Rolling Stone - David Letterman Interview

One night in September, Late Night announcer Bill Wendell wound up his hyperbolic introduction of his talk-show boss with this: "And now, a man who is better equipped to be vice-president than Dan Quayle...Daaaay-viiiid Letterman!!!!!" Certainly he is! For the torch is being passed. Media fed and video schooled, we know nothing better than how to respond to television. We have become a nation of Lettermen. This is no casual transfer. It is Turnover Time.

When Dan Quayle came onto the national scene, one of Bush's top advisers described it as playing the generational card. But Letterman is another kind of generational card, a young man with a cigar, tested in peace, practiced in national office for the last seven years, serviced in speech communication, ready to address the audience of his nation. But today the candidate is angry. David Letterman is pounding the floor of his office in the RCA Building with a baseball bat. Bam. "It's just bullshit!" he keeps saying. Bam. He says he is angry about television, but he's really angry about something else. The culture. "Come on," he says, his voice rising in genuine outrage. "Let's not be so readily entertained! Give it up! I think we're about to bring down
the curtain on this society, and it's television that's doing it." Bam! He rubs the bat between his hands.

Why is television so bad? Why are people happy to watch it anyway? And if they are happy to watch it, why are they so happy to watch his show, which tries to devastate television every night? On one hand there is Dave, and on the other hand there is the video abyss -- and on a bad night (aaaugh!) they can be one and the same. After all, he says, "On any given night we can turn out an enormous piece of shit." This is his dilemma. "I know," he says, "that people are going to be sitting out there reading this, thinking, 'Dave's gone off the deep end. He's having a breakdown right there.'" But Letterman asks, "Why can you turn on the television any time of the day or night and find pro wrestling? How come? Tell me!"

It's a reasonable question, and it drives Letterman's comedy. For twenty-six years, Johnny Carson has prodded the content of American life, but Letterman aims at the form of television itself. Carson, a precise, surgical comedian, guided the nation through six presidencies and was, in fact, the president of comedy, governing cleanly, dispensing patronage, steering the dialogue, his staff supporting him as it would a head of state.

Then Letterman entered the talk-show mainstream by reinventing the genre called found comedy, which casts a cold video eye on the conventions of the landscape -- dumb ads, bad TV, stores that advertise things they don't have. It was the high point of consumer comedy: Letterman got on the telephone and sent out cameras to try and gauge the disparity between
what television had told us and what really existed. For six years and eight months, he has been shooting arrows at television, at the culture, and they never seem to fall back to earth, like the pencils that still hang from the acoustically dotted ceiling of his office. "I mean," he often says on the show, "What's the deal here?"

Letterman seemed Carson's heir apparent, and knowing it would do him no good to compete with Johnny's monologues, he tried the very worst jokes, pleasing the audience with that statement about the rest of television. And at first he was bad at, almost embarrassed by, interviewing people. But he slowly became better at making his suspicion of convention work for him. His staff often points out his interview with boxing promoter Don King as the breakthrough: "Come on, Don," he said, "What's the deal with the hair?"

Dave had discovered a formula, which was to get to the point. This is a nation run by talk, dominated by talk, with an agenda set by talk -- and television. Why does Jesse Helms go crazy protesting Dan Rather when Rather's power to interpret the news is as nothing compared to Carson's and Letterman's? Ask Jim Baker and Michael Deaver, who planned the Reagan administration by sound bites. Ask Gary Hart's staff, which knew the one condemnation Hart could not escape was Carson's monologue, or Governor Bill Clinton, who, after his disastrous speech nominating Dukakis in Atlanta, had to come to Johnny's desk to repair himself.

When you want to know where we're going, there's only one fast road map, and it's under the talk-show desk. Because the television joke guides the nation, and whoever owns it controls more than just the arena of the laugh -- that person controls the American playing field of values. What Reagan did, ostensibly, was control America's frame of reference. But hasn't Carson? And won't Letterman? The playing field is the rectangle of the television screen and its persistent, rectangular reach


So if you're going to suggest forty-one-year-old Hoosier J. Danforth Quayle for the vice-presidency, here's another forty-one-year-old Indiana boy for your consideration: David Letterman. Leadership for the Nineties. "When I think about television and show business," Letterman says in his office, "it grinds my stomach. I want to say to people, 'Don't you understand this is just bullshit, driven by egos, and that's all it is?' I mean, nothing makes me madder than to be sitting there, watching somebody who's just the winner of the genetic crapshoot, and there they are, big stuff on the air, a star."

Letterman sighs and looks at the floor of the same office he's had for years, one that's a little shabbier than you might expect. It is twilight. His brow is actually furrowing, and he clutches the baseball bat. "I just don't get it," he says. "It just drives me crazy." How could it not? He's edging perilously close to culpability himself. Now that David is in his forties, the goliaths are more and more his contemporaries. And there is also the risk looming that Late Night itself -- born and bred of the early Reagan years, when it led college children and baby boomers in passive rebellion -- has found itself in danger of entering the Goliath spot.

