Rolling Stone - David Letterman Interview

The idea was simple. Jimmy Carter, former President of the United States, was right across the hall plugging his new book on a local chat show called Live at Five, so why not take a camera across the way and interview him -- just like that. No preparation, no announcement. Just like that. It was not even a new idea: Late Night with David Letterman had raided Live at Five before -- surprising Sophia Loren as she smoked a cigarette, stealing the Stanley Cup from the New York Islanders, spray-painting the Live at Five door so Letterman could demonstrate an organic paint remover made from orange peels. But at about a quarter after five, fifteen minutes before Late Night was to be taped, Letterman was saying he didn't want to interview Carter. "What will I do?" he asked. "Sure, it sounds like fun, but I don't exactly see where the fun comes in."

There was a backup segment ready, "Brush with the Law," in which audience members would tell weird police stories, but "Brush with the Law" had been done before, and face it -- Jimmy Carter was across the hall. He had even agreed to the encounter, asking only, "What is David going to do?" Barry Sand, the producer of Late Night, replied, "I don't have a clue, Mr. President." And Carter said, laughing, "That's pretty much the appeal of the show, isn't it?" So Carter was willing, but Letterman, who admits to having "more apprehensions than the average medium-sized American community," wasn't. "What is my angle?" he kept asking. "What's the joke?"

Finally, with only ten minutes to spare, something clicked. "I know," Letterman said. "I'll bring Al Frisch over to meet Jimmy Carter." Everyone agreed, and at 5:40 Letterman took Al Frisch, a shy audio technician, out the door and across the hallway to meet former president Jimmy Carter. Paul Shaffer and the band played "Hail to the Chief," and Letterman practically begged a Secret Service agent to frisk him. Then a dressing-room door opened, and there was Carter, amiable and polite, with a copy of his new book nearby. He shook Al Frisch's hand and told David, "This will make my day with Amy. Being president isn't much, but being on the David Letterman show is something." The crowd went wild, Al Frisch looked confused, and Letterman was clearly pleased. "If you're going to talk to Jimmy Carter," he said afterward, "you just have to being Al Frisch. And whatever that detail is, where you bring along Al Frisch, that detail is this show."


David Letterman used to chain-smoke. Now he refuses almost everything: alcohol, drugs, caffeine. He does, however, smoke cigars. "I'll probably have to stop that too," he says. "It could get out of control." His first TV show -- he's had three -- was a pilot called Leave It To Dave. The set was constructed to resemble the inside of a pyramid. Letterman's chair was a throne. He hated it.

Letterman was once a substitute weatherman in Indiana, where he was born (Indianapolis) and attended college (Ball State). He once predicted hail the size of canned hams. He left Indiana in 1975 and moved to Los Angeles to write comedy. Jay Leno, the stand-up comedian, is one of his best friends and favorite guests on the show. Letterman has never invited him to his house for dinner. David Letterman believes he could break out of prison. He isn't optimistic about much else.


Dressed in blue shorts pulled over blue sweat pants, a baseball jersey and Adidas sneakers, David Letterman is throwing a toy football across his office. He tosses it to one of Late Night's segment producers, Robert Morton, whom everyone calls Morty. They are in the middle of a meeting. Morty talks to guests to prepare questions for Letterman and now is briefing him on actor Tony Danza and sportscaster Bob Costas. Letterman seems very serious, which is how he seems most of the time. Around the office, he wears glasses, is obviously shy and looks on the verge of anxiety. But since he's also constantly tossing a ball and almost always wearing sweat clothes, the final Letterman effect is appealingly contradictory. He's an oversize Little Leaguer with an editorial point of view, and he never stops watching -- you or himself. There just aren't many false moves with this guy.

Which also means he's not exactly the David Letterman you see on TV. There are similarities -- they're both very fast and rather elusive -- but the Letterman on television wears suits and ties and is a high-octane version of the real-life Letterman. And though the separation of the real Letterman and the TV Letterman is intentional, there's a catch: differentiating means playing a part, and that means being in show business. And show business, for Letterman, is problematic. He is more than slightly contemptuous of it -- his whole show makes fun of it -- but he's also a great performer. Conflicted, but great.
"In the beginning," he says, "I thought the closer to your actual self you were on the show, the better it would be. But now, having done it for three years and a couple months, I realize you definitely have to be more than yourself. You have to pretend that you're bigger than you are, that you're enjoying it more than you really are. It all has to be blown up, and you have to say and do things that you wouldn't normally have the scantest opinion on. It's just show business, you know. We're just trying to sell Pintos here."

