|GQ - David Letterman Interview
David Letterman looks worried. OK, he always looks a little worried. Only tonight, he looks worried. David Letterman is wet. Literally. Damp all over. Black all-cotton T-shirt clinging moistly to his back, tiny beads of condensation glistening on the high, pale forehead, one blond lock matted down in a fat curl. Wet. It's not so much from nervous perspiration, we hope, as from a hasty post-show shower. After all, Letterman's office bathroom (since people seem fascinated by bathrooms, you'd probably like to know his has one of those big movie-star mirrors with light bulbs all around ) is all steamed up. And there's a spicy aroma in the air, only it's not clear whether it's after-shave or the Odor-Eaters in his high-tops.
David Letterman is complaining -- no, make that whining. "I just don't want to look like a ninny," he says, savagely shoving on what must be one of his hundreds of pairs of almost-new Adidases and sounding every bit the grouch off-camera as on. "You're going to make me look like a complete ninny, aren't you?"
He is seated in a swivel chair on the opposite side of his football field-sized office, which is as far away as he can get from me and still be in the same room. A Dodgers cap pulled down over his eyes, along with slightly misted glasses, totally obscure the upper half of his face. He reels off a few conspicuously bad jokes ("The Museum of Broadcasting thought tonight's show was so great, they sent armed guards to take the tape back to the museum, so we couldn't be happier"), pausing each time to point out the paucity of humor and then glare at me as though I were the class debutante sent here with the sole purpose of making him look bad in front of the guys. "Are we done now?" he half shouts, wildly optimistic. He is on his feet, eyeing the door like a dog in urgent need of relief.
It's five minutes into the interview. "Look, I just think it's man's natural, primordial fear, coming off like a twit or a ninny," he says, more paranoid than unfriendly, though from the way he's swinging that yellow Wiffle-ball bat it's hard to tell.
His pixieish assistant, Laurie Diamond (a former Broadway dancer), pokes her head in to advise Letterman that Hisao, his Japanese hairstylist from the fashionable Pierre Michel salon in Trump Tower, has arrived. "Oh, great," says Letterman, burying his head in his hands and momentarily displacing his beloved baseball cap. "Another thing that's going to make me look like an absolute twit."
Twit. Ninny. It's almost becoming a constant refrain. A darker, more personal version of his persistent on-air inquiry "Have I blown the show yet?" The wide-eyed, gap-toothed Dennis-the-Menace face blinking from the shadowy depths of his blue cap is the same one that blasts the airwaves five nights a week, only now instead of a dopey grin there's a manic edginess distorting his mouth. No, David Letterman is definitely not himself these days. Something's worrying him.
TOP TEN THINGS DAVID LETTERMAN MIGHT BE WORRIED ABOUT:
10. That his 15 minutes -- or 1,500 hours -- of fame are almost up.
9. An abrupt announcement by NBC that Deborah Norville will be his new cohost.
8. Typical below-the-belt interview questions, like "So, Dave, who do you think will be the next Johnny Carson?"
7. Writers' strikes, like the one that nearly killed him two summers ago.
6. Media critics who call him a "grinning pumpkin head."
5. That one day he will go to Hollywood and make a really bad $20-million movie.
4. Due to a hidden clause in his contract, he will have to play Dan Quayle in an upcoming NBC miniseries.
3. Strange women who answer his home phone and claim to be his wife.
2. Ratings. Hey, G.E. bought the network to make money, remember.
1. That he might have to give up his hairpiece.
If the truth be known, it's all of the above. And so much more. Letterman is off his feed because of all the attention being lavished -- he thinks squandered -- on the new host on the block, Arsenio Hall. Letterman's probably sick of hearing about Hall (whose ads for Late Night Cool are about as aggressively competitive as you can get) and reading about Hall (who scored 100 on the publicity charts by landing the cover of Time; Letterman has rated only Newsweek). It doesn't help that Hall is perpetually hyped for being black and young (two things Dave can do little about) and is inevitably praised for his attitude -- "the hip and irreverent Arsenio Hall."
