Esquire - David Letterman Article

Television didn't really kill conversation, it just absorbed it, the way it absorbs everything, including attacks on television. It's an absorbent medium. Oh yes, it's the great absorber. The blob. The quicker picker-upper. In 1986, television Talk Wars were what picked up.

What's talked on talk shows isn't exactly talk. It's hypertalk. It's metatalk. People talking without listening, but also, people talking without talking. The trick is to make a great display of saying nothing about anything of much importance. No one has mastered this art better than David Letterman, who may look like a Rootie Kazootie for the Eighties but is actually television's new bard of banter. As Late Night with David Letterman now hones the cutting edge of American humor (the way Saturday Night Live did in the Seventies), David Letterman has become the Grand Exalted Raccoon of television talksters.

On May 20, 1986, Johnny Carson said to his audience, "People are fascinated with...nothing, I guess. That's why television is so popular." David Letterman is the next step in the evolution of the talk show host and is multidextrous at making something out of nothing, at making raving inconsequentiality terribly entertaining. He does it in part by celebrating that very inconsequentiality, by reveling in the essential evanescence of television. "You folks are easily entertained," he told his audience one night, "and boy, did you come to the right place."

Carson is almost awesome in his comic agility and resourcefulness, but as a celebrant, he has taken vows with the Holy Order of Show Business. Americans have learned show-biz phrases like "on a roll" and "rim shot" while worshipping at Temple Johnny. That's partly why Letterman is refreshing. He treats show-biz orthodoxy like so much bullshit, which it is.

Talk-show hosts have to be mellow boys next door - after all, you'll be spending many hours of your life with them. Letterman is the mellowest and most neighborly yet. He's a cutup, he's a caution, but you'd welcome him at a barbecue or church supper. He'd be good playing baseball with nuns. "Ah, Father Letterman, 'twas good of you to come." He's the boyish padre serving up a big yummy heap of the opiate of the masses. Come unto him, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and he will give ye stupid pet tricks.

Letterman is so far ahead of the pack that he's his own pack. He is that which wears best with daily exposure: a reluctant star but an instinctually ingratiating presence. He is as attuned to the peculiar rhythms and textures and tonalities of television as were Dave Garroway and Edward R. Murrow and Ernie Kovacs and Rocky, the flying squirrel. But if Letterman is the monarch of his own wiggly wavelength, he is still nervous about the fact that the ranks of television talksters have inescapably swelled. The talkshowification of America continues.

True, Merv Griffin folded his little talk-show tent this year, murmuring something about returning with a big-band variety hour, but the new arrivals on the scene include Joan Rivers (you know, the bitch who broke Johnny's heart), David Brenner, and, in the daytime, windy Oprah Winfrey out of Chicago to challenge bleating-heart Phil Donahue. Larry King talks on the Cable News Network (sharks gotta eat, King's gotta talk,) and Regis Philbin prattles on aboard the Lifetime Channel, also home to the ubiquitous Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Smurfish sex therapist. Dr. Ruth's mission is to keep telling us we should wear condoms and not worry if we prematurely "ejackolate."

As if that wasn't enough, there are health-talk talk shows and get-rich-quick-talk talk shows, and on a Manhattan cable-access channel, a nude-talk talk show, replete with smiling genitalia. Pat Robertson, squinty-faced evangelist and would-be presidential candidate on the right-wing Nut ticket, hosts a religious talk show, The 700 club, as do Jim and Tammy Bakker, the world's tallest midgets (she's the one with the industrial-strength mascara). They preside over something called PTL, which, like all good talk shows, exists largely to plug things. And ol' Joe Franklin, he just keep babbling along.

On the USA (cable) Network, the wrestling talk show T.N.T. is in its second year. T.N.T., which stood for Tuesday Night Titans until the show was moved to Wednesdays, features oversize persons with first names like Mad Dog, Butcher, Jake the Snake, and King Kong, singing, dancing, even cooking, and also threatening to rearrange one another's facial features. Similarly, there's the syndicated McLaughlin Group, a political bitch-in specializing in flare-ups and blowups. Regular Robert Novak, the syndicated columnist known in Washington as the Prince of Darkness, would be equally at home on T.N.T.