Letterman pauses. He's cautious on this topic and, frankly, every other topic. He keeps a close watch on what he says and does. "I like being on at 12:30," he says. "The audience is much smaller and -- I was thinking about this the other day -- that's pretty much where I've been my whole life. In high school I was never with the really smart kids, I was never with the really good-looking kids, and I was never with the really great athletes. But there was always a small pocket of people I hung out with, and all we did was make fun of the really good-looking people and make fun of the really smart kids and make fun of the great athletes. "Martin Mull has the best line I ever heard about show business. He says, 'Show business is like high school with money.' And it is. And even though I have a rather large ego -- anyone who goes into comedy has a bottomless ego -- I
still feel more comfortable in a not fully accepted circumstance than I do if I'm surrounded and engulfed and embraced.

I always felt better being a little on the outside in high school, kind of lobbing in annoying things from the outer periphery. It's just easier to be on the outside making fun of it. This show is a little fortress, a little bastion, from which I can whine about practically anything. We're just an irritant. We're like a gnat trying to sink The Love Boat." Morty laughs and drops the football. Now Darcy Hettrich, Late Night's talent researcher and softball-team manager, walks into the office. She has been setting up games for Late Night's trip to Los Angeles, where they will broadcast live for a week from NBC's studios in Burbank. "I called the Comedy Store and asked about their team," she tells Letterman. He gasps. "Forget the Comedy Store," he says. "That's a nightclub! It's filled with nightclub people. Nightclub people are the lowest on the evolutionary scale. That's the lowest you can get. That, and then record executives." Darcy leaves to correct her mistake ("Say you hallucinated or
something," instructs Letterman). And Morty follows, saying, "It should be a good show tonight." It should be, but Letterman doesn't look convinced. "This whole show is like recovering alcoholics," he says. "We take it one day at a time." It's impossible to tell if he's joking.


Merrill Markoe and Hal Gurnee are staring at a wall full of TV screens, all broadcasting various faces of David Letterman. "Astonished...amused...sarcastic," says Markoe, pointing to different screens. "Here we see the whole range of emotions, from A to B, which is pretty much what Dave covers."

Gurnee laughs. He directs Late Night and is, Letterman claims, "one of my best friends, whether he knows it or not."
Markoe is Late Night's former head writer and Letterman's longtime girlfriend. All morning, she and Gurnee have been
staring at and sorting out three years of Letterman reaction shots, fifteen of which will be edited into a segment called
"Late Night's Tax Tips." "Oh, look," Markoe says. "This was from another one that really demoralized Dave. It was like
the third remote I did. It was called 'The Man Called Jimmy.' I just went everywhere that had the name Jimmy. The whole day, Dave kept saying to me, 'It's never going to work. It's never going to see the light of day.'"

But it did. And so did "Alan Alda: A Man and His Chinese Food," "A Visit to Ben's Babyland" and "Mr. Curious." Markoe still produces on-the-street remotes for the show, specializing in the "Man called Jimmy" sort of piece: the interview with Mr. Limousine, the visit to the Toy Fair, "The Wonder World of Plastics," the kind of shtick that has become Late Night's trademark. Barry Sand calls it "found humor." Letterman calls it "observational humor." Markoe just calls it "perceived reality."
"It started when I was trying to figure out how you write for Dave," she explains. "To me, it's like writing stand-up, which was like 'Oh! Perceived reality!'" Markoe and Letterman met while doing stand-up routines in L.A. She introduced herself ("We had the same agent"), and soon they started dating and working together -- she as a writer, he as a performer -- on Mary Tyler Moore's short-lived variety show. "When I first fell in love with Dave," she recalls, "I was busy writing him jokes. It was like the things girls do for their boyfriends. You know, 'Well, here. Take all these. Here are my best jokes.'"