The last hurts most. It's a rude suggestion that Letterman's act is tired, too much of the same old same old. But after all, some creakiness is to be expected over time -- Saturday Night Live is half the show it was when it bowed in 1975. Now, after eight years on the air, Late Night's "Top Ten List" and "Stupid Pet Tricks" have become staples, not the startling and sometimes truly weird stunts they were in the beginning. Some of the show's risky excitement has also been dampened as its attitude has been copied by everything from other TV shows to magazines to ordinary cocktail-party chit-chat. "It's probably the
most-stolen-from show of the decade," says Letterman's good friend comic Jay Leno.
As one of the pioneers of camp comedy, Letterman could be in danger of becoming "the hipster's Perry Como," according
to Kurt Andersen and Paul Rudnick, coauthors of a recent Spy-magazine cover story on "The Irony Epidemic." What avatars
of the new irony fear most, say the authors, is their own uncoolness. Maybe that's what's eating Letterman. Incipient
uncoolness brought on by a bad case of the Nineties. Still, let's not hurry to replace Late Night with Hawaii Five-O reruns. Comics, like decades, don't necessarily come in tidy packages. "The rush to say Letterman and MTV, because they were popular in the Eighties, are doomed in the Nineties is wrong," says Andersen. "Letterman embodies the post-Sixties ironic, funny attitude that appeals to people between the ages of 25 and 40. Hall is a sweet person, but he's not about inventive, interesting comedy."
Audiences, however, don't seem troubled by the distinction. This is disconcerting at a time when there are several nightly after-hours talk show scrambling for viewers, advertisers...and celebrity guests. Letterman, who is prickly and unpredictable where other hosts are tender and controllable, is at an obvious disadvantage when it comes to booking skittish stars. Robert De Niro, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe and Marilyn Quayle all recently sought out Hall, not Letterman.
Letterman hasn't much to say about the proliferation of competition but clearly isn't pleased by it. He checks them out, he says, then switches off the set. "You can't not pay attention to them," he says impatiently. "But, ultimately, you can only do what you're equipped to do, and I think you can make a mistake letting yourself become distracted." He shrugs off Hall's show with, "You get the sense fun is taking place."
Letterman is a comedy snob: To him, most hosts are mere celluloid smoothies, not comics. He just doesn't believe there
are more than a few truly funny guys -- "I could count them on one hand" -- out of the thousands now working in the business. "I just wonder," he says evenly, "like expansion in major-league baseball, if it doesn't tend to water down the product."
But Letterman's worried enough about his reputation and his solid but stagnant ratings to grant this interview, a chore he clearly finds as pleasant as a day in traffic court. Worried enough that even an anti-show biz, anti-celebrity
personality like himself considered -- even for a millisecond -- hiring high-powered celebrity publicist Lois Smith (though she says he decided against it in the end). Or maybe Dave's just worried about getting his shirts back from the laundry. Who knows?
Letterman's excuse for his rotten mood is that he's just come off "a difficult period." This he immediately qualifies in his relentlessly self-effacing manner to read "Difficult, that is, by our standards, not by the standards of the real working world." In other words, "There was no heavy lifting involved."
Let's see. His best pal and pooch, Bob, died -- August 22, 1988. (There's a nice framed picture of Bob, sporting earmuffs and a scarf, on the office bookcase.) He lost his driver's license -- too many speeding tickets. He split up with his girlfriend and partner in comedy of ten years, Merrill Markoe. (These may or may not be in their order of importance to Dave.) He had a grueling winter, during which he and his staff struggled to put Late Night on the air five times a week, prepare a ninety-minute prime-time eighth-anniversary special and still be funny despite the pressure and low pay. Actually, the pay's not all that bad,
though five of Letterman's best writers quit this year to chase the bigger bucks in Hollywood.
Meanwhile, back home, there were recurring visits from his fan from hell, a disturbed young woman who broke into his New Canaan, Connnecticut, house six times, once stealing and denting his $60,000 Porsche, and more recently surprising him in his living room shortly after midnight. Letterman had actually come face-to-face with his obsessed houseguest earlier in the year and was reassured by police that she was "harmless." "I feel pretty secure that all it is, really, is a nuisance," he says, sounding completely unconvinced.
