment on the plaza. “I’m not wearing pants,” Dave announced through a bullhorn.
No. 4. Sept. 17, 2001. His monologue less than a week after the attacks was a raw, heartfelt stumble that pulled the country through its fog of emotion. “We’re told that they were zealots fueled by religious fervor,” he said of the terrorists, his voice straining to process this gravest absurdity. “Religious fervor. And if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you?”
No. 3. The Top 10 lists.“There are certain diamond nuggets in my brain I’ll never forget because the quality of the writing was so precise,” says Conan O’Brien, who likens Dave to a viking of comedy who found the New World after Carson conquered and settled Europe. “I remember ‘Top 10 Things Lincoln Would Say If He Were Alive Today.’ And I want to say No. 6 was ‘Eaaagh! Iron bird!’ . . . You think it would be the wise things Lincoln would say about democracy. No, he’s seeing a f---ing airplane going by.”
No. 2. “Andy Kaufman is here, sort of .” When it’s time to sit behind the desk, Dave’s at his Everyman best when dealing with high-risk guests — whether it’s playing nonplussed ringmaster to the meta-clowning of Andy Kaufman and Joaquin Phoenix, or ignoring the cold shoulders of Madonna and Cher and Paris Hilton, or bloviating back at Bill O’Reilly, or bestowing the last rites of late night on a dying Warren Zevon.
And the No. 1 memorable moment in Letterman’s career: Whatever one comes next. “It really speaks to what kind of a performer he is that I look forward to seeing what he’s going to do today,” says Shaffer, his sounding board of 30 years, who’s on the phone as he heads to a taping. “I’m on my way in still sort of excited about ‘What. Will. He. Do?’”
Always angling for a laugh
Well, Dave? What’s next?
“I feel like I’ve tried everything I wanna try,” he says in the small meeting room after Show No. 3,759. “And I think to see a 65-year-old guy dunked in a suit of Alka-Seltzer into a tank of water — I think you’d worry about the man.”
People say that his quintuple bypass surgery in 2000 was a reincarnation, that the 2003 birth of his son, Harry, both softened and energized him. He wasn’t even broken by revelations of extramarital workplace affairs in 2009; he folded his humiliation into the show, addressed it as both comedy and tragedy, owned the sleaze, controlled the chaos.
Over the years, self-deprecation has begat self-actualization, and boob has become broadcaster. Dave has forsaken the “Late Night” Monkey Cam in favor of chats with “newsworthy, noteworthy, really smart people” like British Prime Minister David Cameron, a recent favorite of his. The way Dave quells feelings of irrelevance — both he and the late-night format are in their seventh decade — is by making sure he gets people who are relevant onto the show.
His contract is up in 2014. He says he’ll go when CBS chief Leslie Moonves tells him to go, and drops a hint that he can’t envision working beyond the next five years. But he also couldn’t see himself lasting for the initial 30. The “jolt” of performing is what keeps him on camera, on the edge.
“You know, at the end of that hour you’re so full of adrenaline and caffeine and I would have to — where would I go to get that?” he says. “Even if you’re really amusing at the dinner table with your wife and your kid, you’re not up for hours thinking, ‘Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh I’m wired.’ . . . I’ll miss it. Sure, I’ll miss it. I’ll find something else to do.”
One certain retirement activity: fly-fishing in Montana, where he’s bought chunks of land for preserving and for escaping the greatest city in the world. Dave claims to be terrible at fly-fishing, despite doing it for decades. He claims that one summer in Montana he caught just one fish. He doesn’t care. He just likes standing in the river.
“You get rainbow trout,” Dave says. “They have indigenous species, they have the whitefish, which people consider undesirable, but they’re necessary to support the brown trout habitat. And then you have the arctic grayling and you have the westslope cutthroat. . . . Even the whitefish isn’t a bad-looking fish but they’re bottom dwellers, they’re suckers, they have tiny little suction mouths . . . ”
His voice lowers. His tone becomes reverent, as if he’s looking down at the cold current around his waders.
“. . . But a rainbow trout or a nice brown — or a brook trout! — especially during spawning, they’re like jewelry. The colors. And when you see them in the river, all you see is darkness and a shadow, and you get ’em up in sunlight, they’re — they’re luminescent. It’s remarkable. . . .”
Then he punctures the reverie.
“. . . but I’ve never really seen any of these fish in person.”
And with the self-effacing punch line delivered, he’s laughing his laugh, with the heh-HEH and the hee-hee-HEE, that “What a dolt I am!” laugh, the sound of a man who thinks so little of himself yet knows exactly what he’s doing.
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Read outtakes from the interview, including quotes from Regis Philbin, Tom Brokaw and others that did not make the final piece.
Copyright © 2012 by The Washington Post