Network morning programs such as the Today Show and Good Morning America are talk shows with news and features inserts. One could even say live coverage of the House of Representatives and the Senate are talk shows, too. Certainly there is more talk than show. As if to certify that the whole trend has gone too far, ABC has even raided the talk-show burial ground and resurrected Dick Cavett, fresh from failure on cable. Cavett is the Chuck Manson of show-biz egomaniacs. The phrase "enough about me" is not in his lexicon.

Johnny Carson insists that The Tonight Show is a comedy program, not a talk show; this helps excuse his staggering ineptitude, after twenty-four years yet, at conversing with fellow members of the human race. But Letterman doesn't make such claims for Late Night. He says, "I think it is a talk show. It has exactly the structure of Merv and Johnny and all the others. I sit at a desk and guests come out."

The talk show is ideal television because of its shriveled minimalism. Two people talking to each other, the director cutting back and forth between them, really has enough movement and visual substance to occupy this small and imprecise electronic canvas. TV technology transmits two kinds of images better than any others: faces and cartoons (the ultimate elemental television program would be an animated talk show; why hasn't anyone thought of it?). David Wolper can put three thousand extras on that screen and not generate anything a whit more kinetic than David Letterman talking to Teri Garr and making her laugh. This is enough to constitute television as we know it. Know it and, indeed, love it.

"The deal with a talk show is, it doesn't have to be stupendous," David Letterman says. "It's not great, it's not bad, it just goes by. It sticks to the videotape. It lights up the screen. Actors come on repeating the same cliches they say on every other talk show, but it doesn't matter. These things are really easy to do. They're dirt cheap. You build a set once, pay everybody as little as you can, and the guests all come on for scale. If a talk show is even moderately successful, you can nurse it along for a few years with very little expense.

"They're not that different from game shows, really. If you get one that connects, you're all set. If you come up with a wheel of Fortune - good Lord, that thing makes more money than General Motors, doesn't it? It just churns out the dough.

"All I know is, when I go home at the end of the day, I turn on the television set and start looking for people on talk shows. There's something reassuring about it. I guess it's roughly comparable to putting an alarm clock into a basketful of puppies. So you have all these people sitting around in suits and talking about their careers. And for some reason you don't want them to say anything novel or different. You want to hear them say what other actors and actresses have said over the years on other talk shows."

Television perishability makes a tidy metaphor for human mortality, whether you're talking about the illusory qualities of a video picture or the cyclical nature of prevalent program types or the fact that onto every show a little curtain must fall. This helps explain why the Star is so reluctant to leave the stage; it's the central ghastliness of the symbolism. Johnny Carson has said in interviews that he feels most fully alive during the hour each day, four days a week, that he tapes The Tonight Show. He wants to leave it even less than Walter Cronkite wanted to leave the CBS Evening News.

Johnny knows precisely what waits around the corner. Not just the grim reaper, but a guy called Dave. Dave, the goofy-looking kid. As Cronkite had his Rather, so Carson has his Letterman. If you really want to tick Johnny off - and I didn't, but I did - just point out that Late Night with David Letterman, upstart whippersnapper though it be, has now been officially pronounced by Madison Avenue to be more desirable to advertisers than Carson's show. Letterman's top marks are even more impressive when you consider that Carson's show continues to reach at least twice as many people as Letterman's does - on a good night, 9 million for the Carson show and 3.7 million for Letterman (4.4 million during Letterman's first half hour, before 1:00 a.m. in the East and West, midnight in the Midwest). Letterman's demographics skew dramatically younger and yuppier, however. Johnny didn't grow old, but his audience did. It's a twist on Dorian Gray.

