|Entertainment Weekly - David Letterman Article
On Oct. 12, anthrax anxiously swept New York when news broke out that a letter containing the deadly bacterium had been sent
to NBC News anchor Tom Brokow. On Oct. 15, the offices of ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings suddenly had its own anthrax nightmare to deal with. And a few days later, David Letterman made the following announcement: "CBS News finally received anthrax in the mail," he said referring to the substance found in Dan Rather's office. "As usual, we're number three."
The next evening, he neatly managed to encapsulate anthrax angst and America's most prominent new enemy in a single cutting remark: "We're learning more and more about Osama bin Laden…turns out he started in the mail room."
Clearly Dave was back in a joking mood, but in the days immediately following the Sept. 11 tragedy, Letterman was exceedingly serious, even pessimistic. "At first, Dave said flatly, we'll never do a show again," says Rob Burnett, on of Late Show's executive producers. "Then, every day, things started to feel different, with the President and Mayor Giuliani pushing people to get back to work. Dave decided to do Late Show the night before he returned" on Sept. 17. "We didn't write any jokes because any joke that was prepared felt false."
Minutes before taping that broadcast, no one - not even Dave's bosses at CBS in Los Angeles - knew what David Letterman was going to do or say. Burnett says, "That first show back after the terrorist incidents, all any of us knew was this: The show would open with a shot of Dave – without the music, just him sitting at the desk. And then Dave planned to talk. And we didn't know
if it would go for 30 seconds, or for the full hour. We just didn't know."
What we all saw was a Letterman shaken and stirred: rattled to his bones about the assault on the city his show inhabits, and moved to anger, grief, and bafflement. Speaking of the terrorists' acts, he said, "If you live to be 1,000 years old … will that make any goddamn sense?" He brought out Dan Rather, who shed tears and with whom Letterman tried to engage in some explanation
of the cruel devastation. Later, out came a Dave-fave guest, Regis Philbin. The host fixed him with a glare and, out of left field, asked, "How did you first meet Joey Bishop?" This silly non sequitur capped a triumphant night.
"He has an astounding show business sense," says Philbin. It was "Dave at his best - most honest - and most revealing ... Even though he won't have dinner with me."
A pleased CBS president Les Moonves says, "I think he showed why he's the best guy in late night. What Letterman has been trying to portray is that it's more than about jokes. The reason he is so fascinating … is because he's so unexpected."
After Sept. 17, the other talk shows returned in quick succession, but it was Letterman who'd shaped the form entertainment would take in late night.
"He was the Magellan spacecraft that we sent out," says Daily Show host Jon Stewart. "There's a part of me that really looked to him not just for my own emotional well-being afterward, which is a heavy burden to place on him, but for what to do as someone who's in the industry. For us, it felt like Dave had already kicked in a window and let in some fresh air … It's a very odd time,
and for someone to be able to be as calm and funny and human as he's been over the past month - doing what he's doing has
been a comfort and a nice distraction."
And wiseacre late-night hosts aren't the only ones consoled by the big-guy. In fact, Jerry Seinfeld, who had hastily canceled two stand-up dates because of the tragedy, publicly credited Dave for forging an impressively reverent-but-still-rib-tickling post-9/11 path. "It was a very hard decision, when you could go back to doing comedy," said Seinfeld. "Then I saw the things Letterman was doing. He handled it so well."
Turns out Letterman is just doing what comes naturally. "Unlike other disasters, this is not a story that's finished," says Burnett.
"I think what you're often seeing from Dave is less calculation and more emotion" This idea is echoed by the executive producer
of Everybody Love's Raymond, Phillip Rosenthal, whose show is produced by Letterman's Worldwide Pants company but who has little contact with Letterman other than as a viewer: "There's a depth of character that he has now that he didn't have before. His humor has always been somewhat exclusive – a tendency to poke fun at others. And now I feel because of what's happened and because of what he's allowed to show about himself, it can't help but be more inclusive. That to me is always better. That's just from a show business point of view. Then from a human being point of view, it was absolutely lovely. He did it better that anybody. He made a transition from shock and grief to humor very gracefully. I don't think I've seen anybody ever do that."
But never let it be said that Letterman has lost his edge. After a few nights spent gauging the reaction to a spate of "New York getting back to normal" jokes ("Today Mayor Guiliani said it was okay to give each other the finger"), Letterman has only recently begun to have a go at Osama bin Laden (whom he's referred to variously as "a little weasel" and "a boob").