"We have to ask ourselves all the time," says Robert Morton, Letterman's producer, "'Are we becoming what we should be mocking?'" For it has happened. The shift that everyone was waiting and waiting for has taken hold. It's not just the baby boomers taking over. Letterman has made the sensibility of television talk take a leap so that it's almost impossible to take the format straight anymore.

Letterman, however, was no revolutionary: "We were never hip," he says of the show. Morton says that they've never thought of the show as subversive, just as white-collar comedy. "We're just people who come to work every day and do comedy," he says, "the same way people come to work at the library." But Late Night has made a declaration about the intrinsic foolishness of television that is the opening flare signaling reassessment of other parts of public life as well. (Spy magazine is the Ivy League equivalent of Letterman's Big Ten satire.)

What is going on with Letterman is that the precise generational shift that sociologist and political scientists have promised is rumbling hard. It is an orderly transfer not only of power but of values, and it will not be complete until 1992, when Johnny Carson will have controlled the agenda for three full decades. Based on this, the 1988 election is really the last referendum on the old battleground: Bush and the Pledge of Allegiance are last-gasp arguments. What Lettermanism represents is new alliances (an across-the-board political yearning for debunking), old enemies (bad culture, outmoded platitudes).

Letterman's audience roars. It doesn't applaud or go, "Hey-yo!" It roars. He's onto something, and the audience knows it. "Damn!" Letterman says sometimes in that Indiana accent. "Damn!" And the translation is, "I don't understand this place any better than you do." In interviews, Letterman has made the point that 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." Above all, he has represented the Geek Inheriting the Earth. He works on the basis that movie stars are no less geeks than he or his audience, and to show that, he regularly takes geek images (Chris Elliott, Larry "Bud" Melman) and turns them into stars.

When Letterman's cameras cut in and out -- going to the street, borrowing other NBC feeds, running into the control room, as fluidly as television can, faster than a movie -- it serves a purpose. The Letterman viewers feel that he understands the medium, understands that it is only television, that it is within their control, that if Dave can turn cameras upside down and shoot the studio like he was running an A-V class, anybody can. This is his show's triumph. "Come on," he likes to say, "It's only television!"

He represented the revenge of extended adolescence -- but lately, he has found it necessary to consider growing up. The trouble was, as the generational overtake began to move into high gear, the program found itself being shoved to the center. Quickly, the rest of television caught up with it. Joan Rivers was on the phone as well, and almost every comedy-talk show on the air was doing the video-explorer number. And this made Letterman a little frantic, for although his show runs on his sensibility, if he became television itself he would be -- television.

"There's nothing I love more," he says, "than getting hot over what's really bad." But when he is no longer in the position of
being a counterpuncher on television, what will he do? Faster and faster, he is becoming television itself. But not quite yet. Carson, the Nebraskan uncle who found happiness and several wives in Malibu, the comic whose triumph was to bring topicality and attitude to all of America, has been staying astonishingly sharp. During the onslaught of the first Letterman shows, Carson suddenly seemed uncomfortably aware of the generational difference; his band and banter with Ed became an anachronism; he began casting about, trying to pick up Dave's tricks, often looking as uncomfortable as if he were wearing someone else's blazer.

But in front of his curtain, adjusting his tie, he remains unchallangeable. Whatever else he does, Carson is the comedian of the agenda. He lays it out brilliantly in the monologue, as neatly as a clean desk. When the Bakkers showed up on the horizon, there was Johnny. When the Iran-contra hearings started, there was Johnny. When Bork came up, when Meese went down, when the vacuum pack known as Quayle was opened up for America, there was Johnny, as precise and unflinching as he had been when Lynda Bird Johnson met George Hamilton. "Comedy," Carson would often say when the audience had spotted his tungsten blade drawing real blood and began to turn against him, "is a cruel business." And his constituency understood that somebody had to do it.

The sensibility is turning, however. The battle to succeed Johnny is not a casual thing -- and it is no accident that the pretenders have fallen in heavy heaps. Neither Joan Rivers nor Arsenio Hall nor David Brenner was prepared to hold on to that heavy wheel. There is a strength and resilience required to track the mood of the nation, and Johnny (who owns part of Letterman's show) knows it is not to be given easily.

Carson's administration had the taste to bring in Jay Leno as his regular replacement. A kind of synthesis of Carson and Letterman, Leno has managed to master the monologue and still assault the talk convention. The best stand-up in America at the moment, a lantern-jawed populist with a sweet belief in localized values -- even when he is lacerating, he reminds you that he calls home a lot -- Leno has pioneered using Reagan-era reassurances without Reagan-era reaction. He barn-storms the country, as vaudeville performers did -- only they didn't have TV eating up their material as they went along -- peppering music fairs and colleges and resorts, churning out a live newspaper report on the nation that makes sense to him. It was Leno who said that Quayle was making his own Vietnam movie, Full Dinner Jacket.

