|Rolling Stone - David Letterman Interview
On a Friday night in Manhattan, not quite an hour after putting Late Show episode No. 211 in the can, David Letterman broods aloud over how the show went. His post-mortem, spilling out in a windowless conference room 12 floors above the Ed Sullivan Theater while taxi horns bay down on Broadway, is a characteristically disgruntled one. "Yeah," he says, "I wasn't very pleased with any aspect of the show. The audience and I never got together. And for me, that's a lost cause. If you can't win those people over, you're not gonna win the folks over at home."
Letterman has his sneaker-shod feet flung up on the conference table and wears his baseball cap pushed back a bit -- the tired skipper sipping coffee and sorting out a 7-2 loss. Hadn't guest David Hyde Pierce, the fuss-budget younger brother on Frasier, gone over OK? "Yeah, he's a very nice guy," says Letterman. "He's actually very witty, quick, very facile mind." Pierce had
flown East at the last minute to fill the lead-guest spot, which otherwise might have gone to a marginal choice, George Carlin, and yet the show failed to soar. "It's like a hang glider who can't get an updraft, and you're runnin' with that goddamn kite on your back, and you're runnin' and runnin' and there's not a breeze or a thermal or nothin.' That's what this felt like."
In fact, Pierce had some likable shtick ready, looking dead-on into Camera 3 to reassure his dog, Emma, supposedly watching at home, that he'd be back soon. After chatting restlessly with Pierce, eyes rolling like a slot machine that won't pay off, Letterman interrupted Pierce's closing riff.
PIERCE: Yes, I'm going to get right back to Emma. And ...
LETTERMAN: Well, I don't think the dog's still watching.
PIERCE: (Gamely) I just have the feeling the commercials are her favorite part. She ...
LETTERMAN: I think the dog may be with Mr. Koppel now. I have kind of that feeling about things.
Letterman looses such zingers almost every weeknight. They're the stuff of the white-bread high-school boys' room, founded in knowing suspicion about every aspect of human nature. He couldn't even resist one in the press conference announcing his confrere Tom Snyder's new slot following Late Show. When Snyder mused, "A year and a half (ago), who was Heidi Fleiss?" Dave instantly gibed, "Aw, you knew who she was, Tom. Come on -- you knew."
Such jabs, and their quick-witted author, are as Midwestern as a grain elevator, as determinedly archproletarian as the fried-bologna sandwiches Letterman has made his mom describe on the air. If his Tonight Show rival Jay Leno is decidedly Eastern, with his cloth-coat folksiness, Letterman shares with Johnny Carson a certain irreducible farm-belt loneliness. Somewhere not too far behind him is one of those bleak outskirts-of-town intersections where the stoplight swings in a breeze that's made partly of arctic air. His jaggedly sarcastic grin and mock-angry stares speak of human distances, not connections.
A nightly horde of Late Show with David Letterman fans out there in the dark likes things that way. More assured than Leno, Letterman has become the hip young modern's nightcap of choice. Somehow it's the mean laughs that work best -- a little something astringent to brace your subconscious for the long, unguarded hours to come.
Following Pierce that Friday, Carlin speed-rapped so single-mindedly that Letterman asked, "You really don't need me out here at all, do ya?" (Coming out of the break, Paul Shaffer's CBS Orchestra played "Cocaine.") And Bon Jovi's lachrymose ballad never caught fire. "Again, it's my fault," says Letterman, inconsolable till he'll try again Monday. "I ought to be able to figure out a way to, 'Come on, we're going to fly this son of a bitch, let's go!' But I couldn't get air under the wings."
This self-flagellating resolve has vaulted the man and his show to a position of such visibility that maybe only his favorite whipping boy, Bill Clinton (or new shobiz chum Madonna), is more steadily prattled about at the water cooler. He does sense his power at some level -- the show's yowza-yowza ringmaster opening bespeaks an astronaut's ballsy elan. Would anyone balk if quicksand-voiced announcer Bill Wendell, instead of throwing to Dave with such epithets as "The Mayor of Dweebtown," called him by Rolling Stone's little honorific: Man of the Year?
