|Late Show With David Letterman Webpage>|
|Home | Bio | Pictures | Baby Page | Episode Transcripts | TV Interview Transcripts | Interviews & Articles | Quotes | Wallpapers | Links|
|Esquire - David Letterman Article
He was always convinced that inside his chest beat a bum ticker. Then that jackal, Leno, stole the night. Then he almost died.
Now Mr.Letterman would like you to know that he plans to outlive you all.
AND THEN, QUITE SUDDENLY, there was a man down. And he was the big man who had first lost everything and then won it all back before he began to lose again, and he never stopped losing (at least, as per stats and tallies), and now he was down and nothing was right. At Late Show headquarters that morning, executive producer Rob Burnett got word first and shared sparingly
throughout the upper ranks. "This is just between us," he told producer Barbara Gaines, "but Dave is actually having surgery right now." And she would later report, "I remember going, `What? What?' I got, like, teary. I wasn't understanding it. Everyone here was like that. We were all kind of walking around bumping into walls." Then, as news filtered beyond the portals, Burnett held a
confidential conversation with the opposition, Leno himself, although there would be conflicting reports as to who called whom. However, most sources indicate that it was Burnett who reached out to Leno as both a courtesy and a pre-emptive strike.
As one mole would reveal, "The fear was that Jay would seize the news of Dave's emergency and, as usual, grab the spotlight for himself by playing his Nice Guy role, the concerned so-called friend. Like, you can almost see him jumping at the chance to do an hour of Dave reminiscences with Larry King." (There has always been more Leno animus in the Late Show camp than the other way around.) Anyway, Leno said nothing of his fallen rival on the air that night or anywhere else. By then, of course, the rest of us had also learned, quite suddenly, that the big man's heart was wrecked, that it had been about to give out and needed fixing and was, in
fact, already fixed by the time we knew that he was gone from the front lines and breathing through tubes and resting uncomfortably.
And, while he was missing (restlessly walking hospital corridors in gown at four in the morning buying M&M's and chocolate bars from vending machines), something akin to nostalgic love for him grew all anew. Without him, the balance was wrong and we remembered his honor and also his candor--he was always the one who told us, but fast, the unvarnished truth! In this alarming fashion, he reminded many people--primarily the few million people who had stopped paying attention--that he actually did have a heart.
I always knew that he had one. Truth be told, he hides it badly. He likes to think that he obscures it with stoicism and bravado and barbed wire. More often than not, he has been ashamed of its presence. "Oh, I'm a huge emotional ninny!" he has often told me--with great chagrin--during the many years he has told me things. I remember him telling me about how he watched Johnny
Carson's final broadcast eight years ago and how bereft it made him feel-- "Every time he would throw it to a commercial, I just felt him slipping away forever because he wasn't ever going to be doing that anymore. I don't know that I'll ever be able to express the way that that just tore up my heart." He also said, "Maybe this tells you more of the wrong kind of thing about me than I would like." Anyway, I will tell you that someone else told me that he told another person that there were tears in his eyes the night he watched Johnny go. And afterward, he couldn't sleep. "I was up the whole night," he said. "The sadness lasted for weeks."
HIS DEAD FATHER--H. JOE LETTERMAN--has been staring at him in the mirror for the better part of the last decade. Every damned day, his father has been right there, living life all over again inside the face of the only son he ever had, David Michael, the famous television broadcaster. Genes re-created the countenance almost exactly enough so as to startle--platypus mouth, berm
chin, thatched brow, skyward forehead, goofy hair (but of course). Middle age rightfully cinched the replication--abetted by interesting eyewear. "I have pictures of him in the house," Dave has said. "I look at him and see myself." I gave him one such photograph eighteen years ago, when we first met in his old fourteenth-floor office at 30 Rockefeller Center. He was thirty-five and beginning his seventh month on NBC as the host of Late Night with David Letterman, and his guests on the program taped earlier that evening had been Chuck Yeager and the raving downtown performance artist Brother Theodore, who always spit during delivery of harangues. ("I don't know--who would go to see that?" said Dave. "Would you?") Anyway, this picture I gave him had belonged to my grandfather, who was a good friend of H. Joe Letterman's by dint of fraternity among florists--both ran flower shops, Letterman's being in Indianapolis and my grandfather's being in Chicago--and there they were, in this picture, at some regional FTD board meeting, looking smart and important with a bunch of other guys, all of them elected committee officials, making congress in their noble lot of pushing perishable merchandise. ("I can remember leaving poinsettias on people's porches when I helped out with deliveries at Christmastime," Dave once told me. "And of course, within an hour they'd be frozen rock hard.")
