Globe & Mail - David Letterman Article

Some say this is the summer of Survivor. Others among us know that this is the summer of the real survivor, the man who might have died but survived and changed. It's on the mid-summer nights that you really notice him, this eccentric survivor -- after an evening of repeats, rehashed pseudo-news programs and silly game shows, David Letterman arrives at 11:35 p.m. with a startling style of mockery and mischief. It's a bracing dose of television, a scowl at the mundane and the inane aspects of everything else that's going on in the world. In recent months, Letterman has been firing on all cylinders. The film stars who turn up to promote a new movie are second-string fodder. The show's real focus is the monologue, the Top Ten Lists and the abrasive Campaign 2000 comedy bits.

Since he returned after heart surgery in January, Letterman is a man rejuvenated. The stilted irony has given way to anger and what-the-heck directness. A mask has fallen away and this new, pumped-up Letterman acknowledges that he's got a real life
outside of that studio, not the make-believe life that started so many jokes, "On the subway this morning" He has mentioned his girlfriend. He has taken shots at Jay Leno. Best of all, he's in a permanent rage about the awfulness of American politics. The
other week, hearing that George W. Bush hadn't responded to the show's request for an appearance, he glared at the camera, making weird motions with his right arm and sneered, "Too busy pulling the switch on Old Sparky!" This isn't safe, cutesy comedy about Bush's support for the death penalty. This is a livid Letterman, unshackled and undaunted. It's been years since he has been this good.

In July of 1995, Letterman appeared in Pasadena to talk to TV critics during the summer press tour. It was an awe-inspiring performance, a virtuoso stand-up act with quick answers to questions and fast, rapid-fire jokes that always mocked himself. When the press conference ended, he didn't hang around for an interview scrum, as is the custom. He walked briskly out, headed for his limousine, and then he spotted a small boy waiting for an autograph. He stopped, joked with the boy's beaming parents and then, as he handed the boy the signed paper, said, "And what publication do you write for, young man?" Then he was gone, leaving an adoring crowd of critics and fans behind him.

Few knew it at the time, but it would be a long time before Letterman would be so adored, so obviously on top. A week earlier, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno had beaten Letterman's show in the ratings. Leno had scored a coup by getting Hugh Grant's first talk show appearance after his encounter with a prostitute in Los Angeles. It wasn't the temporary blip that everyone assumed. Letterman's show would never recover from that loss. Only a few culture theorists knew it, but North American pop culture was entering a post-irony era. Letterman's cool, distanced attitude had brought a hip irony into the mainstream. Now the irony was played out and Jay Leno's breezy cordiality found favour.

As Letterman struggled to find the right format of caustic humour and chat-show conviviality, even fewer people thought that another era might dawn, an era when Letterman would just use his own, honest feelings as a non-format. In fact, it would
be five years before Letterman would soar again. Now, Letterman is still number 2 in the late night talk show wars, but he doesn't give a damn. That's the difference. Many nights,
Letterman is the best thing on American TV.

He's still number 2, but the change has been noticed. A May cover story in Esquire magazine celebrated Letterman's rage and newfound, post-surgery freedom to drop the tired old clichés of TV etiquette. In the old days, Leno and Letterman's battle took
place in the antiseptic, feelings-free stats of the overnight ratings. Now Letterman mocks Leno regularly and is obviously incensed by Leno's smarmy, I'm-a-nice-guy image. When Letterman emerged alive from by-pass surgery, he obviously figured lifewas too short to live by the ridiculous old TV rule of pretending the competition didn't exist. Then, as the presidential election took shape, Letterman's contempt for George W. Bush went from mild sarcasm, to roasting ridicule. Esquire writer Bill Zehme, who
ghost-wrote Leno's book, Leading With My Chin, and who has interviewed Letterman often, called the new Letterman, "one uniquely strange and jumpy bastard."

Many people say it's the heart surgery that did it. Obviously, some men abandon artifice after they've come close to death. But Letterman's liveliness is also a cultural bellwether. Just as he put weird irony on network TV, he's now putting reality back on TV in a way that is only tangentially connected to reality shows like Survivor. Letterman is real, authentic and angry. A lot of us are hoping that it lasts and that he takes the rest of American television in the same direction. He's the only survivor who really matters.


1) Letterman on Leno

On a Father's Day-themed Top 10 Signs Your Kids Hate You, Number 6 was "Instead of watching daddy's talk show, they watch that hump Jay Leno." Then, reacting to the obviously unsettled audience response, Letterman launched into a vicious impersonation of Jay Leno's voice, whining "This is Father's Day and he called me a hump! I don't think that's fair. I don't think that's nice!" After that, Letterman glared hard at the audience, as if daring them to boo him. Nobody did.

2) Letterman on George W. Bush

The Top Ten Questions on the George W. Bush Application for Running Mate.

10. Ever been president? 'Cause that would help.

9. Do you party? (If "no," skip the rest of questions.)

8. Do you have ideas for tax plans and stuff that I could copy from?

7. We already have a uniter on the ticket. What are your dividing skills?

6. Are you stupid? We can't have two stupid people on the ticket.

5. Will you be able to assume the presidency if Mr. Bush is really, really hungover?

4. How many lines per minute can you do?

3. You're not a narc are you?

2. I tiped this kweschun miself. Kan u tel?

1. Dude, what fraternity were you in?

3) Letterman on Leno and George W. Bush.

On March 1st, hearing that Bush was in California to possibly appear on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno -- "There's a real summit meeting there!"
"Near-death becomes him"

"David Letterman emerges as the ultimate survivor"

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August 5th 2000
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