And then, to top it all off, someone went wild and Endusted the brand-new hardwood floor in his TriBeCa loft, giving it the slippery orange finish of a high-school gymnasium. "It was like a skating rink; you couldn't walk," says Letterman. "There's my floor, ruined, you see."
Letterman isn't happy. He can't be happy. It would spoil his whole night. He stood scowling in the wings, even as 6,000 screaming fans filled the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles for the anniversary show and a chance to see their angst-filled idol sound off to his garden gnome of a bandleader, Paul Shaffer, and insult his famous guests with one elegant put-down after another. The celebration seemed a tad contrived in the end, though, especially the squealing college coeds. Like Mick
Jagger and Axl Rose, Letterman can bring them to their feet and make them chant his name. But everything seemed
engineered to up Letterman's cool factor. All those clips of Dave with rock stars past and present were uncomfortably
reminiscent of a Barbara Walters special.
The whole anniversary thing was one of those painful time-to-take-stock-and-evaluate-where-you-are-now experiences, which Letterman really didn't appreciate since he does that every day anyway. Letterman's self-appraisal is invariably
corrosive. If he screws up on the air, blows a joke, breaks a prop or falls asleep on a guest, he'll immediately go to his
office after the show and play the bit over and over and over again on the VCR, agonizing. "You say something, and the
second it leaves your mouth you think, 'Oohhh, if I had just given it a second more consideration, I wouldn't be suffering
this embarrassment now,'" he says, adding, "I have a very low threshold of self-embarrassment.
"I do things I'm very upset by, and not very many things I'm pleased by," he continues in the toneless voice he falls back on whenever he's being at all serious. "But I just think that's part of the general neurosis that motivates people to go into show business.
"I've had this job longer than any other job I've ever had. When you do that, you become more focused and more introverted than maybe is a good idea. So I think that's caused me to change a bit." A guy can become a bit too introverted. "It's weird," says actress Teri Garr, who has appeared on Late Night more often than any other person of the female persuasion and who has the deep and lasting psychological scars to prove it. "I'll be on the show, and he'll push a note right under my face. And it'll say, 'I HATE MYSELF.' So I'll say, 'No, no, Dave, you're wonderful.' And he'll take it back and underline 'I HATE MYSELF' twice and push it back. What's that about?"
"He's a control guy," says a former Late Night writer, who thinks Letterman never recovered from the humiliation ten years ago of having his NBC morning show ripped from the airwaves after only four months. "He's a workaholic. It comes from fear. In the first year or two of the show, I couldn't believe Letterman. Between guests, he'd just stand in the corner and grimace, he was so nervous."
On this particular night, Letterman's worried the show isn't as funny as it was eight years ago. Or eight seconds ago. He's worried animal-rights activists think he's cruel because he took a baseball bat to the Energizer Bunny. He's worried women think he's sexist because he once asked Jamie Lee Curtis why she liked "to get naked in movies." He's worried Hispanics think he's racist because he made a joke about "Miguel," your prototypical New York cabbie who speaks zero English. And he's worried that everyone will think he's "a jerk" because they mistake his Midwestern honesty for rampant hostility. Mostly, though, he's worried about this cold. He's been nursing it since 1963, and he's afraid it won't ever go away.
No one said the truth would be pretty. But what we're dealing with here is a kinder, gentler David Letterman. At 43, and 1,291 shows (and counting) into his insomniac escapade, he's not the rabid antihost he once was. Letterman used to be pure
parody -- silly, sometimes more than a little mean, but always sublimely on-target. Everyone was fair game -- politicians, anchors, actors, talk-show hosts, everyday citizens, whoever happened to step off the NBC elevator.
In those early days, Letterman was like a rude child who might peevishly point out how ridiculous a cripple looks because of his limp. He latched onto anything that was different and wouldn't let go. He could be cruel when confronting the phony -- wigs, implants and press-on attitudes always got him going. He needled Shirley MacLaine mercilessly about her mysticism. She stormed off the set when she saw that the next question on Letterman's card was about her lusty brother, Warren Beatty. But it was never random violence. In preparing for the show, Letterman, according to staffers, is extremely cautious and thoughtful. "He is not a 12-year-old boy," insists Fred Graver, a writer on the show for five and a half years. "It's not pirate TV."