Well, Letterman might. As he half-sprawls at the conference table, slugging Joe, he manages to turn a rundown of the year's highlights and "succes de scandale" into a masochistic foray.
Though he and Madonna reconciled at the podium during the MTV Video Music Awards in September, her expletive-ridden
March visit still haunts him. "Madonna we used as the punch line for many, many, many jokes," he says, "and she, over the
years, had built up this feeling of resentment or irritation or 'I don't like this guy, he's a punk, and he's makin' fun of me.' I think that's what was fueling this spewing, this ire, this noncooperative mode she seemed to be in. But that night at the MTV awards, there was a real person who was friendly, knew what she was doing, and I realized that whatever brought her to that other place was not the real her. When she said (backstage) at one point, 'Would you mind kissing me on the cheek?' I thought, 'Jeez, listen to how insane this is.' But there was something very sweet about her attitude toward me in that whole event. It was one of those things I was happy to do because it kind of reminds you that 'Jesus Christ, you're in show business, asshole.'"
Letterman blames himself for muffing the predictably weird turn by a certain boxer-thespian who sat down to talk while clutching a Chihuahua in a sweater: "Mickey Rourke I failed, because clearly there's something interesting about that guy -- just sitting there with his tiny little dog, gazing into middle distance. You expect he would come out and take a punch at you, and you couldn't even incite that.
"What I wait for now is provocation," Letterman says, straight-faced. "You can't smother them. You have to kind of wait for provocation. In the old days I would smother them."
He cites a visit in September with ABC court reporter Cynthia McFadden. He turned pesky after a sluggish desultory start. "I think Liz Smith mentioned I was mean to this woman," he says. "It wasn't a case of me ball-batting an innocent victim. It was one of those where she sat down and nothing really happened. I just felt hugely defeated on that one."
Ask about an episode where he all but told Sharon Stone she was boring him, and Letterman spins driving and fishing
metaphors in with his daunting boxing themes: "It took a wrong exit and never got back on the turnpike. Carson would have been able to harness that and turn it into something a little more low-key -- a little more gracefully. I'm lookin' for the big KO, a knockout punch -- boom boom. 'Stop it! The fight is stopped! It's over! Two minutes and 40 seconds of the eighth round...' Whereas Carson could just very quietly reel out a little more line, a little more line, and eventually they would have sunk, and he could have handled it all by raising an eyebrow."
Even Letterman's account of Johnny Carson's famous visit to the Late Show set in L.A. takes a self-deprecating turn. Alighting on the show to deliver the Top 10 List, Carson, suffering from laryngitis, was virtually silent in a brief inspection tour that included a smiling benediction of Dave's desk. "He was masterful -- just kind of touching the table with that little artistry he has. It just showed me to be the pretender I am compared to Johnny Carson. I don't have a problem with that -- honest to God I don't. You know by looking at him: That's the guy. Maybe I could work at it, but I'm not the guy."
Though he may never match Carson's sang-froid, this year Letterman has scored repeatedly with his own trademark, the
blithe use of what the show's producers call "civilians." As if on a dare, Letterman sent his mom, Dorothy -- "the least
demonstrative person I've ever known" -- to Norway to cover the Winter Olympics for CBS. Mom hit pay dirt in her interview with the First Lady by asking if she or her husband could do anything about the speed limit in Connecticut. Letterman got pumped to go shopping for fancy suits with the now-famous Bangladeshi shop clerks Mujibur and Sirajul by yelling, "Let's go nuts!" Then he somberly told the salesman, "We want people to be a little frightened when they see these guys." Running the drive-through window for a New Jersey McDonald's he told one customer that they were "out of hamburgers" and toyed curiously with another: "You sound just a little depressed or something -- how old are you, sir?... And you're pretty much happy with where you are in life?"