Early this year, as the Letterman boom loomed, Carson began doing what clearly seemed Lettermanic bits on his show. He started roaming the halls of NBC's Burbank studios, a hand-held camera in pursuit, much the way Dave roams the halls of 30 Rock in New York. A writer interviewed for a job on Carson's staff said later he'd been told he'd have to come up with Lettermanly material. Privately, Carson denies and pooh-poohs such talk, pointing out that gimmicks like wandering around with a camera have been around since prehistoric television; he says he even used them on his own local show, Carson's Cellar, in the Fifties.

Still, such talk obviously irks Johnny, as do charges that his Carson Productions, which has a hand in producing Late Night, keeps tight rein over the junior show, even to the point of restricting the length of Letterman's monologue, a notion Carson says is patently ridiculous. When Tom Snyder was hosting Tomorrow in Letterman's time period, however, an NBC-Carson liaison delivered unto Snyder's people a list of guests on whom Carson always, always, always had first dibs. Sources at the Letterman show say there is still some scrutiny and overlording from the Carson forces, whether Johnny is aware of it or not.

During the cuckoo-nutty Carson-Rivers tempest earlier this year, Rivers charged that Carson was "kept in cotton," sealed off from the cruel world by a nearly impenetrable entourage. It's not hard to believe. According to industry chatter, an NBC vice-president assigned to the Carson show never even met Johnny during his two years on the job. The man brings in something like $75 million a year for the network, so he's approached only by people wearing kid gloves over their kid gloves. Critic Kenneth Tynan spent some time with Carson and, observing him standing detached and alone by a swimming pool at a Hollywood party, compared him to Gatsby. Carson like that.

As for Letterman, any talk about problems with Carson and his minions is just the kind of thing he hates. A polite and peace-loving lad, such suggestions make him noticeably uncomfortable.

It will be a traumatic moment for the video nation when Johnny finally does step down. Talk-show hosts inevitably become surrogate fathers, brothers, sons, and mates, and their attending assistants and regular guests constitute another of television's resident extended families. You get to know them a lot better than you get to know the Eyewitness News Team, plus you look forward to spending time with them. Carson has always seemed a little like the favorite neighborhood tough guy as he might have been played by James Cagney. He charms women, he disarms men, and he drives little old ladies wild. There's a rather enthralling, unthreatening bonhomie to the guy. We've grown accustomed to his face. It almost makes the day end. His joys, his woes, his highs, his lows, are second nature to us now, like breathing out and breathing in. Hey, look who's here; It's JOHNEEEE.

True, the program has long since grown creaky. There are nights when Ed Mc Mahon looks mummified, an embalmed tippler. And Doc, at his age, in those silly clothes! There are those who say, unkindly, that Johnny likes feisty ninety-year-old women booked on the show because it makes him look younger. But he really has no trouble seeming boyish (all the major talk-show hosts have had their naughty-boy sides). He was cute at forty, cute at fifty, cute at sixty. He's more adaptable than the cockroach, and after twenty-four years on the Tonight Show his monologue is still one of the few treasurable institutions of contemporary TV. Not only has it not lost its sting, it has gained it.

"Ronald Reagan loves euphemisms," Carson said one night. "He refers to nuclear winter as 'dancing in the dark.'" When Reagan said the poor were hungry only because they didn't know where to go for food, Carson had an explanation: "He was eating at Chasen's the other night and he saw an empty table." Unfortunately, everything on The Tonight Show after Carson's monologue is painfully innocuous.

Under Carson's narrow vision the show rarely wanders from the incestuous confines of show business. Guests that young viewers might consider quaint, however, strike others as classy; Johnny still plays host to the occasional opera star, classical pianist, Chinese acrobatic troop, and jazz artist. One does suspect that when Letterman moves in and sets up shop, Itzhak Perlman and Wynton Marsalis will be out, and the lady who dresses up parrots as Cesar Romero will be in . Dave isn't nearly as funny with animals from the zoo as Johnny is; Dave makes fun of the trainer whereas Johnny lets the animals make fun of him.

Letterman speaks only admiringly of Carson, particularly of the way he's been able to "slide and ride with the incoming tides." But he does say that he gets shook-up when he has to appear on the Tonight Show as Johnny's guest. "I'm always afraid he'll say something to me like, 'Let's play tennis this weekend,'" Letterman says. "I'm terrified of actually spending time with him." I told his producer, Peter Lassally, about this and he said, 'Oh, grow up, asshole.' The thing about appearing on the show is that any time could be your last time out. They're not particularly sympathetic to a weak appearance."