These days, Letterman is less hyperactive. More often than not, he's showing pity for his poor guests. For example, he was exceptionally kind of Deborah Norville, though no one is exactly sure why. He recently let a dimpled Tom Hanks drone
on and on about how much he loved making what was plainly a god-awful flick, Joe Versus the Volcano. Through it all,
Letterman just nodded and smiled, smiled and nodded, until desperation finally drove him to interrupt with a question
that can only be viewed as charitable under the circumstances: "Tom, what's the deal with your hair?"
"Over the years, he's really toned down," says Graver, who left the show this past spring to develop sitcoms for Norman Lear. "I've seen people come on and say things, really dumb things, and I'm just waiting for him to drive a truck through them, and all he says is, 'Well, good.'" "It's never been my intention to cause ill will among the fraternity and sorority of celebrities," intones Letterman in the ridiculously formal language he lapses into as effortlessly as a headwaiter. "I think some people may feel that they're not being treated with enough respect or that their work is diminished through some flip attitude on my part. But I'm a wiseass and a smart ass, and I always have been."
He offers this unapologetic self-portrait with a sour smile. "When we first went on the air, I read so much about 'He's so mean, he's so disrespectful.' And I would go around to people and says, 'Jeez, really?' I think I know in my heart I'm not trying to be mean," he says impatiently. "And I try to get as many laughs at my own expense so others will kind of get the idea... Christ, I didn't go into this to be hated, you know," he says, throwing his hands up in a gesture of despair that is, in some part, genuine.
Jay Leno, who saw Letterman audition in 1975 at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, believes the quality that has distinguished Letterman from the first is his honesty. When Letterman stood up at the mike, with his big red beard and a rope belt (actually, he didn't have a rope belt, but in telling the tale, Leno throws it in as a nice Hoosier touch), he took the audience by surprise with an extremely clever, well-constructed routine about wimpy TV. "He wasn't that much different in style than he is now, though a little less polished," recalls Leno. "I went up and introduced myself, and we hit it off right away. We had a similar style."
It's a style that Letterman has honed ever since and that continues to bear his distinctive imprint. "One night, I was watching the show," says Leno, "and Dave comes out and does this joke; 'It was raining today and Dolly Parton was caught without an umbrella. But her shoes didn't get wet.' Now, I'm thinking, Gosh, that doesn't sound like a David Letterman joke to me, when he says, 'Oh, wait a minute, hand me that cue card.' And he turns it over and says, 'Sorry, folks, that was left over from last year's Bob Hope special.'"
David Letterman's gap-toothed sneer comes from some dark and moldy place that can't be explained simply by his being a normal Midwesterner in the big city, observing, "Gee, things sure are weird here." It comes from being a normal Midwesterner and knowing that that was weird. The Lettermans were pioneers of sorts: Both his grandfathers were miners who wound up farmers. His father, who died in 1974, was a florist. His mother worked in the shop and took care of Dave and his two sisters. Money was tight, but Dad was a charmer, and life was good. Letterman once described his childhood as "right on the money for lower-middle-class mid-American family life."
Letterman is a middle child, and we all know what that means. He says he used to be a hypochondriac, but he's over it ("no time"). He used to be afraid of flying, but he's better now, thank you. He is still almost pathologically shy.
As a kid, his fantasy was to one day be Arthur Godfrey and entertain millions from the sanctum of a radio sound booth. Even today, he barely survives the unspeakable trauma of having people in the same room with him while he performs. A friend from the old days at Broad Ripple High remembers Letterman as your basic geek. The kind of tall, skinny guy who couldn't get a date for the prom, then stood on the sidelines with a couple of other tall, skinny guys, making fun of everyone else. (Letterman once confessed that everyone in his high school looked pretty much "like a duck.") "There was a period in high school, and maybe that's when it comes for everybody, when you sort of had to figure out who you were," says Letterman. "You think, Well, I'm not fitting in with this group, the really desirable blue-chip group, and I'm not fitting into that group. And then you start to examine your own inventory and think, is there anything I can do that is going to make me desirable or make
Satori struck one day in the middle of a public-speaking class. "For the first time in my formal academic experience there was a subject that seemed to come easily to me, more easily than algebra or geometry or shop. I was not very bright, and may not be very bright in the rest of my life, but at that time it was clear to me that this was something to remember. That this was a valuable lesson."