"Is it gonna be ready," growled the customer," or what?"
"The food's ready, sure. The food will always be ready. Are you ready?"
Letterman's post-show despair is by now legendary. "I know people like this," says Late Show director Hal Gurnee, who's been with Letterman since 1980. "They're not in broadcasting. They're carpenters or they're accountants. They're people who really suffer if they make a mistake, and they never think they've done well." Although he's elevated on-air spin-outs and goofiness to a high and lucrative art, Letterman, dogged by the magisterial exemplar of the sweatless Carson, refuses to believe there's no crying in late night. CBS president Howard Stringer, who declares, "I will be rebuilding the network around David," worries that his franchise star worries too hard: "The pressure on him is self-imposed. We may be weasels, but we're not imposing pressure on him -- he does it to himself. I'd like to ease that burden, but I have no way of doing so. I need to marry prime time more directly with Letterman, and he's going to drive the network in ways he probably didn't imagine."
Only Carson, during his prolonged glory years at NBC, has carried more freight for a network. This past August 30, Late Show celebrated a record late-night debut year, having earned a reported $140 million in advertising bucks and averaged 5.3 million households per night. Leno, who had enjoyed a head start on The Tonight Show, was playing catch-up from Day One. (Ted Koppel's Nightline often ties or beats Leno but usually loses to Letterman, except when stories like O.J. Simpson or the Susan Smith child-murder case break.)
This talk-show border war has a classic pair of adversaries. On this side of the fence stands Leno, the nice-guy, lantern-jawed underdog who'll stop the show to eulogize his late dad and manfully shrugged off the huge insult after NBC almost gave away his gig as Carson's replacement when Letterman made a grab for it. On the other side cavorts Letterman, goofing on his guests and smashing fruit for an army of viewers whose ragtag lollapalooza vanguard wouldn't think of watching their fathers' late-night show. The insult Letterman took when he reached too late for Carson's magical benediction and saw the Holy Grail that was The Tonight Show (and the 11:30 hour, which he'd equally pined for) handed over to Leno clearly fuels the drive that's kept him at No. 1. Would Letterman be carrying major regrets if he'd first lost that Carson seat, then failed to take his quick lead in the ratings?
"Absolutely," says Letterman. "Without question. I would have thought, 'Well, Jesus, it could have gone another way. I still could have been over there. I could have been The Tonight Show.' So none of this has been easy. It wasn't just a matter of saying, 'Well, thank you, now I'm going to CBS.' Maybe it's because of the huge emotional ninny I am, but, yeah, if our show here had not been successful, it would have been real tough."
For Letterman, says Stringer, "I don't think it's about business. I don't think he cares about the money aspect of anything. I think he wants to beat NBC for all the historical reasons and because they're competition." As the November 1994 sweeps weeks approached, the notoriously speed-walking Letterman was moving faster than ever, putting himself and his staff through plenty of days that went 12 hours or more, all the while preparing his first prime-time show for CBS, Late Show Video Special. Leno, hardly plodding himself, stayed within a couple lengths. By the second week of November, Leno's footsteps were loud indeed -- he finished just a 10th of a rating point behind. (CBS throws back that Letterman corrals more of the 18-to-49-year-olds, whom advertisers salivate for.)
According to Bill Carter, the New York Times reporter whose Late Shift is a definitive history of the talk-show shuffle, "Given any kind of level playing field, Dave wins. But NBC is making tremendous inroads in prime time and CBS is having a terrible season. So he stands alone -- not just the signature star of the network but the only star. They need him so desperately. Having lost football (Fox outbid CBS for NFC games), he's their only source of younger viewers. One thing's for sure: They'll treat him as well or better than NBC ever treated Carson. But his start at 11:30 is a self-start. He has to recruit his own audience."
Though Leno's audience was largely inherited from Carson, says Carter, "Jay has very skillfully cast himself as the underdog. The guy never quits. He will keep coming at you and coming at you, and he will work as hard as any human being can work."