By all accounts, his father was the kind of man they used to call a stitch, a card, a cut-up. "He was the circus. He was
the show. When he walked through the room, the lamps would rattle," his son likes to say. Then and ever since, whenever we looked at a picture of his father (well, I can think of three occasions), he laughed a small, wistful laugh, bitter-sweet and bemused--and you knew there had been much unfinished business between father and son when father departed mortal plane in 1973, at
age fifty-seven, by way of massive coronary, keeling over right there in Letterman Flowers at Fifty-sixth and Keystone, dead and gone just like that, at which point local weatherman Dave was twenty-seven and was rendered profoundly woebegone, also just like that. He has said simply, "His death was horrible for me. Just horrible. It was awful." What is rarely noted, however, is the occurrence of Joe Letterman's first heart attack, which came at age thirty-six and which pitched a grim cloud onto the life horizon of young Dave Letterman, who later recalled, "When he got over it, in the back of my mind was this fear that it could happen again."
Fear has never left the back of his mind, I will tell you. Because, along with his father's face, he always suspected--no, he was always convinced--that inside of his lank thorax there beat his workaholic father's selfsame genetically cursed, fatally flawed, big and fragile rumpus- loving heart. It's no wonder, then, that the vaunted Most Powerful Man in American Broadcasting--the brightest and quickest and funniest TV Boy ever to crack wise in the history of latenight talk television (and maybe all of
television itself, period)--had somehow, within a few years, transmogrified himself into one uniquely strange and jumpy bastard.
"WHY IS DAVE MAKING all those faces?" Leno would say to me. "Why is Dave always shouting? Something odd there." I will tell you that there was concern in the Leno voice whenever he said such things, this beginning five years ago. "I don't get what the problem is," he would say. But of course, no small part of the problem has been Leno himself. To write about Letterman is to also
write about Leno, and vice versa, which I have done in equal fashion for this magazine and other ones ever since their careers took wing--and which lately seems increasingly unfair to both parties, but possibly more unfair to Letterman. (They have become--maybe always were--entirely different animals, never mind their job descriptions.) But, per back story and per one large episode of show-business dramaturgy, James Douglas Muir Leno, the pride of Andover, Massachusetts, is unavoidably and inextricably bound to the great, epic Letterman saga. Here, from unused transcripts, is Letterman back in 1982--when America knew not what to fully make of this newfangled sort of humor he was peddling ("rarefied sarcasm," he pronounced then)-- telling me how he first found his attitudinal chops: "Well, you go to the Comedy Store night after night and you see these people, like yourself, floundering to develop an identity. In any kind of work--even in writing or in art--you go through a process where you imitate somebody else's stuff to help your own evolve. And one night I saw a guy named Jay Leno onstage, who was a comic from Boston and New York. When I saw him, I just thought I might as well go home. Because his attitude and his style were so crystallized and so right on the money and he had such good observations. I mean, his entire life and existence seemed to be a setup, and then he would provide the perfect punch line. I thought, Jeez, that's the way it ought to be done. So I really started patterning my material after him."
Naturally, I then called Leno--accessibility, of course, has forever been his special province--who happily returned the compliments, which I included in a cover-story profile of Letterman for a motivational magazine called Success (hey, you start wherever you can), and, upon its publication, there was Leno carrying a copy out onto the Late Night set so as to mortify Letterman ("Give me that!"). "Did you all see this?" Leno barreled forth, unstoppable even then. "This is the December issue of Success magazine! Just coincidentally"--and here he brandished a mocked-up cover of his own--"I-I-I-I-I happen to be on the December issue of SUPER Success magazine! See the headline? JAY LENO: THE BEST COMEDIAN IN THE WORLD! As you can see, it's a little glossier, better stories, more features ... it's a little better magazine!" And Letterman was at once relieved and entertained-- "So apparently you're doing pretty well then?"--because no Late Night guest amused him or understood him as did Leno.