At Ball State University, in nearby Muncie, he majored in radio/television. And a broadcaster was born. After graduating in 1970 there followed a series of pedestrian local-broadcasting jobs -- weatherman, deejay, booth announcer -- which Letterman endowed with his special patina of sophistication. Teri Garr, who was out doing ten-cities-in-ten-days to promote her first major movie, Young Frankenstein, encountered Letterman in his backwoods station in 1974. "He was exactly the same," she says with awesome finality. "He said, 'So, you live in Hollywood. What kind of car do you drive?'"
A year later, Letterman and his wife -- he had married his college sweetheart, Michelle Cook -- fled Indianapolis for Los Angeles. They both landed jobs right away: she as a department-store buyer, he as a joke writer for Jimmie Walker. But the move killed the marriage. "It seems odd to me now," says Letterman. "I was married for a long time, like nine years. My life is so different now from what it was then that it does seem strange that there was this other person with whom I was very close for all that time who now plays no part in my life."
His life changed fast. He auditioned at the Comedy Store, met Merrill Markoe and began to make it as a West Coast comic. The first time he saw Leno, he says, "I thought to myself, ah, I should go back to Indianapolis, because he was doing it the way I wanted to, and I thought that I probably never would do it as well." Four years later, he was working on a new variety show with Mary Tyler Moore and buying a house in Malibu.
Soon he had his own loony morning program, based in New York. The show was canceled, but the host was a hit and
was signed to a holding contract giving him nearly $1 million a year and preventing him from taking another job. Letterman
didn't put his leisure time to good use. He majored in beer, got fat and wallowed in boredom. It was the worst, most ignominious chapter of an otherwise charmed life. He was rescued by Late Night, basically his morning show resurrected and deposited onto the airwaves after all respectable programming was over. Always insular, Letterman brought his entire cast of characters with him, including girlfriend Markoe, whom he made head writer, and many of the producers from the morning show, and invited all his stand-up buddies from the Comedy Store on as guests. Leno. Richard Lewis. George Miller. Jeff Altman. John Witherspoon. Dave and the guys. "It was like working in a frat," recalls a former Late Night writer, who firmly believes women give Dave the willies. "All the writers were men but Merrill. It was very sexist. Lots of tit jokes. In some ways, Letterman is real square."
Much of the show's development can be credited to Markoe. She created the loopy video remotes and "Stupid Pet Tricks," two of Late Night's signature gags. Her humor gave the show some of its whimsical charm: She would flip through the phone book, say, or canvas vanity license plates and find a way to turn "FAT BOY PIZZAS" into a funny bit. Her departure didn't rock the boat -- it happened over a period of a year, and her sensibility was still reflected in the writers who had been hired while she was there. Longtimers say that perhaps their greatest loss was that of a liaison between the staff and their remote boss. "The show didn't change," says Joe Toplyn, a six-year veteran. "But we lost an advocate." Friends say Markoe wasn't happy being the little woman behind the great star. She went back to free-lance writing, produced a sitcom and gradually distanced herself from Late Night and its host. "She's very talented," says Garr, "and it's very hard when one person makes it so big and the other doesn't. There's so much luck involved. It's so arbitrary." Markoe now lives in Los Angeles and writes about her adventures in dating for New York Woman magazine.
"Without her, none of this probably would have happened," says Letterman, as though dictating the farewell memo again. "She was an integral part of the evolution of this show. And, well, then it just became impossible, and from that things came apart."
Whoa. Was that a personal remark? Run back the tape. In the unlikely event that Letterman is relenting, I journey across the expanse of deep-pile blue carpeting between the sofa and Dave's swivel chair to discover what sort of facial expression accompanies such an unanticipated admission. It was pretty much what you'd expect: Letterman still looking miserable, a kid who's been held after class on the last day of school. That is quickly transformed, however, into a look of sheer terror at the prospect of feminine proximity.