Merrill Markoe, Letterman's former girlfriend and head writer -- and a recent Late Show guest -- is less concerned. "Dave's going to be doing this as long as he wants," she says. "One thing about Dave is he gets everything he wants. I knew he would get the 11:30 time slot. He's always, since I've known him, gotten everything he wanted."
The Broad Ripple section of Indianapolis, where David Letterman was born to Joe and Dorothy Letterman on April 12, 1947, is a surpassingly ordinary sprawl of moderate-income homes. Dave arrived between sisters, Janice, now a married mother of two living in Indiana, and Gretchen, also a mother and an editorial writer for the St. Petersburg, Fla., Times. The first photo that's seen wide circulation shows the 18-year-old Dave in tie and jacket, shoulders looking like they might be narrower than his hips, a tremor of amusement playing on his lips, eyes midway between a glower and a smile.
He has depicted his friends -- the dweebs who mocked the jocks and the good-looking kids -- almost too many times. Still,
when you ask him about his increasingly warm relations with female guests, including the leg-wrapping hug and kiss on the
lips that Julia Roberts gave him, he stumbles back to those days: "Well, she was, you know, I ... it just ...it's...you know, all my formative years, I never knew how you approached beautiful women. Kind of strange-looking guys like myself, we don't know. It certainly stayed with me, and having a TV show doesn't do much to erase that or provide confidence where there had been none before. So every time, especially with a new guest, I'm just like a newt. I go right back to the eighth-grade dance when you're dumbstruck by the beautiful girl across the room. 'What'll I do? I guess I'll go over and show her how I bruised my elbow.' I dunno, I'm right back in there. You don't know. If you say, "Jeez, you look great,' or "You smell nice,' or 'That's a lovely dress,' are they going to look at you like 'You're a dweeb, leave me alone, I'm a movie star, can't you see you're a dweeb?'"
And what does Letterman say when he greets the female guests with that hug and, often, kiss? "I try to impart some of that energy and confidence -- which for me always depends 98 percent on the audience, if they're happy to be there and enjoying themselves -- by just saying, "These people are great, everything's fine, you look terrific,' or something that says, 'OK, it's safe, the Nazis are gone, everything's fine here.'"
The one class Dave liked during his academically indifferent high-school years was speech, where he could deploy the natural wit that was otherwise consumed by muttered banter in the back of the classroom. He did just well enough academically to get into Ball State University in nearby Muncie, Indiana, where in September 1965 he began a college career devoted to power-loading beer with his Sigma Chi frat brothers and doing student radio. From a broom-closet pirate radio station, WAGO, he slagged Muncie the way he'd later slag his networks. (When he lavished money on the university's radio and television department 15 years later, he signed a plaque that read: DEDICATED TO ALL THE C STUDENTS BEFORE AND AFTER ME.) Dweeb or no, he found a tall music-major girlfriend named Michelle Cook and married her before his graduation in 1970. She waitressed in Muncie, and he went from a fill-in spot at a local station to a TV gig at WLWI back in Indianapolis, hosting late-night (or "freeze-dried," as he dubbed them) movies, talking to 4-H kids and acting as a substitute weatherman. He had a scruffy beard and commuted at times by canoe. As weatherman, he shared such meteorological data as "Nothing's going on" and once announced hail the size, as Late Show shtick wonks can now fondly recount, of canned hams.
His contemporary Jeff Smulyan hired him as the midday guy on an Indianapolis radio station, WNTS. "He was sort of a cult figure to a lot of people his age," says Smulyan. "He'd put people on. The average listener to a talk-radio station like this was probably 50 years old. They'd call up and say 'Hey, Dave, there are Communists in Carmel.' and Dave would say, 'Well, give them Carmel, ya know? the schools are overcrowded and the zoning laws are too restrictive.' They'd call me and say, 'You've got a Bolshevik working on the air.'"