Letterman's manic antics on his own show probably owe more to Steve Allen, former Tonight Show curator, than to Carson, whose fondness for the impromptu and unexpected has dwindled over the years down to zero. There is another icon of teletalk, however, whom Letterman at his best recalls, and that is Jack Paar, even though Paar - Carson's immediate predecessor on the Tonight Show throne - was hot where Letterman is cool. Indeed, in terms of temperature, the late-night hosts drop straight down: hot Paar, mild Carson, chilly Letterman.

Dissimilar as they are in approach, Letterman and Paar could each be called the dominant talk-show host of his time. Letterman's influence penetrates into college campuses and junior high school playgrounds. Paar, when he was on the air, was the most talked-about marmoset in the television menagerie. The most boring job in the world would have been Jack Paar's publicist, because Paar was forever stumbling into great brouhahas that made front-page headlines and got him denounced in poker-faced editorials.

When told that Jack Paar has acclaimed him as "a nice boy," Letterman responds ingenuously, "Well, I am a nice boy." Both these nice boys are, like Carson, from the Midwest, and now Paar and Letterman live within a few miles of each other in cushy Connecticut. Hal Gurnee, Letterman's director, was Paar 's director for years and directed "Jack Paar comes Home," the NBC special Paar is doing this season for his old alma mater. Surely by coincidence, but then again maybe not, Paul Shaffer and the Late Night band have taken to whacking out a demonically festive version of Paar's theme, "Everything's Coming Up Roses," while Letterman pelts out tennis balls from a serving machine as a way of pumping up flaccid jokes on his show.

How to explain the Paar show to those too young to have seen it? It was pure talk for one thing - no comedy sketches - but more than that, it was pure Paar, brash and smart and spleeny. It was ninety minutes a night spent inside Jack Paar's troubled head. Paar was the Toscanini of Talk, conducting his gabby guests as if they were members of his private band. He brought out the best in everybody else, sometimes by bringing out the worst in himself. You may have been appalled; you couldn't be bored. Television has mellowed out since then, and no personality as ferocious will probably ever reach a comparable level of national influence.

Paar claims to look back on those turbulent days with absolutely no sense of regret at having walked away from it all two decades ago. He did come out of retirement in 1983 to plug a book, "P. S. Jack Paar," and one of the stops he made was the Letterman show. However, he appeared nervous (nothing new about that) and worse, he insulted the band. During another interview, he expressed little interest in the state of the modern talk show. "I think the whole idea of talking to people is kind of over," he said then. More recently, he was asked about that remark. He said, "The truth is, talk shows have since become so inexpensive to produce that they will never go away. I suppose what I meant was, the excitement of it is over.

"Conversation, witty conversation, is almost over. Audiences are now conditioned to this kind of cult thing, this name-dropping and recognition business. People say, 'Mick Jagger' or 'Cyndi Lauper' and everybody laughs. There's too much emphasis now on show business and on stars making movies." Paar says Letterman told him that on his last trip to Los Angeles with Late Night, he was distressed by the way people laughed at nothing, nothing but the dropping of names or pop topics. "Moving the shows to Hollywood is not a good idea," Paar says. "That's why Dave is so good." Carson moved his show to Hollywood years ago to make life easier for himself. He promised then that the show would return to New York each year for a few weeks of shows there. Promise broken.

Paar admires Carson's tenacity and longevity but is not a regular viewer. "By the time he comes on I'm either reading or I'm asleep," Paar says. "I've seen, oh, maybe five Carson shows in twenty years. When he quits, he won't watch either." Paar was booked on the Carson show in 1983 and then, mysteriously, unbooked. When Paar ran into Carson at the taping of a segment for NBC's sixtieth-anniversary show last March, Carson said it had all been a misunderstanding. "He couldn't have been nicer," Paar says.

