|Esquire - David Letterman Interview
Inside Letterman's skull, you will find Letterman's brain, which holds captive Letterman's psyche -- squirming, dark, and exquisite. This is no place for trespassers. It is a protected place, where the brave and the bold know not to tread. Even Letterman keeps his distance. Long ago, it is said, a couple of trained professionals tried to gain entry and were never heard from again. Like any man of substance, Letterman is hard to know. If he knows himself, he knows only enough to wish he knew less. I have known him for a dozen years, spoken with him during hours grave and triumphant, acquainted myself with the infrastructure of his world, seen his hot-sauce collection. I have watched him become the most powerful man in all of television and derive enjoyment from almost no aspect of it, save perhaps the good seats at Indy.
"I have my own private struggle," he will admit, persevering under punishing physical conditions, declining any promise of
balm or respite. He must be so encumbered in order to be Letterman. "Very strange," observed the wise Johnny Carson,
when recently asked to ponder the miracle. "Lot of churning going on inside David there." That Letterman has now become
Carson, which is to say become omnipotent, only bedevils him more. He will not bask, so instead he wallows. To reign, he
must first and always deny himself, deny satisfaction, deny everything. And yet if he did not reign, he would perish. He
cannot win, even though he has won That is Letterman.
I have been inside. I have gone there in increments, over long periods, each time retreating hastily, before harm could come. I am the friendly inquisitor, who pokes fun gently and buffets with apology, performing painless extractions. We get on fine. There is shared history: His father and my grandfather, both gentlemen florists, both long dead, tippled together and made much hell at regional FTD board meetings. My mother called his father Uncle Joe and remembers his visits to Chicago from Indianapolis as pure ruckus, full of noise and nonsense. It is a slender bond, but one too odd to ignore. So I dip in and dip out, tormenting him as mildly as he can stand, then leave before he summons the urge to slap me.
"Why, you sonofabitch!" he grumbled to me last spring, during a chance meeting backstage at Live with Regis and Kathie Lee. (He had come over to wreak havoc.) "You've ruined my career more than once!" Whereupon he circled me, hunched like a
wrestler, then wordlessly walked away. Such is our special rapport.
Of course, no human walks faster than Letterman, and this is essential to understanding him, if there is any understanding him. His gait is long because his patience is not. He barrels forth, an unstoppable force who presumes to waste the time of no one living. He possesses no such arrogance. Likewise, his mind is so fleet and dexterous and artful in private conversation that I am convinced no equal exists, certainly not among entertainers, itself a fraternity to which he would rather die than pledge himself. Still, his quickness does not make pointed talk any easier for him. He has always thought he was boring me senseless during any given exchange -- or, at least, pretended as much.
"Oh, it was a huge waste of time!" he said recently, recalling several extraordinary hours I spent debriefing him last year, all
filmed for CBS promotional spots that heralded the arrival of his Late Show. "For you it was, I mean," he added. "I felt
bad for you. I kept thinking, This poor man..."
According to legend, he feels bad always, except for the one hour per weekday he broadcasts, during which time he
is adrenaline personified. On TV he is alive with rush. "Way too much coffee," he says woefully. "But if it weren't for the
coffee, I'd have no identifiable personality whatsoever. So that's what we have here." (Also he is known to consume
preshow allotments of fresh pineapple and Hershey's chocolate to enhance the buzz.)
"He's basically the same guy up until show time," says coexecutive producer Robert "Morty" Morton. "Then he assumes a
different personality for that hour, but afterward he's right back again." Afterward, he repairs to his twelfth-floor office, where he studies the show tape and systematically divests himself of whatever hubris that got him through the last hour. "If a show sucks, it's me," he has long said, fully sure that he has never given a performance that didn't at least partially suck. He told me, "I can never walk out of there thinking, 'Oh, my God, we're a hit! Everyone loves us!" I've never experienced that." Nevertheless, he is a hit, and everyone loves him. From his Emmy acceptance speech, upon receiving this year's award for outstanding variety, comedy or music series: "Well, I don't need to tell you folks -- there's been a huge mistake! Ha ha!" Then: "I have very little to do with the show. Every day, about five, after my manicure, I put
on a suit and go to work."