The goofs were a sign of his restlessness. Although Markoe remembers he later told her that, "he was the most well-known man in Indiana, the most well-known local television personality," Letterman had a much grander vision. It came straight out of the years of watching Johnny Carson. "When I was a kid, in adolescence," Letterman says, "I didn't see much of my father because he was at work all day, working very hard.
He owned a flower shop that was not as successful as it could have been, maybe, and it just beat him silly. So when I would
get to see The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, I saw a guy there who looked great, who had a suit on, had a great-looking tie, interviewing beautiful women, smoking a cigarette ... "I don't want to diminish my father's role in my formative years, but you saw in your father a hard-working guy who was just trying to stay ahead of things. You saw in Johnny Carson -- 'Oh, my God, Jesus, look at this guy, look at the babes and the cigarettes and the great-looking suits.'
That was the other world, that was fantasy, that was show business, and it's a pretty powerful impression. That stays with you, and you think, 'Jeez, when I go to a party now, maybe if I act like Johnny Carson, maybe I'll get to talk to good-looking girls.' I would be very surprised if I'm the only one for whom he provided that sort of role model." It was in 1974, while hosting a news-driven radio call-in show, that he realized he didn't care about the world economy or "Martians cleaning our teeth." When he told Michelle it was time to decamp to Los Angeles, she enthusiastically began packing dishes.
"I quit my job," he says. "We loaded everything we owned into a pickup truck and drove cross-country, just quit our jobs and moved. And my parents -- my father was dead by that time, but my mother, God bless her, never said a thing. I said, 'Mom, I'm moving to California.' She never said, 'Why? What are you, nuts? What the hell are you going to do?" Never. And I can remember her, with my two sisters, standing on the lawn of my house -- we just drove by to say goodbye to them, and she never questioned it, just said, 'OK, bye.'"
Michelle went to work as a department-store buyer, while Dave made the rounds, doing obscure TV gigs and honing his
nascent stand-up act. "When you get to be a stand-up comedian," says Letterman, "you recognize that if you're any good at it, you're going to be on the Carson show." In terms of his marriage, Letterman was only too good at it, beginning to get the prime late-evening slots at the Comedy Store and drawing the attention of young women who found the angular, gap-toothed, almost soft-spoken comic thoroughly amusing. "I behaved badly," he has been quoted as saying. "It was just me being a dork: 'Hey! Young girls!'"
In the 1977 breakup of his marriage, Letterman reportedly got away clean, with his pickup, his dog Bob and no alimony. "I know she's gone on to be married," he says, denying any continuing regrets, "living a happy, I assume, normal life. She's found a place that she is far happier with than she ever was with me."
Merrill Markoe had been teaching art at USC when she began her stand-up career, brimming with good jokes but lacking the confidence of Leno and Letterman, who were the best stand-ups on the loop. "Dave learned to write his own act watching Jay, who used to be unbelievably good at the Comedy Store," Markoe says. "Dave was kind of modeling himself on that."
Even compared with Letterman, as they grew romantically involved, Markoe "always thought of myself as an incoming
freshman, and he was like the coolest guy on the varsity team. I had this weird thing where I would give him all my jokes to
use." One night she did a bit about designer cappuccino in her 8:30 slot and, when she came back to watch Dave do his show, "heard him go into the opening line to the joke I had just done on that very stage only two or three acts before him. And the audience went, 'Yeah, we heard that already.' My worst nightmare -- because the last thing I wanted to do was make him unhappy." Ultimately, she says, "I think he didn't give a shit because he mainly used to screw around with the audience anyway. That was the mainstay of his act."
Markoe veered out of stand-up and into TV writing, including a 1978 Mary Tyler Moore variety show that came to employ Dave. He loved driving to Television City from his one-room apartment on Sunset, and he loved Moore; he hated putting on a Peter Pan suit to be in a dance number. By the time he left, he'd been noticed anew by the Carson scouts who had first seen him in the clubs, and he was invited to the show on November 26, 1978. His stand-up went over big, and he got the nod to come over and chat with Carson -- the peak moment, Letterman still seems sure, of a show-business lifetime. "The fact that he succeeded and prevailed decade after decade makes it mythical," says Letterman. "And to suddenly find yourself seated next to him is stunning. You're from Indiana, and you sit there year after year watching Johnny Carson when you're 16, 17 years old, and then the next thing you know, 1978, he's right there. It justified, certified, legitimized everything I had done that everybody thought was insane. And nothing that has happened since has come close to that."