By this point, Letterman had begun appearing and then guest-hosting on The Tonight Show. Eventually, NBC offered him a ninety-minute morning show, The David Letterman Show. It didn't last long, but it became the prototype for Late Night. "On the morning show, Dave always wanted to go outside the studio," says Markoe, who was head writer for the show and, for
a brief while, its producer. "And it started out pretty easy. I had a big backlog of stuff that went by either geography or theme. We'd go down to Chinatown and tie everything together that I could write a joke into, or else we'd take a tour. One time we went to everything that had the sign 'World's Best Coffee.'"

The key to whether a routine worked was Letterman. His particular slant -- detached, ironic, not quite mean, but almost -- gave spots like "The World's Best Coffee" a certain edge. "His sensibility is, and was," Markoe explains, "'You and me know he's nuts.' Dave and the audience are united in the knowledge that they're in on the joke. And he's been able to do that ever since I saw him."

"But," she adds, "the morning show was a delusion in the sense that we felt you could just do whatever comedy you wanted, anytime of day or night. And when the show started to fail, Dave was going crazy. It was not happy time." The morning show did win two Emmys, and Letterman was put under contract -- around a million dollars a year -- not to do anything else. Late Night, which first aired in 1982, gave him another shot in a more Lettermanesque time slot, 12:30 a.m. Letterman's antics seemed odd in the morning -- his is not the typical housewife's sense of humor -- but they matched up perfectly with the sensibility of his new late-night audience. More than half of Late Night's viewers were born after World War II, and Letterman has become something of a role model for today's young man. "The voice of my generation is the voice of David Letterman," wrote the twenty-three-year-old writer David Leavitt in a recent Esquire essay.

Letterman's humor ("upbeat, deadpan, more than a little contemptuous") is imitated, Leavitt concluded, because "above all else, we are determined to make sure everyone knows that what we say might not be what we mean."


The people at Late Night are very serious about whom they book for the show. One of the regular guests is a guy who keeps weird congealed old food in his dresser drawer. That's his hobby. It started with some Jello he left under a staircase. When he came back four months later, the cubes had melted together, but the color had remained, and he was fascinated. He started collecting other specimens, and now he's a Late Night favorite.

Another guest keeps snowballs from different years, and a woman named Alba Ballard dresses parrots to look like Cyndi
Lauper and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister. One guest runs a nut museum. She's serious about her nuts. Late Night said no, though, to a man who makes art of dead cockroaches. He sent in a perfectly rendered miniature of the Late Night set with huge cockroaches painted gold and carefully positioned as guests. They sat on tiny chairs, antennae poised. One especially large roach was meant to be Dave. They refused to let the artist on the show. He sent a note to Letterman's home, demanding to know why.

But a note is nothing. About every six months, someone sends a robot up to the offices. One persistent fellow showed up with his face hidden in a frog mask. The one time Late Night ever stopped a show in the middle of taping was just before The King of Comedy came out. A strange man in a suit somehow got on the set. He walked in front of the camera and sat down next to David. He said, "I want to talk to you."

No one knew who the guy was. Letterman became understandably nervous. The man was removed, never to be heard from again. There has not been a similar incident since, which is remarkable if you consider that Late Night encourages the kind
of people who collect decade-old food. There is, after all, a thin line between what's funny and what isn't. Late Night walks that line.


Steve O'Donnell, head writer of Late Night, is standing before a bulletin board covered with cards that say "Human Cotton Candy" and "Suction Man" and "Chew Stuff" and "Wedding Reception Etiquette" and is explaining the idea of "Cloning the
Talk Show Host." "It's not even a joke," he says. "It's just a weird thing that we think would look really funny." It seems that Randy Cohen, one of the writers (there are thirteen, if you include Letterman and Markoe, the only woman), heard about or saw a full-size human cast. "What we're going to do," continues O'Donnell, "is to shoot this mold full of plastic foam and mass-produce these hard-foam life-size Daves. You know, just the idea of 'Cloning the Talk Show Host' and producing legions of duplicates. I think that's the kind of entertainment America deserves." O'Donnell smiles. "Plus this plugs into someone's feverish fantasies. Cloning."

