Blender - David Letterman Article

FEATURING:

The term "alternative" once aided us. It differentiated things that were subversive, edgy and extreme from those that were mainstream. Then something changed. Dave replaced Johnny, Spike Lee shilled for Nike and the very concept of extreme became extremely ordinary. We decided to ask the hard questions: what does it take to be alternative in 1996? Can anyone or anything properly accessorized at the Meadowland Mall on Interstate 43 become instantly edgy?

Could we find evidence of a truly "alternative" state of mind - transcending time, space and Kurt Cobain - in a cigar-puffing, double-breasted suit-wearing, millionaire talk-show host? See for yourself.

David Letterman: In superficial terms, Dave is strictly M-O-R. He's got his dapper three-piece suits (though he compromises their dignity with flappy monologue antics) and he may slob out during off-hours, but he's always more Sears than Seattle...

It's easy to write off David Letterman as mainstream. Comfortably seated in Walter Cronkite's CBS throne, Letterman is one of the most powerful figures in television right now. But here's our theory: some humans are just irretrievably weird - and embody the essence of alternative far more than some tattooed extreme-bellydancer. Whether he likes it or not, David Letterman is one. His individuality, irreverence, insecurities, irony and anarchic freakish nature cannot be duplicated by a stylist or manufactured by Madison Avenue. Even though the powers that be have given him a multimillion-dollar contract, Dave remains intrinsically alternative.

While no one knows exactly what our TV pal is thinking at any given time, we thought we'd try. Here's our attempt to x-ray his alternative state of mind...

People are comfortable with Letterman now, but when he first entered the national pop-cultural consciousness in 1980, he was kind of a freak. With an unruly mop of hair, slightly menacing gap-toothed grin, sneakers and a bald, sexually ambiguous lounge lizard sidekick, Letterman was unlike all TV personalities before him. He was ironically distant from everything including his own jokes. He antagonized his guests, humiliated members of the audience, embarrassed the man on the street and openly mocked the process, the concept and the institution of television.

Without even trying, he oozed alternativeness and people loved him for it. If Dave now seems stale, mainstream or not quite "alternative" enough, it's not because he's any different. It's because everyone else caught up with him.

THE STATE OF MIND:

BABES: While we wouldn't want to call Dave a letch, he does seem to, uh, respond to his comelier female guests in a manner that's not too politically correct. Amazing thing is, some of them respond right back. (How do you do it, Dave?) Unapologetic drooling = alternative.

PANTS: David named his production company Worldwide Pants. What does this mean? A pair of pants obviously cannot span the globe. Or perhaps it's a pun - Dave's jokey suggestion that the entire earthly population is panting for him. Whimsical corporate identity = alternative.

MAGIC FEET: Dave his "magic feet." The planets say so - at least, according to adze mixxe, an astrologer whose website (http://adze.com/bios/celebrty.html) includes a full analysis of Dave's star chart. For some startling excerpts-and bonafide astrological proof that Dave is, in fact, alternative-go to that web site.

DEMONS: Dave seems a little haunted at times - and given to involuntary verbal spasms (Uma...Oprah) which suggest the cruel influence of Satan, a key alternative figure. But we're probably wrong about that. Demonic possession = alternative.

THROWING STUFF OFF BUILDINGS; Dave is America's id. Thank god he throws things off 50-story buildings so we can see what happens when a watermelon smashes on the sidewalk. Otherwise, wouldn't everyone - even nurses and cocker-spaniel breeders - be forever throwing watermelons off rooftops? Destructive tendencies = alternative.

THE GAP TOOTH: Dave regularly calls attention to this defect (which seems symbolic of the gap between him and conventional folks). Similarities to Mad magazine's Alfred e. Neuman are probably important and deserve further study. Celebrity imperfection = alternative.

INDIFFERENCE: As far as we can tell Dave does not particularly like the audience. He thinks we're kind of stupid for watching him. Part of Dave still wonders when they're all going to discover him for the fraud that he is. As such, some of Dave's best moments stem from his mockery of people in and around his studio. Cheerful indifference = alternative.

HAIR INSECURITY:

Letterman - the most prominent of a number of insecurities that regularly manifest themselves on the show. It's true that many ordinary men fret about their thinning hair, but few show millions of television viewers how to shape it into a "hair peninsula," as Dave once did. Brazon angst - alternative.

SUBVERSION: SUBVERSION IS CRUCIAL TO Dave's alternative state of mind. Whether he's puffing a cigar slightly past the commercial break, making fun of the vice-president of the United States or mocking the network executives who sign his paycheck, Dave is always looking to get in a dig. Fortysomething mischief = alternative.

LENO AND CARSON: although competitiveness is not a particularly alternative trait, Dave seems to compete in an alternative (brooding, bratty, way too intense) way. Our in-depth analysis of Letterman, Leno and their predecessor Johnny Carson clearly illustrates Dave's superior alternativity.

FUNNY PHYSICAL FEATURES:

Letterman - Gap-tooth grin, orange tan, perpetual bad hair day.

Leno - Elephantiasis of the chin.

Carson - Not applicable. He's a completely normal-looking middle American.

ATTITUDE:

Letterman - Numerous personal insecurities make him vaguely aggressive and threatening.

Leno - Aants you to be his friend just a little bit too much.

Carson - All-around happy-go-lucky guy with a bunch of skeletons in his closet.

RELATIONSHIP WITH AMERICA:

Letterman - Funny uncle with a roll of quarters in his pocket. Adults laugh, but he scares the kids.

Leno - The guy at the office who tells one too many jokes and invites himself out to lunch.

Carson - The friendly neighbor with the great 4th of July picnics.

SIDEKICK ANALYSIS:

Letterman - Bald, sexually ambiguous ironic lounge lizard Paul Shaffer.

Leno - No true sidekick. Leno's just a stand-up comic with a full-time gig.

Carson - A 300-lb. Laugh track named Ed McMahon

ALTERNATE CAREER PATH:

Letterman - A used car salesman who goes home every night amazed at the suckers out there.

Leno - Disgruntled manager of a Los Angeles-area blockbuster video rental store.

Carson - Senior senator from Nebraska

SCANDAL:

Letterman - For years was stalked by a rabid female fan who finally broke into his home.

Leno - Sat in a closet to eavesdrop on the phone call of a network executive.

Carson - Divorced countless times. He was only faithful to Ed.

Yes, "alternative" is now style for the masses. In some form or other it always will be. As long as the need exists to disturb parents, express individuality and move new product off the shelves, marketers will co-opt anything that seems disturbingly individual and yet, as Mohawk hairdos and genital piercings come and go like dust in the wind, a few truly disturbing individuals won't even notice. Thanks, Dave!
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"Let's all be 'alternative' has 'alternative' become a stupid style for the masses or is it a timeless state of mind?
A special Blender investigation."
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October 1996
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