Outtake from an interview conducted in June 1993, in a stark West Side film facility, recorded by CBS (Letterman and I sat
at opposite ends of a long table):
Q: How would you explain your work to foreigners?
A: Well, first of all, I wouldn't be hanging around foreigners. You know that. I'm xenophobic. (Chuckles.) I'm the guy running the TV show. Not really a host. Anybody who has ever seen me work knows that. Anybody who has ever been a guest in my home knows that. And, by the way, there have been very few guests in my home. Especially foreign guests. I don't know. You're the guy on the show who has the best wardrobe, so people in the audience at least know where to look. Everything falls into place after that. There is very little skill involved with it. You just have to smile when things really aren't that funny. And when things are sort of funny, then you have to laugh like crazy. I'll be doing a lot of that here today with you. That's about it. Everything else is done in the control room.
He is a nervous king, for which he cannot be blamed. There he stood, next in line for eleven years, too polite to grease his own ascension. He had been prince and future king since the night of his first audience with monarch Carson, had even been
allowed to sit on the throne, in substitute capacity, sooner than any other mortal -- after a mere three stand-up shots. (His first Tonight Show appearance remains, in his appraisal, the last time he actually felt good about himself -- sixteen years ago.) It was Carson who then, in 1982, permanently installed Letterman into the empire of late-night TV, gave him the hour affixed to his own, so that they could rule in tandem.
Everything was in place. Until the palace coup: Leno, greatest jester in the land, who did not initially amuse Carson but
always amused Letterman, consorted with dark forces to nuzzle and sway network cabinet ministers ("NBC pinheads," in the dour parlance of Letterman). In short order -- a feverish blur to this day -- the network had nudged Carson aside and, without
royal consent, enthroned Leno as host of The Tonight Show.
Carson retired to Malibu, shaking his head, appalled but unsurprised. Letterman, who saw it all coming, nevertheless fell into fits of incredulity and extreme self-loathing. Blindly, honorably, his allegiance had belonged only to Carson, never to the network; for this he was punished if but for a moment. Elsewhere, he was quickly promised the moon, so he took the moon at CBS, and instantly owned the night. At once, The Tonight Show was reduced to a shambles, a hollow residence unfit for a king. Letterman's Late Show gleamed and ruled. He was now a man in control, like Carson. Don Rickles came on one night and grumbled. "Gotta go. I'm due at Jay Leno's house for dinner later." Said Letterman, "I'm sure you'll enjoy the peace and quiet." (The exchange was excised from the broadcast; Letterman is nothing if not a benevolent king.)
Leno, for his part, essayed contrition. "Dave's story is the great American story," he said. "You work for a place. You're
unappreciated there. You leave. Then you go across the street and build a bigger business."
On the January day NBC executives huddled in Florida to decide whether to dump Leno or lose Letterman, I spent the afternoon in his Late Night office at Rockefeller Center. He was just back from Barbados, looked numb, and wore a beard. He had hired CAA ultra-agent Michael Ovitz to wrangel his fate so that he could sit back and do nothing else but worry about it.
We had been talking about relationships with women -- his own inadequacies therein -- and disappointment in general. Also
present were two women he trusts implicitly and relies on always: his executive assistant, Laurie Diamond, and associate
producer Barbara Gaines. They prop him as few others can and are never far away should he sink into mire. He was saying,
"My sister told me something a couple weeks ago that I'm trying to apply to my life, which is: Don't have any expectations of
anybody and you'll never be disappointed. But, you know, it doesn't work. But then that makes it sound like I'm the most
giving, most understanding, best buy on the shelf. And I know that's not true. I'm no day at the beach, let's just say that.
"I couldn't disagree more," said Gaines.
"You are too the best buy on the shelf!" said Diamond.
"Um-hmm," said Letterman, unfooled.