Watching a Carson retrospective a while ago, Markoe saw a clip in which Letterman did one of her jokes. "There used to be a commercial running, I forget the name of the dog food, but they said, 'All beef, not a speck of cereal,' and my joke was, 'Yeah, I don't think he's going to mind a speck of cereal, because he's eating garbage and drinking out of the toilet." "Thank you very much, Paul," Letterman said as Shaffer grimacingly swirled out one last riff before Letterman opened a Late Show taping one October night. "Are you a little nervous about tonight's program?"
"Oh, I can feel the tension in the air."
"I'm a little nervous."
"Why is that?"
"Well, because of Merrill, Merrill Markoe, who...she and I...I don't even know the word...What are the words I'm looking for here?"
"You were an item at one time. The two of you were involved."
"And tonight will be the first time I've seen her in quite some time."
To retell the story of Markoe and Letterman would be to retell the host's entire long march: Years of guest-hosting The Tonight Show; the start of his off-kilter, ill-fated morning show in 1980; the 1982 inception of Late Night (the night of Markoe's appearance, he tells the crowd, "Our next guest and I shared a very long relationship during which she helped create the first version of this very television show right here"); her flight West from his absorption in work (as opposed to, say, marriage) in 1987; and their final breakup a couple years later.
"I did not behave well at the end of that relationship," he says earnestly from his side of the conference table on that Friday night. "I take full responsibility for the unhappiness and the unpleasant feelings that lingered after that." Letterman didn't know just how much those feelings lingered, he says, until five years ago, when by chance he pulled into a parking lot where Markoe had just arrived. "She didn't see me, so I parked my car and waited for her. When she got out, I approached her, and she was not happy to see me at all. It was very unpleasant, and I think rightly so. She had every reason in the world to have negative feelings toward me, and they manifested themselves, and it was unpleasant and sad and so...it was clear that I was not to be part of her life tangentially, superficially, in any way." "Well, right," says Markoe, without giving details. "We had a very bitter, sad, horrible breakup."
Having eschewed the topic of Dave as best she could, Markoe did venture into print in August of this year in an installment of her Buzz magazine column title "Ed is Coming to Town!" in which "a public figure" who "was all over the place with alarming regularity" began turning up on billboards and radio promoting his (read "Dave's") impending visit to her town (read "L.A.," when Late Show hit town). The Hard Copy reporters "were too lazy to get any information about Ed's other 15 million ex-girlfriends," and even Elvis Costello asks a concert audience, "Hey! Anyone here see Ed last night?" Letterman, who sent her a note praising the column, says, "It just broke my heart, because it's sad thinking of anybody being in that position."
In October, with her new book, How to Be Hap-Hap-Happy Like Me, to promote, Markoe went East, visiting several talk shows, including, to her book company's happiness, Letterman's. She stayed away from him before the show. "I thought it would be better to just use the dynamic on the air," she says.
"As the band's playing, and I saw her in the wings," says Letterman, "I just started to laugh in a way that you could almost start to cry. It's just a release, and it could go either way, and I realized, 'I can't start to cry.' So I laughed. And then I was just rocked. I thought, 'Oh, my God, what, really, have we conjured here?" I think everybody who's been in a long-term relationship and then later in life sees that person again goes through it. It's just that I was going through it in front of 500 people, which is also a little dynamic that was helpful. I remember I could feel her kind of rubbing my back, and that's something she always did -- and I assume she still does with whoever she's hugging. But that was fun."