Even so, as with the nonsense above, competition has lurked in their subtext always. Theirs was never a genuine friendship (Leno's frequent contention) so much as friendly professional peerage; they have never once broken bread socially, not even as young-turk comics. (Letterman, of course, has never been known for his social forays. After his heart was fixed, he recounted to viewers his vow of renewal: "I thought, that's it--I'm changing my entire lifestyle! Then it occurred to me, I don't have a lifestyle.") At present,
the two men have not spoken in eight years, the last time being on the air; it is an awkward standoff, both unsettling and proud--Letterman prefers it this way, Leno does not. (He would love to call but fears the rejection that might greet any such attempt.) Letterman has told certain intimates that ever since their early club tenure, he has been leery of Leno's consummate politicking.
According to one, "Dave says that even when Jay was a nobody, he wanted to destroy everyone else." Nevertheless, Letterman arguably made Leno a somebody by installing him in regular Late Night guest rotation--where Leno always shone and killed--at a time when The Tonight Show had no remote interest in Leno. The fact that Leno later took part in the infamous NBC palace coup,
whereupon Johnny Carson's majestic Tonight Show was surrendered to him, after Letterman had logged eleven exemplary years in the adjoining hour to rightfully earn the position (as was Carson's wish)--well, truthfully, Letterman was surprised not in the least, merely humiliated.
The Leno I know--and I know him very well--is many things, including savvy and talented, but he is nothing if not a warhorse. Life, for him, is a contest and a tote board; he breathes largely to compete (this for a guy with no sports acumen whatsoever). Which is to say, he lives to keep tabs on Letterman with every fiber of his being bent on outmuscling and outdistancing him. "I've
always been the underdog," Leno informed me in the summer of 1995--and on several occasions before and after--but at that moment he had begun to prevail in the ratings for the first time since Letterman had debuted his triumphant CBS Late Show twenty-two months earlier. By that autumn, Leno would only prevail and then prevail for years to come, but he took nothing for granted and never averted his gaze from Letterman. It is an obsession rooted in deep respect, I believe, but also rooted in gnawing insecurity over his own good fortune. "Dave makes me work harder," he would say, the implication of which has always been that Letterman's wry genius ever looms at his doorstep to intimidate and spook. "I'm not as good," he said not long after he began
winning, "but I'll stick with it."
I saw a great deal of Leno in 1996, when he approached me to put together his anecdotal life-on-the-road memoir, Leading with My Chin--he knew I knew him very well--which more than one reviewer had wanted to be the true confessions of the scheming jokesmith who cuckolded David Letterman's dreams. (That book will never happen.) So we talked for many hours over many months, whether on the phone or in hotels or at his Beverly Hills home, where he dials up his satellite dish like clockwork each weeknight to visit the opposition on eastern standard broadcast time. "Let's see what Dave's doing," he would say, then assess Letterman's jokes (most often favorably) and also his mental state and deskside manner with guests (more often not): "I wish he wouldn't make those loud noises! Isn't it odd? What's he doing? Do people like this?" As Leno has said always, "In any business, you've gotta pay attention to what's going on across the street." To that end, I am told that powerful entertainment publicists are well accustomed to receiving a personal Leno condolence call on mornings after he senses that any of their star clients have experienced a rough-edged Late Show turn. ("Jay rushes to the rescue and promises the moon," says one.) He is tireless on his night watch and unapologetic about his methods. "It's all part of the game," he would say, quite merrily, to me and to anyone else. ("I didn't know there was a `game' involved in this," Letterman grumpily told Vanity Fair that same year.) Anyway, for what it's worth, I will tell you that Leno initially preferred another title for his book. He had very much wanted to call it A Good Dog Will
Run Till His Heart Explodes. "It's an old hunting expression I heard and always liked," he explained. It gave the publisher the creeps.