Always he drives himself, fueled by demons. He is known for his drive as well as for his driving. Like Leno, he is a car guy; both men keep hangars full of classic junk at the Santa Monica airport (although Letterman almost never gets out there anymore). But unlike Leno, who is happiest monkeying under the hood, Letterman just takes the wheel and drives --
from which all metaphor springs. For his daily commute to midtown from New Canaan, Connecticut, he pilots his all-wheel-drive turbo-charged red Dodge Stealth, occasionally achieving velocities that paralyze radar guns. Still, the trip never takes less than an hour (usually much longer), forcing him onto the road before nine each morning, rarely getting him home before ten each night. He keeps a downtown Manhattan loft, in TriBeCa, but never uses it, although his long-time girlfriend, Regina Lasko, spends most of her week there. The road, he feels, is his salvation, pending speed traps. (When stripped of his license a few years ago, he nearly lost the will to live.) "I think that car is his little womb," attests Morty, glad for any decompression his star can find. "I like to get outta town," explains Letterman. "Driving home at night is not such a bad thing. It's a good way to sort of let stuff go a little. I don't like leaving the office, but when I do -- by the time I get home -- the circuit breakers have been reset, you know?"
Before leaving the office each night, after having chastised himself for gaffes imperceptible, he will likely apologize to any staff members he encounters on the way out.
"Good night, Dave," they will say. "I'll be better tomorrow," he will reply. Conscience notwithstanding, he travels light, wallet in back pocket, yellow envelope of joke submissions in hand. Once home, he immerses himself for hours in BBC radio, which serves both to distract him and to shape his worldview.
"Oh, it booms in," he says excitedly. "They put everything in perspective for you and you realize why you shouldn't be too
worried about too much of anything. I've become addicted to it." He watches no late-night television, gets to bed by one,
sleeps five hours a night, sleeps hard. "What I don't do is sleep much, but when I'm out, I'm out."
He is forty-seven, which seems inconceivable, especially to him. Lately, however, he has begun to concede the battle,
frequently ending conversations with young staff members by blurting, "I don't know -- I'm a fifty-year-old man! How am I supposed to know what you guys like?" It is his neck where mortality besets him most. "I got a bad neck," he says, often
on the air, although he asks for no sympathy. He will not speak on the record about his neck. Suffice it to say, he is never not in acute agony, but is also unwilling to pursue corrective measures. If hugged around the neck, he brays like a mule. He lives in abject fear of headlocks. He would rather touch than be touched, although he enjoys nothing more than a woman's touch.
Women in his audience regularly ask to kiss his forehead. "The answer to that question," he says, "is, of course, under any circumstances, absolutely, yes!" I once asked him what a guest on his show should never do. "Number one: Don't frisk me," he said. "Don't hurt my physically. Don't get anywhere near my neck. And don't call me Regis."
Still, he goes not at all gently into middle age. He is a fellow who loves the rock 'n' roll, loves it loud, loves his Springsteen and Seger, Petty and Zevon, Counting Crows and Nine Inch Nails. He was riveted to Woodstock last summer.
His office stereo pumps only the hard-rock sounds of WNEW-FM. He prefers music to stoke him, never to sooth. (Under no
circumstances does he wish to be soothed.) In diametric opposition to his idol, Carson, whose idol was Buddy Rich,
Letterman hates jazz, regards it as "sleepy." (Within the Ed Sullivan Theater, bandleader Paul Shaffer is forbidden to play that which could be construed as esoteric.) He does, however, fancy bright classical music, is awed by conductor Sir Georg Solti, and is rendered limp by the Puccini aria "Nessun dorma," which he longs to have performed on his show. To his dismay, both Pavarotti and Domingo refused him when they appeared. "Oh, they can do it, for god's sake!" says Letterman, disgusted. "If you're a tenor, that's what you do!"
His happiest moments are the moments he is not himself. Most days, he yearns to be somebody else, and on many days he
actually is. His credit for the recent film Cabin Boy, in which he winningly portrayed the part of Old Salt in Fishing Village, listed him as Earl Hofert. On the phone, he likes to assume disparate identities and expects nothing less from his inner circle of friends, among them comedians Jeff Altman and John Witherspoon and actress Bonnie Hunt.