What made Paar's show so good? Paar was an event himself, with his fickle passions and insatiable nosiness. His guests weren't just stars promoting movies or records or TV shows; he had politicians and world figures and authors and a whole gallery of professional raconteurs, including the acidic Alexander King and the engaging Robert Morley. Paar took the show to Cuba right after the revolution there and to the Berlin Wall not long after it went up.

Like Letterman, Paar was a mischievous brat. He could be as alarming as a nuclear leak and as hard to ignore. For five seasons, it was meltdown at midnight. Letterman functions smoothly in the cool new world; he can't and won't do what Paar did. Morley, for instance, as wittily talkative as ever, wasn't able to sparkle much when Letterman had him as a guest. Letterman doesn't know what to do with a full-blooded storyteller, somebody with thought-out anecdotes to unload. He's better laughing at comedians with prepared material. With noncomedian guests, he prefers things to go badly so he can turn the interview back on itself and get laughs. He thrives at plucking fiasco from disaster. Paar wanted real stories from occasionally surreal people.

"I think I was an honest-to-God real person, with faults and stuttering and stammering and ego and all that," Paar says when asked to analyze his success. "I hate that phrase 'warts and all' - I don't like warts - but maybe it was eczema and all. No, I don't like pimples either. Some small rash that's sort of exotic; that was me. What I kept hearing back then was, 'Did you hear what that son of a bitch did last night?' I don't hear that anymore.

"I have a natural curiosity about subjects and people, and I think that helped. If I'm not interested, they never get on the stage. If you were bullshit, I got rid of you. I said, 'Thanks, pal,' and off you went. I was very lucky; I was alive and on the air at a time when there were still witty people about. Morley, Peter Ustinov, Malcolm Muggeridge - the English are the best. These people would frighten away most of the talk-show hosts these days. There was not that quid pro quo thing: 'I wrote a book'; 'I made a move.' I wasn't interested in that. I'm not interested in show business. And that's all they talk about now."

If Paar had a show now, he says, he would like such guests as Jonathan Miller, Senator Robert Dole, Ustinov, George F. Will, Al Hirschfeld (the theatrical caricaturist) and "strangely enough," he says, Gloria Vanderbilt, because "she has opinions and views." Paar watches little television now . He likes the political dogfight Crossfire on Cable News Network, but agrees it was better when pit bull Patrick Buchanan was cohost (with Tom Braden). Buchanan took a job at the Reagan White House and went from being funny to being dangerous.

Paar had comedians as guests, but generally they did their comeding and left. "I had that blond girl on - I can never remember her name." Joan Rivers. "Oh yeah, Joan Rivers. I had her on three times before Carson, and she died every time. She offended me then. Her stories weren't true." Paar was famous for prefacing his own anecdotes with "I kid you not" or "Every word is true." He could tell a long, self-deprecatory tale about attending a performance of Hamlet starring Richard Burton, and having a shirt stud fall down his pants, and make it not just funny but amusing. There is a difference. Paar had, like Noel Coward, a talent to amuse, and so did television then.

Now it has more of a talent to defuse. That's not necessarily to be bemoaned; it's just the way the medium has evolved. Variety shows will probably never come back to TV because the whole idea of putting on A Show, structured and rehearsed and primped to a sheen, seems like overkill now. We don't look upon the TV portal as a proscenium anymore . It's become much more utilitarian. Letterman doesn't try to maintain the illusion of a slick, accomplished extravaganza being put on for the edification and rapture of us folks out here in Television Land. If anything, he strives to sustain the opposite illusion, one of cheerful ineptitude ("Keep reminding yourself, 'Yes, this actually is network television'"), worn as a badge of honor. Dave lets you see backstage, lets you see the technicians, even lets you read the cue cards along with him. One persnickety writer has derided what Letterman does as "cheap irony" and frets that he is lowering the value of irony in the world (now there's a worry for you). But Letterman's approach seems more one of pragmatic fatalism. There's no dark Late Night-of-the-soul stuff there, maybe, but the operative Letterman assumption that there's no real hope, that the best you can do is just slog along - well, darn it, that says something about the Human condition in the Age of Anxiety!