Do women indeed make him nervous? "Some. Sure," he says, blinking hard and talking fast. "But for a variety of reasons. If it's somebody I don't know, if that person herself is nervous, if I am ill-prepared to conduct any kind of intelligent exchange, yeah."
Oh, that explains it. The reason Letterman looked like a totem pole the night actress Joan Chen (she's the one who got her toes nibbled by another woman in The Last Emperor) came on in a teensy black dress -- or, for that matter, the time Sports Illustrated cover girl Elle Macpherson came on, or the time model Paulina Porizkova was on -- was that he was "ill-prepared
to conduct any kind of intelligent exchange." Uh-huh.
Swivel chair to swivel chair, knee to knee a newfound intimacy filling the air like warm acid rain, we broach family matters. "I would love to have a kid," says Letterman unexpectedly. "I've never spent much time with kids, and now I do." This has a lot to do with the fact that two of his closest friends, comics Altman and Witherspoon, have new families, as do several members of the Late Night staff.
Altman's baby girl was born on Letterman's birthday, and he visits her whenever he's in LA. "It's just the cutest, sweetest, most attractive baby," says Letterman, using a rather aloof pronoun but sounding uncharacteristically in favor of the tiny life-form. "And I think, man, this would be so nice if you could get yourself a nice, big, fat baby like this. So I hope to have babies as soon as I get this floor thing taken care of," he says, referring, for the fifth or sixth time, to the high-gloss-finish problem in his apartment.
He's just changing the subject -- anything but babies. Letterman and fatherhood. What a concept. But our Dave is evincing all sorts of signs of nascent domesticity. He completely did over his spacious TriBeCa loft. He's given up smoking those huge cigars. He's bathing regularly. And then there's that personal barber. (Since no celebrity profile is complete these days without a chat with the star's hairstylist, we caught up with Hisao Oe one evening, snoozing on the couch in the Late Night reception area. "David has terrible hair,"
Oe revealed in an exclusive interview. "He doesn't know how to take care of it. Then he musses it all up before he goes on TV." See, you don't get this inside stuff just anywhere.) All this concern with good grooming might lead one to infer that there is a new woman in David's life. Letterman nods.
Is she, like past dates, part of the Late Night staff? "No."
Silence. It's hand-to-hand combat all the way. Why is he so loath to make a personal remark, when Carson and Hall babble on endlessly about their strange entanglements? "In the beginning, I was uncomfortable about it," says Letterman, "and I don't know why, except that I've always been kind of shy, and I felt that people probably didn't want to see me on the air, period, let alone see me on the air talking about my private life.
"I've found that the one area I'm always uncomfortable talking about is, um, female companions," he continues hypercautiously. "Because I've never been able to reference that area without pissing someone off. It never comes easy.
You can just sort of hear the clock ticking before it comes up as a topic: 'Sooo, I understand that...' 'Well, no, it wasn't
like that, I didn't mean that, you see it...' So I thought for my own preservation I'd just skip it."
Letterman interrupts to obsess about his floor again. "You're going to make me seem like a complete ninny because I'm worried about my floor, aren't you?" he says. "Let me ask you a question: Have you ever had a brand-new hardwood floor?"
It's just another routine, of course, a way of trying to reestablish control. But as with everything Letterman says, there's more than a grain of truth to it. He's truly bummed about the damn floor.
"Dave's a regular middle-class, ordinary guy who doesn't like it when you spill Coca-Cola on his new carpet," says Garr. "Now he's been thrown into this incredible thing, and he doesn't want to become Elvis. To go on and do a show every night the way he does, you have to say to yourself, I am pretty fucking great. He doesn't want to admit that about himself."
"I think Dave is someone who is embarrassed to be in show business," agrees Leno. "He feels genuinely at odds with it. I don't think you would ever hear him saying 'my craft' or talking about himself in the third person: 'What I see for David Letterman is...' What you see in Dave is how the average person would react if he suddenly found himself on television."
Leno says that in all the years he's known him, Letterman "hasn't changed at all." He isn't just playing at being a regular guy, though he does exaggerate the Everyman stuff (yeah, Dave, we really believe you take the subway to work every day). He treats the show like an office job and by all accounts is a decent, even-tempered boss. When he's not working, he hangs out with a chosen few Late Night pals, including his director, Hal Gurnee; producer, Robert "Morty" Morton; associate producer, Jude Brennan; head writer, Steve O'Donnell; and assistant, Laurie Diamond. He remains distant from the rest of his staff, rarely interacting even with the dozen or so writers who have to tailor their material to his quirky specifications. "I think I saw him twice the year I was there," says one former writer.