O'Donnell pauses. He is fairly inscrutable and seems ridiculously calm, considering the constant pressures of Late Night: the pressure being that there's a show nearly every day and that Letterman is very particular about what gets on it. As everyone here keeps reminding you, this is emphatically a comedy show, not a talk show, and all the comedy has to sound like Letterman wrote it. He's the final editor on every piece -- nothing makes it on Late Night without his approval. "The writers," says O'Donnell, the go-between for them and Letterman, "have basically one narrow personality to deal with. David is ostensibly limited. He's not going to put on funny hats, and he's not going to do one of his lovable characters. He doesn't do a Freddy the Freeloader or something like that. He is himself, and he is king of this particular kingdom. He's this neutral entity that seeks to comment fairly archly on what's, you know, whirling around him. He's the soul that oversees it all."

Which is why Late Night is so firmly based on a twisted view of reality. The writers come up with an endless stream of concepts; there is, reportedly, an eighty-percent rejection rate for ideas. "You do get frayed," says O'Donnell, who left the show for three months and didn't watch it once while he was away. "There are times when you wake up, damp forehead in the middle of the night, just sort of going, 'Dave! What will we do?' You think, 'I know. Dave becomes betrothed to a
Cherokee Princess!' Just total nonsense." O'Donnell shakes his head and pauses by the board. He looks like Letterman, tall and boyish. A good number of the writers also look like Letterman, and hail, like O'Donnell, from such places as Cleveland, Ohio, although a good many went to Harvard. "Half the guys went to Harvard and half the guys didn't," says Randy Cohen, who didn't. "Half the guys have agents and half the guys don't. And the only ones who have agents didn't go to Harvard. If you went to Harvard, you don't need an agent. You call your friends."

The writers, who are remarkably friendly with each other, considering that they are, after all, writers and this

is a competitive business, own an Emmy last year for "The Custom-Made Show," created by Chris Elliott, who plays such
varied Late Night roles as The Guy Under The Seats and The Panicky Guy, and Matt Wicklink, a former intern whose most
current idea is "The One-Color Show" -- all of Late Night shot in, say, green. This has yet to go through, but all agree that
"The Custom-Made Show" was perfect Letterman humor. The idea was that the audience would revamp the show by picking a new theme song, a new outfit for Dave, a new everything. They took an already twisted reality and twisted it further.

O'Donnell lights a cigarette. It's getting late, and he's eager to watch the second part of A.D., a TV miniseries playing opposite the Villanova-Georgetown game, the NCAA championship. He has no interest in the game but is fascinated by A.D. "Every commercial, they announce this as 'The Television EVENT of 1985,'" says O'Donnell, back in his office as he switches on the set. He stares at the TV as Saul has his famous vision on the road to Damascus. "This is better than Hollywood Wives," O'Donnell says. "Although Hollywood Wives did have an evil twin. That's one idea Dave constantly resists, the evil twin." O'Donnell, who is a twin himself, lights another cigarette, and Saul gets back on his horse. "How can you not like an evil twin?" he says.


It's Friday, and every Friday at Late Night, there's a talent meeting in Barry Sand's office to discuss upcoming guests. Who to book, who not to book, and when. Before Late Night, Sand produced, among other shows, Letterman's morning program and SCTV. He has written for everyone from Lily Tomlin to Candid Camera and a game show called Treasure Isle. He has a box on his desk that plays the Twilight Zone theme music and, next to his desk, a framed New Yorker cartoon with a king saying to his jester, who is sitting on his throne, "See, things look a lot less funny sitting there, don't they?" Sand is staring at his version of Steve O'Donnell's bulletin board. Sand's is covered with name cards. Also staring at these cards are Gae Morris and Sandra Furton, the talent coordinators, Robert Morton and the rest of the Late Night talent staff. "May I bring up Dr. Ferdie again?" says Morty, referring to Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Muhammad Ali's former doctor.

"Okay, Dr. Ferdie," says Sand. "Put him up the week of the twenty-second." "How about animals?" says Darcy Hettrich. "The zoo on Staten Island has a lot of babies." Sand shakes his head. "There's a lot of, 'Awwwww, awwww,' but then what?"
"Would you meet with Emmanuel Lewis?" asks Furton. "Yeah," says Sand. "Leona Helmsley?" "No."