Pure bliss, for Letterman, is committing crank calls on phone-in programs, his guise obscured and never dropped. On Tom Snyder's old ABC radio show and recent CNBC show, he would become various rural morons, seamless in their stupidity, always diverting the subject at hand. In stultifying detail, he would discourse on the new line of Miatas or share random snacking tips or compliment on-air guests on work they'd never done. Snyder indulges him as no other host might. "Larry King will never put up with me," says Letterman. "By the time you explain to Larry that you want to talk about sunspots and what they're doing to bill Clinton, you're gone." He prized the memory of his first Snyder call, before Snyder ever began catching on to him: "When I got off the phone I just couldn't sleep, I was so exhilarated by the experience!"
Perhaps his most significant performance in this genre came last February, the night Snyder's CNBC guest was New York
Times television reporter Bill Carter, promoting his book, The Late Shift, which dissected matters Leno-Letterman. (Although
Letterman made himself available to Carter in the book's reporting, he refused to read it; passages, however, were eventually read aloud to him.) On this night, he was the first caller on the line, a husky-voiced trucker named Don from Kokomo, Indiana. Excerpts:
TOM: How are you tonight?
DON: I'm drivin', man. I'm on 465. It circles Indianapolis, it's an access road, and I got the cruise control hooked up. I'm doin' ninety-five miles an hour, and I got the lights off. How're you doin', buddy?
TOM: I'm okay, buddy. How're you?
DON: I'm in sand and gravel...when the sand and gravel comes in, they gotta have a man tell ya what's sand, what's gravel. That's me.
TOM: In other words, you pick the sand from the gravel?
DON: Well, not actually pick it. I have a trained eye. We ain't talkin' about cotton...say, whatever happened to that Doc McMahon? Remember him on that Johnny Carson?
TOM: No, no, no, no, Ed McMahon.
DON: Is he dead? Hey, Tom, I'm callin' to wish you a happy anniversary.
TOM: Okay, Don, thanks a million. Watch that speed now, Don.
TOM: Don't drive so fast.
DON: Yeah, well, hey, look -- I don't tell you how to run your little show!
TOM: But you will.
Months later, Letterman told me that his lone goal in making the call, which went on interminably, was to keep Carter from talking about him for as long as possible. "I just didn't want to hear them talking about that bullshit," he said, as pleased with himself as I've ever seen.
Read it and Bleep: On that fateful night when Madonna said "fuck" thirteen times, she had her own Top Ten list. Had she
not crumpled it up and thrown it away, who knows how it might have changed the course of Late Show history. Here, then, for the first time, is Madonna's list.
My Top Ten Complaints About Dave:
10. Couldn't vogue if life depended on it.
9. Always asking, "Whatever happened to that nice Sean Penn?"
8. Stole his nickname, "Material Girl," from me.
7. Before sex, always asks, "Do you have any music for this, Paul?"
6. Can't fit entire Evian bottle down throat.
5. Driving isn't the only thing he does too fast, if you know what I mean.
4. His Top Ten lists keep getting lamer and lamer.
3. Calls the cops every time I break into his house.
2. Doesn't look good in a cone bra.
1. He's still a virgin.
Deprivation is a leitmotiv in Letterman's existence. He likes to imagine he cannot have that which he clearly could. Not so long ago, he stood on the deck of coexecutive producer Peter Lassally's beautiful Malibu beach home, staring off into the Pacific. "I wish I could have something like this," he said, wistfully. "Dave," said Lassally, "you can." Luxury embarrasses him; he prefers to believe himself undeserving. That he reportedly earns between $10 million and $14 million per year does not register at all. In his mind, he dwells but a heartbeat away from failure and ruin. His office in the Ed Sullivan Theater building is large and stark and spartan, nothing on the walls, shelves barren except for two Formula One race-car models and twenty-one bottles of hot sauce. ("I loves the hot sauce," he likes to say.) He allows in his midst no memorabilia or reminders of triumph. Says Diamond, whose outer wall is permitted just one photo of her boss, only because he's disguised as Santa Claus: "He still has that thing -- 'If this all tanks, if they get sick of me, I don't want to have to pack up anything; I'm just gonna put my wallet in my back pocket and walk.'"
