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|January 29th 1992|
|Barbara Walters Interviewing David Letterman
NOTE: This transcript comes from a rerun of the Barbara Walters Lifetime cable series. The prologue that Barbara gives is more
recent, but the interview itself is from January 29, 1992.
WALTERS: I had been trying for many years to get an interview with David Letterman. He would say "no," then "maybe,"
and sometimes even "probably," but never "yes." When he finally said the word, I almost didn't believe him. We had been
down this road too many times. He had never really done a television interview of any consequence, so getting him to the
chair after he committed was no easy feat, but when he finally sat down, he was an open book, talking for the first time about
all the women he had invited into his life and the one he hadn't. In a moment, David Letterman.
WALTERS: For a man who is on television most every night, it's amazing how little anyone knows about David Letterman. In 1982, he premiered a bold new show called Late Night which featured consistently original and off-beat humor. Television comedy has never been the same. A native of Indiana, David Letterman's first show was a college radio program at Ball State University in Muncie. He parlayed that success into a job as a local TV personality in Indianapolis.
Then David moved to LA where he made a name for himself, first as a comedy writer and then as a stand-up comic.
(Now there is a shot of a very young Letterman in bell-bottoms and a tie-dyed shirt doing his stand-up at a comedy club.
He is responding to a heckler saying, "Thank you, son. We've just learned a valuable lesson there. Not everyone can do
comedy. I appreciate that")
WALTERS: He first stepped into the mainstream with a short-lived variety show called "Mary" starring Mary Tyler
Moore, but as with so many young comics, the big break was on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In Letterman,
Johnny found a kindred spirit who consistently made him laugh. After an NBC morning show in which Letterman
flopped, Carson's production company found him a spot in late night and a place in television history. Letterman and his
writers have opened up comedy, revealing humor in the simplest and silliest of notions.
His interview approach is sometimes considered meanspirited, but many guests say that sitting down with Letterman is better described as a sort of survival test.
His personal life is, to say the least, low profile. If it weren't for that unfortunate woman who kept breaking into his
Connecticut home, we would never have read anything about him. We do know he married young, divorced and had for
a while a serious romance with Merrill Markoe, the original head writer of his show. When I spoke with David Letterman in 1992, it was before his successful move to CBS and the evolution from Late Night to Late Show. At the time he was at a crossroad in his career. Late Night was marking its 10th anniversary at NBC. David was contemplating whether to stay at the network that had chosen his old friend, Jay Leno, to succeed Johnny Carson. Considering all of the unwanted attention focused
on Letterman by the press at the time, I was nervous myself about interviewing him. I had heard he was shy and very
guarded, but he was nice, relaxed and answered everything.
(Now the scene turns to the interview from January 29, 1992)
WALTERS: Did you ever think that you would be doing this for ten years?
LETTERMAN: Nope, nope, not a chance.
WALTERS: Maybe Two?
LETTERMAN: Two years. The only other network television experience I had had lasted, I think, less than six months -- I
think it lasted six weeks -- and so when we got a chance to do this show, I assumed that if it stayed on a year it would be a miracle and if it stayed on longer than a year it would be a mistake.
WALTERS: So what do you think now?
LETTERMAN: Well, it's obviously a terrible mistake. It's a miserable mix-up.
WALTERS: How do you stay fresh? How do you do it night after night?
LETTERMAN: Well, in terms of staying fresh, we gave that up, I guess, in the second year.
WALTERS: Same old stories, same stupid dog tricks.
LETTERMAN: Night after night it's the same nonsense, yes. We get a really good idea, and then we'll do it every night for a couple months, and then we'll continue to do it, and then just beat it to death, and then after we've beaten it to death, we'll do it for another year.
WALTERS: So we don't have to watch any more, right?
WALTERS: We've seen it all?
LETTERMAN: Yeah, pretty much, absolutely.
WALTERS: For someone who is as shy as I keep hearing you are --
LETTERMAN: Painfully shy.
WALTERS: Painfully shy. What are the other things?
LETTERMAN: Poorly socialized, I believe.
WALTERS: That's it too. Doesn't like to deal directly with people.
LETTERMAN: Well, that's not necessarily true.
WALTERS: But you go out every night and do what you don't have to do, which is a warm-up with the audience, I mean,
facing them. Why?
LETTERMAN: It's fun. You get a chance first-hand to see the people, to get a look at them, you know, to smell them.
Ugh. I don't know. I think it's more for me than for them. It's a good way for me to figure out who they are and how they
are feeling and what we can try to do to make their part of the show more pleasant, because I think night in and night out, for
me the most important variable of that show, even after ten years, is how the audience feels about it.