NUMBERS CRUSHED THE Letterman heart, I'm thinking. They got in there and burrowed and amassed misery and confirmed self-doubt and gummed the arteries that genes had already impaired. His father gave him the example by which he has lived--which is that your life is a daily struggle to stay afloat and you cannot stop struggling because that is how business is done, and if you
don't believe it, look at the receipts, look at the invoices, look at the buckets of gladiolias dying on the shelf. (Dave sees himself as his own perishable merchandise.) "Life is like swimming the English Channel," he once told me. "Just because you're greased up and on the shore doesn't mean you won't be taken out by a 'cuda." Of course, neither of us knew what that meant exactly--he is gifted that way--but I am sure he was implying that imminent doom is never far afield, especially if you are him. Therefore, he worried throughout the Late Show's initial reign in the ratings, basking in nary a single ray of glow, and then found familiar woeful validation when he was finally taken out by Leno. As ever, he blamed himself--as ever, unjustifiably, because he was never not good and was usually very remarkably good and most every critic alive attested that he was never less than superior to Leno and
what had really happened was that his network, which was number one in prime time when he came aboard, collapsed underneath him (loss of NFL telecasts, loss of major affiliate stations, loss of younger viewers, loss of strong lead-in programming), and what had also happened was that those of us who always loved him did not abandon him but found ourselves living these complicated sort of upwardly mobile and/or child-spawning lives which require time away from television screens late at night, but if we were going to watch anyone, we would probably watch him unless there was something really good on cable. (Letterman, in fact, never lost wholesale prized possession of viewers aged eighteen to thirty-four.) But the point is that he blamed himself into toxic disconsolation. Whereas Leno is a pragmatic competitor, Letterman is an irrational one. Like all true artists, he competes only with himself and his own legacy. A few months into the ratings plunge, he told Bill Carter of The New York Times, the author of the Letterman-Leno NBC-atrocity primer The Late Shift, "It's too bad we had such a large dose of success in the beginning. Because, you know, that's addictive. Now all of a sudden, we're shopping at the Price Club, pal."
At which point--haah-heeeeeeeeeeee!--a sprocket loosened somewhere inside of him. Never capable of lying on the air (thus making him the purest of broadcasters), he could no longer suppress that which chewed holes in his heart. The face now twisted, the eyes now spun, he brayed, he keened, he yelped and puffed and churned--here, then, was a man imploding, but loudly
and, well, weirdly. He had become a coot. "It was unpleasant to watch," says a Late Show insider. "He looked angry and miserable, which of course he was." As Tom Shales of The Washington Post then wrote, "The decline in ratings is apparently enough to drive him visibly crazy.... David Letterman has become the Captain Queeg of late-night TV." (Even Johnny Carson was mystified at this turn of temperament, often mentioning to friends the term self- destruct while sadly shaking his head.) Moreover, as the mania enlarged, so too did the program itself, swelling disproportionately--a deliberate and misguided response to Leno's big carny ruckus of a Tonight Show. Letterman's nimble wit, which never waned, was now drowned by a nightly circus cacophony that all but pried the lid off the Ed Sullivan Theater. "Don't forget that Dave is a born studio performer," says one former associate. "Then as the ship started sinking, he felt obliged to become a showman and a stage performer to correspond with his Broadway marquee. Comedically, he lost his way and it cost him dearly." Burnett, a former Late Show head writer who became executive
producer four years ago amid the clangor, confesses, "For a while there, we did let the theater run the show. Sometimes we felt like it was more energy than funny and we got sick of it. But that was an unhappy period for Dave and for us. And, yes, some of that spilled onto the air." But he adds, most significantly, "Ultimately, maybe we lost sight of the foregone reality here, which is this: When you look back on the creative landscape of television and who did what, Dave is not gonna be remembered for his ratings, you know? There's no one like him and there's no one who's ever gonna be like him." Of course, if Letterman ever heard Burnett talk about him like that, he would be fired in a heartbeat.
Anyway, in mid-1997, they decided to make the most of their precipitous fall from grace. NBC had just posted an enormous billboard high atop a building in Times Square festooned with the smirking mug of Leno, declaring him #1 IN LATE NIGHT! The sheer gloat of it was not subtle--it merely screamed right across Dave's front yard. Letterman and Burnett stared at it for a long time one day from Dave's office window. "You know what we have to do?" Letterman said. "We have to put up our own billboard! Let's just do it!" Within weeks, an even larger billboard appeared in Times Square, very near the Leno one. It pictured
Dave waving goofily at all of New York and was accompanied by the prideful boast: #3 IN LATE NIGHT! (ABC's Nightline had, by then, secured second place.) Burnett laughs. "That was a great call to CBS! I told them what we wanted and that it would cost $50,000, and they were like, `... What?!'"