The writers, in fact, have a standard Letterman joke: What guest star would make Dave a happy guy? Answer: a baseball-playing dog who arrives at the studio in a Formula One racecar. (Letterman's idea of a really good time is to go home every year for the Indy 500.) Letterman's basically an antisocial guy. It's one of the reasons he's such an awkward interviewer. He rarely feels comfortable with his famous guests.
"You know, we've yet to become friends," says Sandra Bernhard, explaining that everyone thinks they're best buddies just because she's been on the show about twenty times, French-kissed him on national television and once let him put his hand down the back of her pants ("Not that many people have been felt up by David Letterman, you know?").
"I never see him out or partying." She sighs audibly. "He keeps his life separate. He's a very private person. Very mysterious." She pauses before adding in a sweet voice that is a far cry from that of her raunchy stage persona, "I really like him, and I think he likes me. If he wants to go out with me, he'll ask. To me, he's one of the sexiest men I know. He's so nonchalant. He's adorable. If he'd just let himself go and relax a little..."
Letterman relaxed? The mind reels. "I'm just the happiest, the best I ever feel, from five-thirty to six-thirty (when Late Night tapes)," he says. "All this other stuff is tough for me -- personnel problems, people who are unhappy because they are in an office with one window as opposed to two. I didn't go into this because I am a personnel expert.
I think most comics are the happiest they ever are when they're onstage and things are working well for them, because then they're being reinforced for something very, very personal. It represents an acceptance the likes of which you'll never get anywhere else."
"I always feel a little guilty," he continues, "because I'm the one who gets to go out there and for a few minutes I'm the focus of all the attention of those people. It's not the assistant director, associate producer. It's not the head writer. It's me. And I'm telling you, even if that's synthetic, the feeling of the response of those people just makes you..." Letterman pauses, actually at a loss for words. "It's like being injected with a huge dose of morphine and you just think, Oh, man, it really gets your attention. It can be a very emotional thing."
Late Night is about to change -- most likely against its will -- because of the infusion of a half-dozen new writers who will bring their own weird take on Letterman's odd collection of phobias and pet peeves. But all the while, Letterman will continue to screw with the backbeat, coming up with caustic observations about the medium and the mediocre pop culture to which he is hopelessly bound. The real question, according to critics, is whether his interest and enthusiasm will still be there.
"This is where I wanted to be now," he says, sipping coffee from a Late Night mug and addressing his own successful tenure as a reality for the first time all evening. "I don't think I'll ever do another television show. If I get hit by a bus or the show gets canceled, I'll feel like it all went pretty well, considering."
He is about to sign a new three-year, multimillion-dollar contract with NBC. And there is a movie deal with Disney waiting in the wings. "Do I have a movie deal with Disney?" He laughs. "Don't you? Doesn't everybody?"
But being Dave, he is naturally focused on the down side of the future. "If you get to ten years, I think you're dumb if you
don't examine this as a crossroad. Because what are you going to do, go on to fifteen? That seems unlikely."
Who's to say? Carson's logging in at twenty-eight years and still feels as right as Campbell's on a cold night. Letterman knows he can go on being his crabby self, for better or for worse, as long as he likes. He just wants NBC, his fans -- hell, the free world -- to beg him to stay. And why not? Tucking in with Letterman every night is like going to bed with a glass of lemonade instead of hot milk -- it burns a little, but at least you know you're alive.
Besides, if he called it quits, he'd just have more time to worry about things, and that's a frightening prospect. "She wants to know about my floor," Letterman barks at Laurie Diamond when she comes in to tell him it's time for his haircut. "How did that come out? Who opened their mouth about the floor?"
|"David Letterman -- Is he still the king of hip?"
"He's rich. He's revered. He's relatively good-looking. So what's bugging him these days?"
"The Top 10,000 things worrying David Letterman"
By JENNET CONANT
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