WALTERS: David, you have been asked this before and answered it, but I'll have to do it again. There are some viewers and guests who say you are smug, condescending, mean.
WALTERS: Does that bother you?
LETTERMAN: No. If somebody says, "I'm going through a bad divorce. Please don't ask me about my divorce. Somebody
in my family is sick. Please don't ask me about my family. I have a drinking problem. Please don't ask me about my drinking
problem" -- by the way, all of these things are presently happening to me.
WALTERS: I knew you were going to say, "Barbara, don't ask me about any of these things." That's 32 questions I have
LETTERMAN: So if you then get on the air and ask a person one of those questions, I think that's mean, but if you make a
joke about a person's tie or about a person's socks or whatever, and perhaps they don't take it as good naturedly as you had hoped, I'm not sure that that's meanness, but I think maybe that's what people were perceiving.
WALTERS: David, I've read most of the few interviews you've done, and in one you said, "Comedians are depressed, nasty, sullen, backbiting and jealous." Is that a good description of you?
LETTERMAN: This is an observation that came to me after spending about five years at a place in Los Angeles called
The Comedy Store, and I think people understand what this is now. It's a showcase for young comedians, and when I began
doing stand-up comedy, I left Indianapolis in '75 and went out there, because I knew here was a place that you could try to do
this, and in that group of people at the time -- there must have been like two dozen guys, men and women -- there was a
pattern. Part of that did emerge that seemed to be guys were always depressed, and they were always worried about they didn't
do as well on stage as they had hoped, and somebody else was doing Merv Griffin, and they didn't get a chance to do Merv
Griffin, and "Why can't I be on the Merv Griffin Show and why can't I be on the Mike Douglas Show?" So as a subplot to the
lives of us out there, I think that that could be a safe description, a fair description, yeah.
WALTERS: Do you remember your first appearance on the Tonight Show?
LETTERMAN: Yes. It was at the time and probably will, regardless of what happens, be one of the -- if not the most satisfying moment for me in big-time television.
WALTERS: Because you did well with Johnny?
LETTERMAN: Yeah, yeah. It was, I don't know, it took me weeks to unwind. It was very exciting, and not much since has come even close to that.
WALTERS: There was the Morning Show that you did at NBC.
LETTERMAN: That's right.
WALTERS: You can still laugh.
LETTERMAN: Yeah. At the time it was awfully painful, the experience, and in show business, and I guess just like any other business, you think, well, now I've got to go to the end of the line, and who knows whether or not my number will be called again. So it was difficult for me.
WALTERS: What did you do that year?
LETTERMAN: I fought with my girl friend.
WALTERS: Well, that kills a few hours.
LETTERMAN: And the time just flew by.
WALTERS: You know, you mention your girl friend, but one of the things that isn't that well-known about you is that you
were married when you were in college for what, seven years?
LETTERMAN: That's right.
WALTERS: And broke up.
LETTERMAN: No, no. It was nine years.
WALTERS: Nine years.
LETTERMAN: Yeah. I got married in college, madly in love with a beautiful woman, girl maybe, and, you know, it was all
right. By and large we had a happy time together.
WALTERS: And then?
LETTERMAN: And then I went a little nuts and misbehaved and it came apart, but I think that it's my own doing -- or my
WALTERS: Do you want to get married again?
WALTERS: Someone in your life right now?
WALTERS: Someone you want to marry?
LETTERMAN: Uh, Yeah.
WALTERS: Someone you want to tell us about?
LETTERMAN: Well, like what do you want to know, height, weight, that kind of thing?
WALTERS: Name, who she is, and are you really going to get married?
LETTERMAN: I mean, it's hard for me to imagine myself not being married again because, you know, I would like to have
a family, and I think the prudent way to do that is marriage. The fact that I was married early and for a long time and that
it came apart is sort of like a warning to me that has stayed with me, and I am not eager to get married again and have
another one come apart, so I'm taking my time.
WALTERS: Have you asked her?
LETTERMAN: Asked her to what?
WALTERS: To marry you?
LETTERMAN: I've asked her to drop the topic.
WALTERS: You've asked me to drop the topic.
LETTERMAN: No, no, not you.
WALTERS: You've asked her to drop the topic.
LETTERMAN: I spend a great deal of my time saying, "Let's talk about that later. What's for dinner?"
WALTERS: She was somebody who used to work with you?
WALTERS: You don't want to say more?
LETTERMAN: No. I mean, you know, I've got enough people moving in at my house as it is, so let's --
WALTERS: Well, what about that woman who kept breaking into your house?