With Leno moving into line as the true heir apparent of The Tonight Show and with imitators chasing Dave, Late Night had the task of coming up with something new, a step ahead, to move on. Turnover Time. What would the leader of his
generation do? Just as this question was being asked, the television and movie writers went on strike, and Carson and Letterman joined them. Friends say Johnny and Dave had endless phone conversations about how the unwanted vacation was driving them crazy.

Carson went back first, in mid-May, and soon after, edgy and restless, Letterman decided to return. Even though the prospect of it, Letterman says, gave him the "biggest panic attack of my life," it also created a kind of rebirthing for him. He put together the material himself, went out and winged it. He got a shave on the air. He dredged up his own top-ten lists. He ran with longer interviews. He wasted air time. Like Carson, Letterman showed scary seams without his writers, who had become a brilliant land force on his behalf.

Toward the end of the five weeks without his writers, the program slouched and sagged; dead spots spanned the air. Letterman's wide-eyed double takes found silent responses. But he also found a kind of liberation as a television host. With the structure smashed, he came up with the kind of program he believed in, personalized broadcasting that was more like radio -- most notably, the Sandra Bernhard-Madonna episode, a fiery little landmark on late-night television. People don't remember nights on the talk beat unless Don Rickles smashes Johnny's cigarette box. The Madonna scenario was equal to the best car-crash encounters that Jack Paar managed to create.

Bernhard showed up, sex and attitude overwhelming the coolness of the camera, until the show was, within milliseconds, as dangerous as great television comedy should be. She entered in a T-shirt and dungaree shorts, Frenched Dave hard on the mouth for five seconds, then attacked her critics, playing one's pleading telephone message on the air.

After a little while, she called out her playmate, Madonna, who was dressed identically, and the two girls became twin sirens, noodling each other and Letterman, whose stunned excitement brought out unsuspected hormonal directness in him. At the highest tension point, he reached unconsciously for a huge cigar -- pulling the camera back to himself and regaining control of his show. Without his writers or cue cards, he had made great television.

So at last, David was learning how to govern. Can he ever wield as Carson has? Only Carson can work on the simultaneous level of being blissfully Nebraska dopey and L.A. smart, as in "Elvis Presley just signed with the William Morris agency -- so people will stop seeing him."

But the last time Carson got mad on the air was at the National Enquirer. He is nowhere threatened. Letterman is still out to find the fakes. And the biggest fake of all is his own business. "I was listening to the radio in the car the other day," he says in his office, "and I heard an interview with the heads of Showtime, HBO and Disney cable, and they all said cable was bad because the studios were making such bad pictures, and it made me want to jump out of the car and call in. I mean, I wanted to wring their necks!

I mean, no! You can't blame the problem on the people who produce movies! No! It's your goddamn problem! Stop buying it! It's like the people running a school cafeteria, where kids are sick from trichinosis, blaming the meat manufacturer.

Stop buying the ham!"

Television trichinosis. That's Letterman's obsession. He is, above all, a broadcaster. He loves AM radio, and the strike shows were a terrifying high for him -- "What television ought to be -- you take the technical elements and make a show out of them." His joke is pure broadcast, born unto itself. Letterman isn't beholden to Broadway, to movies, to the ghost of Fred Allen or even to books. He is a first-generation television baby.

But lately, his product has changed -- just a little, yet significantly. Bush's selection of fellow TV child Quayle turned Letterman's anger from television to the future of this country. "Maybe I wouldn't have felt as strongly if he had come from Montana," Letterman says, but Quayle -- forty-one and from Indiana -- was the anti-Letterman...or maybe not.

"At first when they chose him, I was kind of delighted," Letterman says. "We were both from Indiana. But it was kind of like watching someone being pushed out of a truck at top speed. Ooooooh! I felt a little -- ooooh! -- a little empathy. They really ought to stop this. I see him as a guy you met in a fraternity who got C's and D's. That's fine. But don't, for gosh sakes, go running for vice-president.

"I tried to join the National Guard also," he says. "In 1969 I left campus. I had a student deferment. I was eight credits shy. I was instantly reclassified 1A. I passed the physical and was ready to go. Thirty days later, Nixon instituted the lottery system. I said to myself, 'God, I've got to get into the National Guard.' I started thinking about how to get into the Guard, and I applied. I was turned down."

Then Letterman's number came up in the lottery. It was in the mid-300's and he stayed home.