I recently asked him how he likes to indulge himself. "I'm not indulging myself -- that's the thing," he said. To stay preternaturally thin, he consumes one meal a day, always pasta on show days, to carbo-load. He hasn't touched alcohol in a decade. (When he guzzles vodka on TV, the bottles contain only water.) Lately, he has even sworn off his beloved cigars,
although he keeps a handsome humidor full of Cuban Cohibas behind his desk and hundreds more at home. "I desperately miss them," he confesses, full of regret. "But, man, I'm telling you something -- it's a pleasure I'll go back to one day."
While few mortals have penetrated his Connecticut fortress (not counting deranged stalker Margaret Ray), it, too, is said to be simple and unremarkable, a big barn of a house, free of clutter. Each year, on his birthday and on Christmas, head writer Rob Burnett sneaks up to deposit mass quantities of condiments in Letterman's driveway (for it is only with condiments that Letterman will luxuriate).
If caught, Burnett will be invited inside to taste spoonfuls of hot sauce, a ritual of endurance that bonds the two men. "I go right up to the Bat Cave," Burnett acknowledges. "And whenever I'm done at his house, he always hypnotizes me before I leave, so I can't remember how to get there again." He reports that he has seen no signs of extravagance on the premises, except for Letterman's automobile collection. "That," he adds, "and, of course, the mink coats."
"I don't think women get over him," says Laurie Diamond, who regularly fields calls from ex-inamoratas resurfacing to
reconnect. With women, of course, Letterman is mercury, quick to slip away, forever dispossessing his appeal. Besides
housebreaker Margaret Ray, up to fifty other women are known to think he talks directly to them through the television.
Many skulk around the theater; one of them managed once to throw Letterman up against a wall for a long kiss. Likewise,
actresses and models -- Ellen Barkin, Vendela, Sarah Jessica Parker and Julia Roberts among them -- will flirt recklessly
with him on camera and get nowhere. "It's just silliness," he says crankily. "It's like professional wrestling. I mean, how nuts would you have to be to get involved with an actress or a model?"
In general, he distrusts glamour, tends to be unnerved by women in makeup, and finds himself drawn only to unadorned wholesomeness and fierce brainpower. "There is something very appealing about smart women, intelligent women," he once told me. "And you can see the problem there: If they're smart enough for me to be interested, then they're not going to have anything to do with me. But I like somebody who is really, really smart. It just helps me overall in trying to turn the gaze from inward to outward."
Those who know him best speculate that he could, on any given Monday, show up for work, having quietly married girlfriend Regina Lasko over the weekend. It has yet to happen. It did happen once, long ago, back in Indiana, when he took himself a college bride, named Michelle Cook, for a term of seven years. "For what I put her through," he has said, "I should burn in hell for the rest of my life." Lasko, whose profile is kept so low as to be invisible, is said to be warm, devoted, bright and patient, now in her fifth year of involvement with Letterman. They met when she worked at Late Night, after which she became a production manager for Saturday Night Live, before quitting altogether last year.
Prior to Lasko, there was Merrill Markoe, the woman who arguably created Letterman, who was Late Night's first head
writer, who withstood his life for more than a decade, and who survived to write obliquely about it on occasion. From her
just-published book of essays, "How to Be Hap-Hap-Happy Like Me," Markoe warns women to avoid men who walk fast: "I mean walking half a block ahead of you, no matter how fast you walk, and never slowing down to accommodate you. An informal poll I have been taking for a number of years has convinced me that these fast-walking guys also have terrible tempers and commitment problems."