LETTERMAN: There's nothing funny about that.
WALTERS: No, there's nothing funny about that.
LETTERMAN: There's nothing funny about it, and it was at a time when I didn't really live in that house. I lived -- all my free time I was living in California.
WALTERS: This was the house in Connecticut?
LETTERMAN: Yes, still is the house in Connecticut. I was spending all of my free time in California and got a call one night
from my assistant, and she had been notified by the police that somebody had been picked up at a tunnel or a bridge-crossing
at the Hudson in my car with a young child claiming to be my wife. I mean, it sounds amusing, but the sadness of it is you get
to see firsthand what a disturbed person is like, and that's very sad, and it must be despair the likes of which you can't conjure.
WALTERS: David, Merrill Markoe, who was the head writer on your show when you began, and the only female writer on
your program and someone you gave great credit to, that lasted a long while?
LETTERMAN: She was great, she was terrific, and she, I think, is one of the big reasons for the success of the show early
on, and I think that she and I as a couple, you know, paid the price for working together and so forth, and I always felt badly about that because, again, I think that it was -- I look back and I think, oh, maybe I screwed this up too, but I don't know.
WALTERS: Screwed this up too.
LETTERMAN: Well, I just think I probably wore her out, you know, because in addition to the daily ups and downs and
vagaries of personal life between a man and a woman, we also had the daily ups and downs and vagaries of trying to keep a
television show alive, and that's too many ups and downs and vagaries, don't you think?
WALTERS: She was the one who was with you during that year when you were weren't working?
LETTERMAN: That's right, yeah. I don't know what the relationship would be like now, you know. I just wonder if I'll ever
be able to repay her, because she was very important to me.
WALTERS: Next, David Letterman on Jay Leno and Johnny Carson.
WALTERS: One of your quotes from a past interview is, "Some people are born not to be happy people. I am one of them."
LETTERMAN: I don't think I said that. Did I say that?
LETTERMAN: Oh, I must have been miserably drunk.
WALTERS: Miserably drunk. Yes, well, speaking of miserably drunk --
LETTERMAN: Jeez, I really said that?
WALTERS: The childhood in Indiana, happy memories?
LETTERMAN: Largely, yeah, happy memories.
WALTERS: Middle child?
WALTERS: You know what we hear about middle children.
LETTERMAN: Raised by poodles. Did you know that? Was that in your notes?
WALTERS: No, I didn't know that. That's nice. Mommy poodle and a daddy poodle?
LETTERMAN: No. I had a great childhood. I wish I had something to complain about. I mean, I had an older sister and
a younger sister and a mom and dad and played little league baseball and had a tree house, you know, dropped out of school
in the fourth grade and ran away, was tortured by circus people, found me naked and wandering in the desert six weeks later.
Other than that, it was okay.
WALTERS: Yeah. Well, those are things I'll just overlook. But you were not a cool kid when you were in school.
LETTERMAN: No. I was just a jerk, just a nerd.
WALTERS: You were a nerd.
LETTERMAN: A goofball, yeah.
WALTERS: Yeah, but now you're -- don't get upset -- but you're so cute!!!
LETTERMAN: Just a jerk and a goofball and a nerd.
WALTERS: Why were you such a nerd then?
LETTERMAN: I still think, you know, some people, I think, Barbara, are born not to be happy, whatever that was.
WALTERS: Where have I heard that before? Your dad was a florist. Did you like him? Were you close to him?
LETTERMAN: I think close -- I mean, he had to work really hard, and he worked long hours. He was a small business
owner, and he worked holidays, six days a week, and so we physically weren't as close. I think we had a pretty good
relationship, and I did like him. Of the family, he was the goofball. He was the --
LETTERMAN: Yeah, funny in kind of a, you know, "Dad, stop it," kind of funny, you know, "Oh, Dad, it's goofy Dad
again. Stop it. You're makin' us all -- Oh, Dad." And then we'd hide under the house for weeks at a time. Yeah, but, I mean,
he was -- you know, everybody says this. You walk by a mirror now and sometimes you catch -- you'll say, "Oh, jeez,
that's what my Dad used to look like," and it's satisfying, you know.
WALTERS: He died in '74?
WALTERS: So he didn't really hang around long enough to see the kind of success --
LETTERMAN: He died when he was 53. You know, I think about that, but it doesn't trouble me, because I'd like to think that
he was happy enough with what had become of me up till that point. I mean, regardless, I think that he was proud of me just
by virtue of the fact that he was my father and I was his son. So, you know, I don't think you can worry about that too much.
WALTERS: And your mother.
LETTERMAN: Oh, don't get me started on Dorothy.