Back at his desk a faintly breathless Letterman told her she looked "terrific" and admitted to being "a little jumpy...a little nervous," to which Markoe coolly said, "It's so odd, 'cause ordinarily you're so rarely jumpy." "We're like a minute into the round," said Letterman to the theater with a grin of something like relief, "and she's tagged me already." Markoe had some business -- a glum picture of the former "happy couple," a piece of mail that had supposedly come for him -- and by the first break, when he said, "We'll be right back with Mr. Funny and his ex-gal pal," they were home free. Later, after a victory lap around the upstairs offices to see her old friends, they talked alone, not, apparently, without some bittersweet tears.
Letterman's current girlfriend, Regina Lasko, is one of the best-known unknowns in the television universe, a sometime
unit manager who quit Late Night around the beginning of her five years with Dave. She's quite privately lived through some adventures with him, including stalking by possessed Dave fan Margaret Ray and a surprisingly hush-hush auto wreck in Florida.
Letterman and Lasko had been visiting his sister Gretchen in St. Petersburg when, around 10:30 on the night of September 21, 1991, at a rain-swept intersection where the traffic lights were broken, Letterman's rented Chrysler convertible was in a violent collision with one Raymond Musser's pickup. Musser's son Justin suffered a fractured jaw, and though the police
found nether driver to be at fault, Letterman later paid a settlement of $125,000. He visited both son and father, causing Musser to say, "It was decent of him to meet me face to face and ask me how I was. He just asked me, 'Are you OK?'...No great one-liners." Letterman, taken to the hospital with what the police report calls a "non-incapacitating" injury, doesn't discuss whether his chronic sore neck dates to the wreck.
He's been more open about his problems with speeding on Connecticut highways, having achieved detente with the troopers. "Be nice to Dave," said a spokesperson for the Connecticut attorney general's office in shunting along an inquiry. "He's great." Letterman will be making new friends in Westchester County, N.Y., where he recently bought an 88-acre spread.
It's a Tuesday morning in the comfortable if plain-vanilla offices of Worldwide Pants Inc., the company Letterman formed to produce -- and own -- his show, as well as the 12:30 outing that Tom Snyder will host. The co-executive producers of Late Show, Robert Morton, 41, and Peter Lassally, 62, sit talking. Morty, as he's usually called, is having fun with his ideas for the casting of a project they have only a kibitzer's part in: Ivan Reitman's planned HBO adaptation of Carter's book about the late-night wars. Seeming as avid as he was when he worked in the Ed Sullivan Theater as a page in 1975, Morton has a zealous glint in his eye as he says, "I thought a really cool thing would be the Quaid brothers as Jay and Dave. I ran into Ivan Reitman one night and mentioned it, and he looked at me like I was insane."
The producers are recalling the vertiginous days of January 1993, when Lassally (who'd become Dave's mentor when he started booking Dave on Tonight midway through his 22 years as a producer there) joined with Dave's new agent, Mike Ovitz, in securing an 11th-hour offer from NBC to give Letterman the seat Leno had inherited from Carson. The massive catch was
that Letterman would have to wait a year and a half, looking all the while like a usurper, while Leno's contract ran its course. Lassally, a quietly charismatic man who fled to Holland from Germany as a child during World War II only to suffer internment in a concentration camp, speaks thoughtfully: "What was so disturbing to Letterman was, here was his opportunity to finally get The Tonight Show -- under bad circumstances. He still had that lifelong dream of someday replacing Johnny Carson, and here it was on a platter, yet it...smelled very badly."
"After all of the bungling, after all the machinations, the politics, the strategy involved," says Letterman, "I still had a chance to take over The Tonight Show...I just couldn't do that. I couldn't wait another year and a half for The Tonight Show and then have the rug pulled out from under Lay Leno and take over that. At that point you're taking a show away from a guy, you're not succeeding Johnny Carson."