IN DESPERATE TIMES long past, Carson--Letterman's professional father--imparted to him this simple, shimmering directive in talk-show Zen: "It's all about the guy sitting behind the desk." The guy behind the desk, Carson urged, must presume to carry the calm mantle of authority but always do so with the likable everyman touch. All else--guests, music, lighting, set--would never be anything more than gravy. And so, heeding that lesson, Letterman wore his authority with new aplomb on August 30 of 1993 as he
strode forth across his freshly lacquered Late Show stage for his first- ever eleven-thirty broadcast. He walked out confidence-coated, a sixteen-million-dollar man, buoyed by media buzz and promotional hype and universal goodwill. Also, he was vulnerable, thus more human than at any time in memory--the fact that he had been sneakily screwed out of Carson's throne had been lost on no one. (It was Dave, not Leno, who was always the true underdog of late night.) But I will tell you that he had no expectation of
trouncing the venerable institution that was The Tonight Show-- Leno or not--certainly never so soon and so soundly and for so long. "Even CBS presented it to us as an impossibility," says Burnett. "The only tragedy of those first two years was that it made the expectation of winning all too possible."
Jitters and uncertainty, therefore, were already endemic in the hushed (and always tense) corridors of Letterman's Worldwide Pants empire months prior to his big debut. One afternoon late that spring, I was summoned to a West Side studio facility to perform a rather unusual on-camera interrogation of Letterman from which CBS could splice out dozens of promo spots that ran
throughout the summer, heralding the imminent march of the Late Show. He arrived walking fast and looking deeply embarrassed--which, I will tell you, is how he arrives anywhere--and he immediately took me aside. "Are we payin' you enough dough for this bullshit?" he asked, quite concerned and apologetic about the whole thing. "Because if we're not, just tell me and I'll make sure we do. Because I appreciate you puttin' up with this crap." I assured him everything was fine. The interview lasted hours, and it was a spectacle to behold, equal parts comic and revelatory. At one point I asked, What sort of man could stand a chance with you in a fight? And with a glint in his eye, he replied, "Certainly no mortal man."
THAT IS THE LETTERMAN I like to remember--feisty and confident and human and wise, a man in rebirth, ready to conquer a new world (and/or time slot). That is the Letterman who, in the last two years, began to reemerge from the padded bog, as evidenced by the Late Show's two consecutive Emmy awards. Somewhere along the way, the circus tent folded and the screaming muted and the fright-face softened and he became his show again--"We realized that the one weapon we have that no one else has is Dave," says Burnett. "That show we were doing was not an effective use of him. We thought it was time to just let
him be the guy behind the desk and not the ringmaster. We thought: Let's just try to do a show we enjoy again. Because we didn't get into this for ratings." But the ratings did rise, just a little, just enough--and then came the visit from the First Lady this past January 12 and the ratings were the best in six years and decimated Leno as in nights of yore.
The next morning, a Thursday, he ran his regular six miles near his Connecticut home, and, that night, he taped two shows--the second of which would air on Friday, January 14. And, of course, it was during that second taping that he spilled his guts to guest Regis Philbin and nervously confessed that his heart was in trouble and begged Regis's counsel, right there on the air, because Regis had undergone angioplasty years ago, and Dave was scheduled for an angiogram the following morning and his fear was palpable ("Were you scared? You're out like a mackerel, right?"), because, as per him, he feared only the worst, which was not angioplasty ("the balloon kinda thing") but heart-bypass surgery ("It's open Daddy's rib cage! I don't want that!"). And this was really the first anyone on his staff had heard of it-- and they know most everything. And then Friday morning, when he reported to the hospital, the front-page headline of the Daily News blared DAVE'S HEART SCARE (which he never saw), even though all he was going in for was your basic unpleasant goddamned angiogram. Few people knew, however, that two years earlier he had
taken his first angiogram, which turned up traces of coronary- artery disease, for which he took daily meds, and now, only the week before, he had flunked a new stress test. So--being the (almost) fifty-three-year-old son of his dead father--he agreed again to let the doctors shoot dye through a groin catheter ("very close to your deal," as he put it) and on up into his cardiocircuitry to see what might be going on in there. But he knew anyway. "I had a feeling I wasn't gonna be lucky on this one," he said later. "I kind of had a hunch."