"Bill Murray just had another baby," someone says. "And the zoo just had babies," Sand replies. "Sean Connery's son is in a new movie," Furton says. "Could be interesting," Sand says. "Why don't you have him on with Emilio Estevez, Martin Sheen's son. It could be a theme show: 'Sons.' And from the zoo you could have all the baby animals."

This goes on and on. Yes to Rusty Staub. No to Jane Seymour. Yes to Candy Spelling. Maybe to a husband-wife dental team (she sings while he pulls). Sand is looking for the perfect mix. "You have to keep the ball bouncing," he says. "We're not an interview show. We're a comedy show. When you lose sight of that, the show starts to bog down. You look at the mix and say, well, it might be too much of the same or not enough ... crazy. People, you know, they're expecting Meet the Press, and it isn't. It's Meet Dave." What Sand is alluding to are charges that Letterman is a lousy interviewer. Or mean. Or just rude to his guests.

Take the Nastassja Kinski incident. When she came on the show, her hair was standing straight up -- about eight inches high. Stylish or not, it looked quite odd, and Letterman kept asking about it. But Kinski wouldn't answer. So Letterman kept asking, with questions like, "Do you have a barn owl on your head?" And it was very funny. But Kinski, who could have put a stop to the whole thing by just answering, became miffed and reportedly left the show in tears. "There's a fine line between 'playing with' and 'making fun of,'" says Sandra Furton, who spends her days trying to soothe the fears of potential guests and their publicists. "And people don't always see the distinction."

Letterman recognizes the problem. "I'm not really suited for interviewing," he says. "People say, 'You look so uncomfortable with your interviews,' and at first, it never even occurred to me. And then finally, someone just came out and said, 'He can't do interviews.' And I thought, 'I can't?' I was stunned. 'No kidding? I can't?' And then I started looking at tapes and I thought, 'Oh, yeah, I can't. I'm not Ted Koppel here.' So I worked really hard to do nice interviews. I spent a lot of time researching the guests, which I think overall helped, but when it comes right down to it, I wasn't hired to be a great interviewer." "But when people say, 'You hurt his feelings, you hurt her feelings' -- that I really have to be careful about.

I don't want to be perceived as an asshole who just says, 'Line 'em up, bring 'em in and let me make fun of them.' They spend weeks booking people on the show, and then they leave in tears, and I think, 'What the fuck was that all about?' We spend
two weeks getting somebody, and in eight minutes they're out of here sobbing. I think, 'Yeah, another job well done.'" It all comes back to the same refrain; this is supposed to be a comedy show. "My big problem," Letterman says, "has been, and maybe always will be, that if someone says something that I feel I can get a laugh by adding a remark to, I'll do it ninety percent of the time. And I know that gets in the way of an actual interview. And I know that can be annoying, and I try to keep myself from doing it, but something in the back of my mind always says, 'If you don't do something that gets a laugh here, this is going to be dull.'" Letterman pauses. "What I forget," he finally says, "is that just because something has gotten a big laugh doesn't mean everyone enjoys the humor."


Letterman is thirty-eight. For his last birthday, the staff gave him cigars, a blood-pressure kit, some tulips, a kite and other toys. Merrill and he went home to their house in Connecticut and ate pizza, and Dave watched the Mets play the Reds on TV. "It was a good game," he says. "I had a great birthday."

David Letterman has a review framed over his desk. The headline reads, "The David Letterman Show Is Like Garbage -- It Stinks." "I love this review," Letterman says. "I love this headline. How is it like garbage? Well, it stinks. Oh. Oh, I see. It's not runny and soppy? No, it's like garbage in that it stinks! Oh, I see."

Letterman's favorite part of the day is the half-hour or so before taping. He changes into a suit and gets eager about the show. "I get excited about having a studio full of people," he says. "Doing silly stuff, just trying to get laughs."

Most of the time, David Letterman doesn't talk to his guests during the commercial breaks. Instead, he talks to Barbara Gaines, a production assistant. "He'll introduce me to the guest," she says. "Or else he'll ask me how I think the show's going." Letterman dotes on Gaines. She has worked for him for a long time, since the morning show, and was painfully shy before meeting him. "If I'm depressed now, Dave will say, 'What's wrong? What's with you?' More than my therapist, who I've been going to for eighteen years, Dave has changed my whole life. He raised me. I grew up with David Letterman."