"Things never go as well as I would like them to," Letterman moans. "It's just my nature." Here is a man haunted, I tell you, by original sin.

"He's a very strange young man," Paar says of Letterman. "Did you ever sit at a table with him? I talked for two hours, and he laughs and giggles, but he doesn't say a word." Oh, but Jack! When Mitch Gaylord is swinging around the parallel bars, you don't interrupt him to practice a klutzy somersault. Letterman is rather transfixed by Paar and finds it absurd that Paar and his combustive energy are cooped up in Connecticut. Paar has become the genie with no burning desire to leave the bottle. If the NBC special fares well, maybe then Jack will come out and say boo. He can't say boo in less than forty-five minutes.

Whether Rivers and her abrasive style will hold up well with nightly television exposure is anybody's guess right now. Paar may not like to think so, but people talk about Rivers's chicaneries the next morning as they once talked about Paar's. Hers, of course, tend to be more outrageous while at the same time less interesting. Letterman says he hopes and assumes that the talk-show jungle will "weed itself out eventually" and that some of the shows will end up with "the very life sucked out of them." He even worries about the life being sucked out of his own show, unlikely as that seems now.

"The more successful you are, the more familiarity you have, and the quicker people will tire of it," Letterman says. "I hope they don't. There is a feeling of unfounded optimism around here right now." Dave's nothing if not a worrier. When the ratings went up substantially last year, he groaned, "I don't know. They'll probably just go right back down again. I think maybe what's happened is we've just kind of worn people down. So they say, 'Oh, all right, Christ, we'll watch your damn show.'"

Perhaps the vitality of the Letterman show is negative vitality. It thrives by turning show-biz talk-show convention on its head. Late Night seems to rock boats and upset applecarts. In time, this may become tiresome, and the Letterman show itself could become the applecart to be upset and the boat to be rocked by someone with a new twist. Teased that he might pick up a newspaper and read that the Letterman era is over and it's time to move on, he says, not joking now, "Well, that would break my heart."

If you airlifted someone out of 1955 and plopped them down in front of the Letterman show, they might indeed wonder what all the fuss is about. A man dropping cantaloupes and Barbie dolls off a five-story building? What? But for those who've been steady watchers of television for thirty, twenty, ten years, Letterman is deliverance. All that scrambling banality has come to some good after all; Letterman turns it into gold. Late Night is a triumph of posture. It has the right attitude for the times. When you watch Late Night, you feel release. Letterman and company fight the insanity of each day's reality with a cathartic counterinsanity of their own. They bring hilarious chaos out of lamentable chaos.

A lovely young Letterman fan, vacationing in Key West, sashayed about in her Late Night T-shirt and was impressed with all the waves and shouts of recognition - a "right on" kind of thing. She says it was like being flashed the peace sign in the Sixties. Dave says, "Oh, Lord, that's a responsibility I don't know that I'm prepared to shoulder." His own popularity scares him. "We worked long and hard the first two or three years, and we did the same show then we're doing now, and yet the ratings are getting better, and none of us knows specifically why. I just don't trust it. And why should I, given the vagaries of television? There's no great satisfaction in succeeding in television. What good is it? CBS could come along with a new package of action shows and knock us right to hell. It's not much of an accomplishment, really. That's why we try to take it in stride."

And with that, Dave retreats to his magical little kingdom of pet tricks and viewer mail and crushing things with a steamroller and yelling out the window with a megaphone. And the thrill-cam and the ghost of Elvis, and Larry "Bud" Melman. Late Night is built on the ruins of television's thirty-year failure to become the cultural savior of the American people; that's the grave it dances on. David Letterman says, oh gosh, you might as well laugh.
C
"What's so funny about David Letterman?"

"An inquiry into Stupid Pet Tricks and the lost art of conversation"

"David Letterman and the power of babble"

"If talk's so cheap, why is America losing sleep over the dangling conversations of Late Night?"

By TOM SHALES
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November 1986
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