WALTERS: Let's talk about mother, a mother who never really had any great interest in show business.
LETTERMAN: No, to her credit, yeah, a very nice woman, for six years was the equipment manager for the Buffalo Sabres.
WALTERS: Yes, yes. Hi, Mom.
LETTERMAN: It's a joke about Mom. She is, I think, as happy now or happier in her life than she has ever been. She has a
new granddaughter, I have a new niece, and that was great fun, you know, and, yeah, I think Mom's in pretty good shape.
WALTERS: You have always said that you are a great fan of Johnny Carson. You like him very much personally.
WALTERS: Okay, here it comes. Why do you think you weren't chosen to replace Johnny?
LETTERMAN: Why? I'm not sure. I mean, I think in the practical sense of it, I was doing a show that came on after Johnny,
and from the very beginning, by virtue of that, we all knew and understood and wanted to do something that was different so
that we could not be accused of, "Oh, they're just trying to be Johnny. They're trying to do the same kind of show that Carson
is doing." And we were lucky enough that it succeeded in some measure.
WALTERS: What we read is that you were hurt that you weren't even considered. Sure you have a successful show that's
on after, but weren't you hurt that you weren't considered?
WALTERS: Really? Oh, David, really not? You said, "Ho hum. Good for Jay"?
LETTERMAN: Well, I say not hurt. I was never angry. I was never bitter. Disappointed, of course, because, I mean, that's a great job. Who wouldn't want to have that job? But I was never hurt. I was never angry. I was never mad at Jay. In the last couple of years, last year and a half, there have been things about my relationship with NBC that I was angry about.
WALTERS: Were you upset that you were not considered for the Tonight Show?
LETTERMAN: I think I was considered. I think that I was considered.
WALTERS: Considered and rejected, obviously.
LETTERMAN: Yes, yes.
WALTERS: How did you find out about it?
LETTERMAN: I knew about it a long time before the announcement. No, I wasn't -- angry is not the word. I guess maybe because it was yet another circumstance in my relationship with the network that I was discouraged by, because I felt like
after you have four or five things that are tough that you have to fight through, that you have to keep screaming, "What about this? You said you were going to do this and you didn't do this," or, "What about this? You didn't tell us you were going to do
this and then you did it." You go through four or five of those things, and then you realize, well, you know, maybe there is something wrong here.
WALTERS: Is it the straw that broke the camel's back? Do you want to stay with NBC?
LETTERMAN: I think I would like to stay with NBC if -- if -- yeah, if -- yeah, I would like to stay with NBC. I like the idea of staying -- I like the security of being at one place for a long time.
WALTERS: You said, "If you get ten years in a show, I think you're dumb if you don't examine this as a crossroad." Is this a crossroad?
LETTERMAN: Yeah. Not a -- well, maybe a milestone. Is there a difference between a crossroad and a milestone?
WALTERS: Yeah. A milestone you say, "This is terrific and you go on." A crossroad you say, "I can go this way or this way."
LETTERMAN: What's the difference between a cold spell and a cold snap?
WALTERS: What's the difference between answering this question and dodging?
LETTERMAN: I don't know. I forget the question.
WALTERS: The question was, it's been ten years. Another ten years?
LETTERMAN: Well, I don't know another ten years on this show. I like working in television, and I would like to spend
another ten years working in television. I just don't know whether I'm the person to continue doing this show much longer,
because, you know, it's a lot of college kids and prisoners and stuff.
WALTERS: Who else if not you?
LETTERMAN: Well, maybe somebody who is 34 as opposed to 44.
WALTERS: What would you like me to say about you when people say, "What was he really like?"
LETTERMAN: "A powerful man. You could feel his presence a block away." You know what? This is funny. One time we had
Goldie Hawn on the show, and I was always interested in her name, and I said to her, like the second or third question, I
said, "Hi. Nice to see. How's the movie? You look great. You smell great. Good to have you with us." I said, "Have you
always been Goldie?" And she pauses for a second, and she says, "Well, you know, I've always just been me, and if being me
is being Goldie, then I" -- And I said, "No, no, no. I mean, was that the name your parents gave you when you were born?
I'm not exactly Barbara Walters here." We all enjoyed a big laugh.
(The scene now turns back to Lifetime)
WALTERS: Very often comedians creep into our hearts by exposing their own. Letterman remains guarded and has therefore
set himself apart. In every generation there are only a few people who break the boundaries of comedy and invent a new
form. Letterman can tell a very dumb joke and look very smart doing it. He has a wonderful sense of the ridiculous filtered through the complex mind of a comic virtuoso.
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