All that happened next happened as a blur, and it would feel like the longest day of his life and also like a fever-dream of muffled voices and hidden faces and vague unknowingness and no small fear. By eight that morning, the test was already completed and he was looking at his angiogram films with his personal physician, Louis Aronne, and his cardiologist, Martin Post, and also his girlfriend of eleven years, Regina Lasko, and they all saw the obstructed plumbing. "He had a blockage in his left main artery, which feeds the heart," Dr. Aronne told me. "If that artery gets clogged, then there's no blood going to the heart, which is exactly the kind of situation that can lead to a heart attack when somebody just keels over. We told him we gotta do this and let's
get it going here right away." Dave took the news with typical stoicism. At eight-thirty, as prearranged, he called Burnett at the office to tell him that the bypass was going to happen--"He sounded calm and as matter- of-fact as you can be at a time like that," Burnett recounts. "He sounded like himself, but businesslike. I said, `Good luck and we'll talk on the other side.'"
HE IS BACK AND THERE is wire wrapped around his sternum to hold his rib cage together and he is missing two long saphenous veins, one from each leg, pieces of which are now grafted into his coronary arteries in five places. Like no mortal man, he had faced down his own mortality and come back five weeks to the day after he was rebuilt. And immediately there seemed about him an air of liberation and authority and refocused sense of self; it reminded more than a few people of the Dave Letterman who had been freed from the quagmire of NBC seven years before, eager again to be his own man unbound. Rob Burnett noticed a new calm in him that morning, Friday, February 18--and it was late morning when Letterman arrived in the office, amid a snow blizzard. (The old routine had him in before nine and rarely out by ten at night, ajangle throughout.) "He didn't seem nervous to me, honestly," Burnett tells me. "He wasn't obsessing over or questioning the material. He wasn't making us rewrite things a thousand times. I think he knew the show had very little to do with us and had everything to do with him." That which had been expunged from his heart--the residual gunk of genetic embattlement--now seemed missing from his psyche as well. He itched to display his improvement. "Man," he said to Paul Shaffer in the makeup room, "I haven't done this in five weeks!" Paul said, "Dave, that's not very long for somebody who's had quintuple bypass." But the void of his absence felt eternal to him, and to the nation, and to those who worked for him. Unannounced, he had briefly dropped into the office on Wednesday to regain bearings of his kingdom. Producer Maria Pope spotted him striding along the eleventh-floor hallway. "I was like, `Oh, my God! You're here!' Without thinking, I jumped up and raced to hug him. And what I heard was, `Ohhhhhhh! My sternum!' He was joking, of course, and then I realized, Dave is back!" He asked her to walk him down to his car and said, "You know, I might be feeling too good. They might've overdone it. I think there's too much blood flowin' through my heart. I'm thinkin' of having 'em go back in and
close down a couple arteries, you know?" She tells me, "Down at the car, I told him how much we missed him and how much we love him and he expressed the same and kissed my hand and said, `Thank you for everything.'"
On his night of triumphant return, there was new empowerment in his performance. He was at once mature and graceful and personally fearless--qualities most Carsonnesque that he had never quite permitted himself before. Four moments during the broadcast resonated, in particular, as unprecedented mileposts in Lettermanology: (1) He broke down. And he let us see it. After his sincere and hilarious introduction to the stage of his "Medical All-Stars"--the six doctors and two nurses who oversaw his operation and recovery--he faced the camera from his desk and said, "So it was five weeks ago today that these men and women right here saved my life...." And he choked on the word life and raised his glasses with thumb and forefinger to dam his spilling tear ducts. And we learned: Dave loves his life. He really loves his life. Who knew? (2) The hug. He has always hugged awkwardly or comically. (His friend Tom Dreesen, the comedian, once told me that Dave's second greatest fear in life, next to bodily injury, has been the threat of receiving or giving a hug, especially a sincere one.) But after walking down the line of doctors onstage, he stopped at the end and wrapped his arms around nurse Ana Williams--"Ana and I fell in love and we spent every night together
after the surgery," he had said moments earlier--and he held her tight and kept holding her tight and sort of swayed back and forth in the hug and audibly whispered to her, "Everything all right?" And we learned: Dave can love people. He can appreciate people with all his refurbished heart. (3) The girlfriend. He has spoken of Regina Lasko in interviews, of course, if sparingly, but has never on the air indicated that there was such a person in his life. ("It's a Peter Pan thing," one former staffer says.) But during
his desk chat with Regis "the Last Man to See Me Alive" Philbin, he said, "The worst part of [bypass recovery] is being driven around. You can't drive for like the first three weeks.... The girlfriend loved it. She loved driving me around. `Well, I've got you right where I want you now!'" And we learned: Dave has a life. He has more than a television show; he has a relationship with a
woman who also has a life with him. There are three dimensions to him, after all. (4) The ugliest ugly truth. During his opening remarks, he explained the following: "Bypass surgery--it's when doctors create new blood flow to your heart. A bypass is what happened to me when I didn't get The Tonight Show! It's a whole different thing." It was a joke, yes, but it was something more.