The Tonight Show scares Letterman. "The most pressure I'm under is when I do The Tonight Show," he says. "My deep
fear is that Johnny won't think I'm funny."


For one week in May, Late Night is broadcasting live from Los Angeles. On the last show of that week, Johnny Carson is to be David Letterman's first guest. He has never interviewed him before. "I have no idea what I'm going to ask Johnny," Letterman says, bouncing a ball against the wall of his office. "But even if it's really uncomfortable and awkward and a horrible debacle and there's bloodshed, that's great, because people will say, 'Jesus. They were both awkward.'"

The operative word there is "both." Letterman has been considered Carson's heir apparent ever since he first guest-hosted the show. "In California," Letterman recalls, "I was literally living in a one-room apartment on stilts in Laurel Canyon, and I had hosted The Tonight Show a couple of times, and then I went away. When I got back to my house in Laurel Canyon, I had mail from people all over the country, and they had all sent clippings carrying the same wire release saying I would be the next Johnny Carson. I thought, 'Good Lord.' The week before, I was having trouble getting enough money to have the clutch in my truck replaced, and the next week I'm getting clippings saying I'm the next Johnny Carson.

It just made me laugh. It was like finding gold in your junk drawer. It's like you find this thing and have it analyzed, and then, 'No kidding? It's pure gold?' And they say, 'Yes, it is. It's worth $6 million. We don't know how it got there, but it's yours.'" Letterman pauses. "It just made you laugh."

But it wasn't so weird. There were obvious similarities between Carson and Letterman: Midwestern charm, boyishness, a great laugh. There was also a less noticeable similarity. Swifty Lazar, the literary agent (and another potential Late Night L.A. guest), once described Carson as "a mixture of extreme ego and extreme cowardice." The same could be said of Letterman, but that constant inner tension plays to his advantage on the air. Late Night almost always seems edgy, as if it could go off in any direction. Carson is smoother. He rarely lets the edges show.

"Late Night is largely derivative," Letterman says. "This is going to make Carson sound like he's ninety, which he may be -- Good Lord, how long has he been on the air! -- but I do things on the show every night, and I think I got this from watching Carson. Eighty percent of what we do, I can show you where it was done before. Steve Allen took the camera on the street. We do stupid pet tricks; Johnny Carson has a singing-dog contest once a year. It's the same kind of deal, and there are nights when I do something, and I almost hesitate to do it, because I know dead sure that's a gesture or a look or a kind of remark Carson might have made, and I think, 'What the hell am I doing?'" Letterman stares a second, bouncing the ball on his desk. It seems pointless to ask if he'd like to succeed Carson on The Tonight Show. It seems pointless to say that neither Steve Allen nor Johnny Carson really shares his exact sensibility. Letterman's response would be the same in either case: he'd just object or shrug off the question. "I try to be funny," he says, as if to explain it all. He then picks up the ball, throws it at the wall and changes the subject.


It's Letterman's happiest time of the day -- right before taping -- and he's in the makeup room with tonight's first guest, Milton Berle, who is quite nervous. Berle is holding several sheets of lined yellow paper and is reading off jokes. "Living in Hollywood is like living in a granola bar," he says, "full of flakes and nuts and fruits." Letterman laughs loudly and politely. As Berle tells
his next joke ("When David Letterman was born, there was a star in the East. Me."), Morty brings in another of tonight's
guests, Austen Dupree, a seven-year-old girl who cowrote a play called The Mud Monster.

"Dave," Morty says, "I'd like you to meet Austen." Letterman shakes her hand and says, "Do you know Milton Berle?" Berle looks confused. "I bet you're a big fan of Milton Berle's," says Letterman. Austen nods her head and Berle smiles. "Oh, she's the one," he jokes.

Everyone laughs, and Letterman tells Berle he has to leave, it's time for the show. Berle makes his exit, and Letterman receives a final pat from the make-up woman. For the first time all week, he looks truly happy. "Don't you love show business?" he asks. No one says anything, and Letterman just laughs.
"Out in left field with David Letterman"

"David Letterman and the gnat who sank the Loveboat"

Late Show With David Letterman Webpage>
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June 20th 1985
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