"I saw a videotape the other day of the speech where he gave the quotation from Bobby Knight," Letterman says of a wildly garbled defense ad-lib that Quayle had attempted in Chicago, "and I thought I saw several gaping shafts of light going through his skull. Then I saw him in Wyoming, and some reporter asked him, 'What message do you have for farmers?' and he thought and began to say something; then he thought for a second and decided not to say anything and just smiled.

It's like me running for vice-president -- only I wouldn't run. It's like this is fun, not being burdened by the idea that you have to have something to offer, plus you get a hot lunch on a plane."

It was too close. It had gone beyond creating TV for a generation of Lettermen; Quayle was his generation's first public presentation. This had nothing to do with more fun than humans are supposed to have, and here's our top-ten list from the home office in Lincoln, Nebraska. It was a stupid human trick that wasn't funny. Was there nothing in this culture that one could depend on and admire? He could go on smashing television forever, but what did he have to compare it to?

"I was driving out west recently, and I visited Hoover Dam," he says, still holding on to the baseball bat. "It was completed in 1935, two years ahead of schedule." Suddenly he looks up, a little surprised not to be mad. "This is a work not to be believed. They have not had to replace one element used for its construction. It irrigated the area around it. It put a lot of people to work.

If we had to commission something like it today, would it be close to it? This is a monument, a statement to the world that America is the best place there is. A monument." For a moment, David Letterman sounded almost oratorical. There was something he liked. There was something he believed in. So what if it was Hoover Dam? It made sense -- it wasn't found comedy, it was found drama.

The America he talks about is dumb (stupid in Letterman-speak); it is sublime. He revels in Americans; he is mad at Americans. He is the captivated, furious observer of the wild framed portrait that is American television -- he has watched it closer than you and I, and it drives him crazy.

So he fights with American inertia, stick by stick of furniture, guest by guest. This is how David Letterman has chosen to come into the Nineties. It is a nutty, crazy, Oval Office kind of thing.


When Carson and Letterman turn to face us, they get to the crux of their shows. Carson's monologue (often his show's only payoff) is driven by economy, speed and unsentimental uppercuts. When it's good, it immediately becomes the comedy
consensus on a subject, and he'll roll with it for days. As with Carson's radio idols, you can close your eyes while listening to Carson, and his routine is undiminished. Letterman's topical presentation, though, is pure Eighties: he needs to be watched. The satire is intrinsic; the attitude means more than the words.


Well, this is going to be a strong monologue. I'm going to be strong on comedy. My opponent Mr. Koppel is weak on laughs. This is The Tonight Show, the show that asks the intriguing question: If Bush and Dukakis tie on election day, will Gary Collins have to ad-lib while they recount?

These guys will do anything. Did you see the picture of Dukakis in the paper? He was driving a tank. Now what's he going to do to prove he's for women's rights -- put on a dress? (Big laugh.) I don't think driving a tank can prove you can be president...It does prove he can survive on the Ventura Freeway here in Los Angeles. Bush said, "What's he doing driving a tank? Veterans Day isn't until tomorrow." (Big laugh.) Dan Quayle also had a military demonstration... He drove a BMW across a polo field. (Moderately big laugh.) And we weren't going to do any more Dan Quayle jokes -- unless we came up with a really good one.


Dave: Let's do the top-ten list. Tonight's category from the home office in Lincoln, Nebraska: Dan Quayle's Top Ten Pickup Lines. (Huge roar.) You know, he's the vice-presidential candidate on the Republican ticket from Indiana, from my home state, and he's also my age exactly. He's forty-one years old.

Paul: So these would be, if he were at a singles' bar, these would be his top-ten pickup lines.

Dave: Thank you very much, Ed. Here we go.

Number 10: "Didn't we almost flunk out of school together?"

Number 9: "How about a drink with a historical footnote?"

Number 8: "I sure would have gone to Vietnam if the Cong looked like you."

Number 7: "Can my father buy you a drink?"

Number 6: "You could close your eyes and pretend I'm Jack Kemp." Ewwwwww.

Number 5: "I think I saw Elvis last week at the Stuckey's on the interstate."

Number 4: "Look! I've got a bunch of balloons with my name on them!"

Number 3: "A girl like you could help a guy forget the irreparable damage he's done to the Republican Party."

Number 2: "I'll be vice-president after we beat Dukakis and Lloyd Bridges."

And Number 1: "Why, yes, I'm Pat Sajak."

(Music, roar, sound of glass breaking.)
"David Letterman's shtick shift"

"Can the anti-Quayle steer us through the nineties?"

Late Show With David Letterman Webpage>
Rolling Stone
Home | Bio | Pictures | Baby Page | Episode Transcripts | TV Interview Transcripts | Interviews & Articles | Quotes | Wallpapers | Links
November 3rd 1988
  T Bone's Late Show with David Letterman Webpage                                                                                                                                    Contact Me
See image full-size