We learned that he had found perspective.
In that shining moment, he seemed to have finally extricated himself from the picayune puniness that is late-night television war and to know what we know--which is that he is larger and better than it. He has always been Johnny to Leno's Merv--and Johnny, by the way, never regarded Merv as competition, even when they worked at the same hour of night. ("I hear Merv is doing another one of his little theme shows tonight ..." the King used to tease and twinkle, thereby separating apples from kumquats, not that there is anything wrong with kumquats.) Until this heroic night, Letterman had never acknowledged on the air the existence of Leno's Tonight Show. The closest he ever came was a 1996 broadcast during which guest Eleanor Mondale mentioned that she had recently interviewed Leno on her cable show. "Nice man, is he?" Letterman asked. "What's Jay doin' now?"
Because Jay is ever aware of what Dave is doing, I will tell you that he saw Dave's fifth post-bypass broadcast, Wednesday, March 1, on which--due to scheduling conflicts--his guest, the Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, could only appear via satellite from St. Louis. This, of course, rankled Letterman, who for months on the show had been fond of calling Bush
"a colossal boob." So, at the close of their awkward satellite exchange (during which Bush did little to alter Letterman's initial appraisal), Dave tried cajoling him into appearing as an on-set guest the following Monday. Bush averred that he would be in California instead. Dave looked over to Burnett afterward and said, "He'll be on the Jay Leno show Monday night, is that what
he's doing? That's where he'll be?" Burnett said yes. To which Letterman edgily responded, "There's a real summit meeting there!"
Whereupon the audience whooped and Paul Shaffer marveled at the brio: "It's true what they say--you don't give a damn anymore!" (An executive who knows both hosts pointed out, "It was unheard of! Notice that he didn't say The Tonight Show--he called it the Jay Leno show. In Dave's mind, The Tonight Show ended with Johnny.") And four nights later, which was Sunday night, there was Leno bounding onstage to collect his trophy for Best Late-Night Talk Show during Fox's broadcast of the TV Guide Awards, and he was clutching his chest as he did so. "Ohh," he said darkly, "I almost had a heart attack when I heard I won!" And before he left the stage, he made sure to add, "We have to go home and write Bush jokes because he's on tomorrow?"
And this was his return volley of sorts, I guess, because to my friend Leno it will always be a contest. But I know that he was stung; Letterman used to jab him all the time back at the old place when Leno sat in the chair beside Letterman's desk, largely
because Leno usually used to jab him first. But that was before everything else happened and before Letterman's desk moved so far beyond Leno's proximity.
Anyway, somebody told me that Tom Snyder gave Leno a call to congratulate him on the nice job he had done with George W. the next night. And I guess they got around to talking about Letterman and Letterman's heart and Letterman's little poke at Leno. And Leno kept saying that he just didn't get why Dave had said what he said. "It's been eight years!" he complained. "Can't he just
let this go?" But, in fact, Letterman did let it go. It had been stuck in his heart for the longest time. But lately things have never been more clear.
The unused Top Ten List written for the night of Dave's return to the Late Show, broadcast February 21, 2000.
From the home office in Wahoo, Nebraska ...
The Top Ten Things You Don't Want to Hear When You Wake Up from Surgery
10. "If I tell you what happened, do you promise not to get mad?"
9. "Hola, Senor Stumpy!"
8. "We only have to convince him that this is a hospital for a few more days."
7. "We ran out of suture, so we used speaker wire."
6. "Meet your new wife, Linda--the winner of Who Wants to Marry an Unconscious Millionaire!"
5. "He's waking up--hide the wig, the monkey, and the video camera!"
4. "Mr. Shaffer ... put down that pillow!"
3. "We did what we could, Mr. Letterman, but this is a Jiffy Lube."
2. "Hello, Mr. Letterman--or should I say Miss Letterman?"
1. "That'll be $11.95, please."
|T Bone's Late Show with David Letterman Webpage Contact Me|
|"The fall and rise of Dave"
"The whole ugly, epic story of an American Giant"
By BILL ZEHME