Before her October Late Show appearance to promote the book, Markoe and Letterman hadn't spoken for six years. "We've
exchanged some letters, just casualness, casu -- I almost said casualties, but that's not right," he says. "I mean, looking
back at the end of that relationship, it was so unpleasant and mostly my fault. You know, I don't know how to do things with
women. She was so good and so smart and just so decent, so I feel like, if there's anything I can ever do for her, I would
do it nine times. I just don't know how to behave, you know? I don't know how you break up with people."
There sits Harry Joe Letterman, one of seventeen men at a long table, gray men in suits fixed with boutonnieres, in a
photograph my mother gave me. (My grandfather is one of the men.) It is a thirty-year-old picture taken at an FTD meeting
in Michigan. Bespectacled Hoosier florist H. Joe Letterman, as he was known, looks at once dignified and sweetly goofy, about ready to cut loose. "Look at these guys!" his son was saying, studying the picture and chortling, "Don't they look like the old steel and coal robber barons? He loved going to Detroit for this stuff. Oh, he was a big talker! What he was not so
good at was actually running the store. But this stuff was his lifeblood, you know?"
We were, for the moment, holed up in a conference room above the Ed Sullivan Theater, where he now runs the store. And now he was recalling the annual summer fishing excursions he and his father made to a local reservoir: "We did it right up till the time he died," he said. "It wasn't really a ritual. In those days, he was drinking heavily and I was drinking heavily, so it always seemed like a good excuse to go out and get drunk while you were fishing. We used it for that pretense. I mean, how could you live with yourself, going to a tavern with your dad to get shit-faced? So our actual purpose for fishing was to go get loaded. I mean, we never caught a fish. I mean nothin'. Not ever."
The widow of H. Joe Letterman has, meanwhile, made much of her sunset years, having recently earned great acclaim as a
Winter Olympics network correspondent. (During the two weeks of her satellite-fed Late Show reports from Norway, her son had never appeared more professionally rattled.) The former Dorothy Letterman, mother of two daughters and one son, is now the wife of a decorated World War II glider pilot named Hans.
Her son gave her away -- "so to speak," he says -- ten years ago, back home in Indianapolis. As with many complex men, he
is who he is largely because of his mother. "It wasn't until my dad died that I realized my mother is the least demonstrative person in the world," Letterman has said. Never certain what she thought of him, he always assumed the worst, manufacturing a persona to match. "For a long time, she told her friends that I was in prison," he said last year, reprising
a favorite projection. "It was easier for her to deal with that ignominy than saying, Well, he's hosting a TV show." In
particular, he has held close the memory of her reaction to his woeful high school record: "At one point my grades were so awful that she wanted to enroll me in a trade school," he says. "Dad had less of an interest in it than Mom. It was just that she was very concerned about my lack of academic accomplishment. But, I tell you, it doesn't seem to bother her now when she gets that fifty-dollar check every week."
Carson had waited an hour before Letterman showed up at Granita. It was the night before the Emmys, and Letterman was
hosting a party for his staff, as he does every September, at Wolfgang Puck's seaside restaurant. Carson had come, an
invited guest, to demonstrate his great fondness for Letterman. A couple of years earlier, Carson had turned up at the event and signed for the tab. "I think he was under the impression the dinner was just me and Peter and Morty and our dates," says Letterman. "So he said, 'I'll take care of it.' and it turned out to be eighty people, and it cost him twelve grand!"
This time, however, Carson and his wife Alex, were to be treated in kind. After all, it had been a year in which Carson made three cameo appearances on Late Show, something he has yet to do for Leno's Tonight Show, the implications of which are thunderous. (For Letterman, there was no greater thrill than visiting Carson in his dressing room the night of his memorable walk-on last May. "In all those years I did The Tonight Show, I have these memories of Carson coming by my dressing room before the show to say hello," he says. "You couldn't believe how cool that was. And so to be able to go up and see him in his dressing room at my show -- I mean, the full-circle nature of that was maybe more meaningful than I can explain.")