Letterman - who once told EW that he's an avid BBC and NPR news broadcast listener - has recently courted serious chat with news-oriented guests raging from Sen. Hillary Clinton to former U. N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke. Introducing New York Times bioterrorism reporter Judith Miller on Oct. 17, Letterman prankishly subverted sales of her newly published tome Germs
by saying brightly, "The book itself is actually contaminated!"
Frequent Late Show guest Julia Roberts says she felt an "immediate rapport" with the host when she first appeared on his show
in 1989 and that now audiences "think of us as this pair, a comedy team that they like, and I just enjoy being with him, talking to him. He's a really interesting valuable person." One whose value has only increased: "I can't imagine what it's like to be in his position," she says. "To be so attached to a city that's going through such an incredible time, and come back on television and address that in some way. That takes an enormous amount of strength … I think he become more part of a group (with his audience) - people took to him that way because he made us feel like we're all in it together."
Yes, Letterman is back. And while all still isn't right with the world, it's a better place for having Dave around in it, just to see his proudly balding pate, his perennially peeved fish-eye stare, and his dangling double-breasted suit - the whole Dave package, flickering across our screens. This triumph is good for Letterman's business: His first week back post-attack produced his
highest ratings in all hey demographics since Feb. 21 of last year (the week he returned from his much publicized heart surgery). David Poltrack, CBS TV's exec VP of research and planning (translation: Heap-Big-Numbers Cruncher), says Late Show for the first three weeks (after Sept. 17) was up a whopping 23 percent among the hallowed 18-34 demo.
As Paul Shaffer might say, even the nutty kids' rock bands like him. Art Alexakis, lead singer for Everclear, who can count the host as a fan, notes, "I think David has combined the best aspects of fringe humor with mainstream entertainment. He's a pain in your ass if he wants to be. He can be your best friend if he wants to be, too, but if he wants to screw with you, then you're in
for it. The only other guy I can think of that comes close to that is Bill Maher. I like Jay Leno too - he's just a really nice guy.
But David Letterman, since this tragedy, he's kind of embodied where people are at, being able to laugh at ourselves while at the same time being defiant and having an edge. I think these days an edge is pretty important to self-preservation both mentally and physically." And though ratings-wise, Dave's still being creamed by Jay Leno, his street-cred quotient is off the charts. "That's
the unique nature of Letterman," says Poltrack. "As he ages, he doesn't lose his connection with the young audience, and most recently we've seen that connection grow even stronger." But to go from the quotidian to the metaphysical: Letterman's return
was also good for our collective soul - and, one imagines, for his as well. (We're imagining that because, man of consistently cranky mystery that he is, Letterman hasn't given a formal interview anywhere for the past four years and he's not about to start now.)
In addition to reinstating the opening credits and music, the host has also of late found time for jumpy comedian Emo Phillips (making his first Letterman appearance in 15 years, yet still as loopy as a cowboy's lariat) and for zookeeper Jack Hanna's jumpy animals (these spots are Dave's implicit homage to his role model, Johnny Carson, who could always wring laughs from his audience by looking frightened by the advances of a wayward kinkajou.)
But at this point, Letterman has conquered the showbiz version of what the lit crit Harold Bloom calls "the anxiety of influence" - the pressure an artist or entertainer feels to emulate and then transcend the style and achievements of his idol (in this case, King Carson). These days, Letterman is his own man, with his own legacy. Again, Rob Burnett: "I can tell you as a guy who is in
charge of the Letterman show, and it is Dave … I am 39, and I think a lot of people around that age, who are running television shows and making commercials, were influenced by Dave. His tone is pervasive."
Burnett says, post Sept. 11, some stars, such as Drew Barrymore and Heather Graham, have canceled appearances, and the Late Show staff won't be going out to L.A. for the Nov. 4 Emmys: "Dave hasn't gone to the Emmy (ceremony) for years, (but he'd usually) go to California and we'd throw a big staff party. But we've decided it's not a time to celebrate. We'll forgo that, and
we're not going to have a party in New York - we're just not quite in that mood just yet."
Thank goodness Letterman is still in the mood to put his show on the air, though: A lot of the rest of us are in the mood for that. Give Julia the last word: "He makes it all so simple, so natural, you forget how vital and really important what he does for all of
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|November 2nd 2001|
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|"In Dave we trust"
"Letterman sets the pace in a new world of comedy"
"After Sept. 11, many Americans wondered when they'd laugh again. Then Letterman led the way for both viewers and his
comrades in comedy"
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By KEN TUCKER