None of which is to say Letterman lacks competitive zeal in the ratings war. Although he says he bears no ill will toward Leno ("I think it would be fun to see him -- I haven't spoken to him in years"), he knows his Nielsens. "Those numbers come in in the morning," says Lassally, "and he wants to see them as soon as they come in, day by day."
Morton echoes the grumble you'll hear throughout Worldwide Pants and the CBS offices that Leno has taken to copying Letterman's format, using more comedy bits and remote segments: "Our first (CBS) show basically reinvented the form.
And I think the fact The Tonight Show has changed so drastically in the last couple of months just confirms that. It's 'I guess we have to do what they do.' I think Jay now realizes he's got to fight a real fight."
How does Letterman feel about Leno's Thanksgiving-week invasion of New York during the sweeps period? "We worked in
Los Angeles and had great success," he says in a tone just shy of condescending. "They've helped themselves by traveling,
which is fine. But we don't like to kind of react to things other people are doing." Still, no one in this particular pants company is acting all that blithe about the freshening threat from Leno's show.
The challenge has only intensified the boss' obsessive work ethic, which the staff glories in. Reporter Carter, despite much baiting from Letterman -- who, for example, toyed with his passing resemblance to Phil Donahue in the crammed press conference announcing Snyder's new show -- asks, "How tyrannical could the guy be if people have worked for him for
a decade? Clearly, whatever he does that's demanding on people is mitigated by his generosity or accepted as a function of
his high standards. And although he has a sense that he's good, it constantly is in doubt to him. 'Is it going to continue? Am I going to be this popular always?' Michael Ovitz told me he had never had a client as insecure as David Letterman."
Late Show's creators diverge on the notion that there's deep significance in the effect known as Creepy Dave, in which
a taped image of the host stares in like Dickens' Marley at the actual Dave as he sits at his desk. To head writer Rob Burnett, "It was just a cool way we could screw with the technology. The character was just sort of Dave's thing on the spot when we were pre-taping." "I truly find Creepy Dave creepy," says Lassally. "It's that stare -- something very unpleasant. Dave tells him to get out, but Creepy Dave won't go. It could be Dave's conscience. I don't know."
With the baseball cap and varsity jacket, Creepy Dave almost seems a vision out of that smoke-and-spit high-school boys' room come back to haunt the man who often mocks himself as Mr. Big Shot. Ultimately, says Lassally, Letterman "is very shy. He's not that comfortable with people. When that red light goes on the camera, you see a confident, outgoing, completely different person -- for that one hour. And that was true of Johnny too -- shy and awkward as can be and very uncomfortable with people."
Morton, girding for the ratings battle, seems iffy about Creepy Dave, as if it were a bit from "the old show," which "celebrated failure." He sees the guy with his name on Broadway as a tradesman (perhaps one whose flower shop would do every bit as well as it should): "Letterman approaches the business -- and I think that's why he's so successful -- like a civil-service job. He works. He's here early in the morning, he has lunch at his desk out of a tinfoil pan, he leaves late at night."
To Markoe, Letterman's ascendancy is anything but a surprise. "He's really good at what he does," she says. "This is what he wanted his whole life. Happy? He was not a happy man, no. Happiness was just not one of his goals when I knew him, just not one of his bigger priorities. Having the show be really, really right by his standards was his only real objective.
"I think that level of perfectionism is never met. It's not a wise approach to life in my opinion. It's got a sense of defeat built into it. It's like a really beautiful woman picking out flaws on her face all the time. It's the one thing that is truly, truly important to him."
His 13-hour Friday workday nearly at an end, Letterman doesn't quite hold up to the beauty metaphor as he rubs briefly at what seems to be an ache over his orbit bone. So tonight's show didn't meet his standards. There's always next week, no?
"Yeah," he says, rising to finish the talk. "But, you know, it's tough to dump one on Friday. Then you got it sitting in your guts till Monday."
|"It's Dave's world, we only live in it"
"Man of the Year -- David Letterman"
By FRED SCHRUERS
|Late Show With David Letterman Webpage>|
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|December 29th 1994|
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