But now Letterman was late, having spent the afternoon at a racing school out in Ventura. And Carson waited. And Carson does not wait. But he didn't mind waiting. And when Letterman arrived, wild and windblown, the two men fell into easy conversation, a phenomenon to which neither is especially prone. And when a woman approached the table and commented on Letterman's height, Carson sparked and twinkled and murmured, Carson-like, "Oh, he's a large man!" And he kept going: "Oh, he enormous. That's one big guy." And he did not stop: "God, he's practically a freak. Stand up and let us see how big you are!" And Letterman, feeling bigger than usual, which is not all that big, paid for dinner.
Most probably he came late because he did not want to believe Carson was there, much less believe what it meant. In his mind, however, Carson is always there, right there -- looming gracefully, representing life unachievable. Carson wore power
well, wore it effortlessly. "You know," says Letterman, "he's never gonna be on television again. And he shouldn't. He doesn't need to go on television. He's got nothing more to prove. I mean, thirty years! And he really seems contented now; he's getting no less enjoyment out of his life."
Letterman cannot fathom such contentment for himself: "I can't imagine myself operating at a different level of activity," he
says pensively. "I can't imagine that. I hope to hell that I could, but ..." He shrugs and says, "You know, you run fast, you smell bad." E! Entertainment Television, which now broadcasts Letterman's old Late Night shows, was airing a promo
in which he says, "It's not so much a television show as a nightly desperate plea for help!" Laurie Diamond tells me, "Whenever I see that, I think he's just telling us the truth here. At that desk, he's working out this angst that most of us work out on the couch."
Every night before the show, he is led through the catacombs of the Ed Sullivan Theater, up to the stage. On the way, he will toss a football over a pipe, a ritual that indicates whether he will do well or fail, depending on the trajectory of the ball. He takes torment wherever he can find it. One night, Madonna tormented him and he prevailed, but he thought he had failed and let down a nation. Only now, a half-year later, had he relented: "She made me uncomfortable for about twelve minutes," he says, "but, good Lord, we got huge attention for it." (He is less sure of his reconciliation appearance with her at the MTV Awards. "It may have been ill-conceived, but at the very least, it made for a lovely photo.")
Still, the first thing he does each morning is scour the overnight ratings, surveying his kingdom, taking nothing for granted. One week in September, for the first time ever, early numbers suggested he was being beaten by Leno. During that week, on a night when his studio audience was particularly lackluster, he grew morose. At a commercial break, he looked helplessly at Morty and said, "This is an audience who's watching somebody who lost." In the end, of course, he won the week, but his panic was palpable. I visited him after his final show that week, a fine romp of a broadcast featuring Sylvester Stallone and Public Enemy.
That night, I spoke with a man a-jangle, still operating under the notion that his world had collapsed, that he was a loser after all. He was warm and funny, but also antsy, and he couldn't wait to get home. Shortly thereafter, he learned that his winning streak had gone unbroken. The following Friday night, we spoke again -- this time on the telephone. To purge doubt, it had been a week in which he pushed himself harder than ever and won handily. Before coming to the phone, he had endured a photo session, an activity he despises. (For optimum results, Barbara Gaines will sometimes stand nearby and chant, "Happy Dave! Happy Dave!")
"Oh, I'm exhausted!" he said, getting on the line. We talked for a while about his passion for old British films, for Myrna Loy,
for tales of unrequited love. He told me of how the original versions of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir"
reduce him to tears. "Those'll just drop ya in a minute," he said. After ten minutes, however, his tone plummeted. I broached the subject of anxiety.
"The anxiety in me is now starting to build to unbelievable proportions," he said irritably. "This has been such a long, grueling week for me. I've just had my picture taken, and now I'm still talkin' to you...and you, of all people, must know by now that I have nothin' to say! Let me ask you a question: Does it sound like I'm hangin' up?"
Actually, it did for a second, but he recovered and was able to laugh a little. And then he hung up. Fortunately, Monday would come again in a few days, and he would have an hour to feel better.
|"Inside the mind of Dave -- Enter at your own risk"
"Letterman lets his guard down"
"A rare glimpse inside the mind of the king of late night. Enter if you dare"
By BILL ZEHME
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