TV Guide - David Letterman Interview

The Late-Night Guys -- For a comedian, it sounds like an easy gig: Tell a few jokes, talk to some stars, and make sure viewers fall asleep smiling. Is there a stand-up around who can't handle that? Well, maybe. For 30 years, nobody could unseat Johnny Carson. His retirement changed the field, but didn't make it easier. Jay Leno and David Letterman are now set to battle each other -- and face down funny guys Chevy Chase and Arsenio Hall, newcomer Conan O'Brien and newsman Ted Koppel.

In this issue, they all come out swinging -- except Hall (the subject of a TV Guide cover story in May), who bowed out this time, saying, "There is no late-night war for me. I have no comments about this." Why all the furor over late-night? The shows reach more than 14 million homes and help set the national agenda (politicians worry when the late-night guys start joking about them). So let the battle begin. And may the coolest guy win.

DAVE -- Earlier with David Letterman

He's been called brilliant. He's been called juvenile. He's been called a "tortured king," an "angry man for an angry time," and "the funniest guy on television." But on a recent, brutally hot afternoon in New York City -- with the final preparations for the August 30 debut of Late Show with David Letterman on CBS running at a fevered pitch and the temperature outside his office window aiming for 103 -- a different David Letterman emerges: happy, thoughtful, secure. Is this the Real Dave? The new, improved, 11:35 p.m. model? Consider his take on TV violence:

"I was out of the country when the networks announced this 'v' rating," he says, having first made sure his guest is offered a "thirst-quenching beverage" and is seated behind the star's desk while Letterman lounges in an armless chair in front. "Anyway, I heard this report about the number of acts of violence people watch. It's like, 'People are dead, people are dead, what's for lunch?" Does it harm people? He pauses, "I don't know," he says, "but I guess the rating is probably a pretty good thing." Then he pauses again, grins, and adds: "The new show, by the way, is going to be just as violent as we can make it."
Yes, welcome to the world of David Letterman. A place where everything is just 10 degrees off-center and every topic is fair game -- including himself.

"I just loved it when Cher came on the show and cursed me out," he chuckles, quoting the singer's profanity, unprintable in a family magazine. "It was great. I think that the reason I'm sometimes confrontational is because I want somebody to lay me out. It doesn't hurt my feelings. It's just TV, kids. It's professional wrestling. I make fun of my hair, my clothing, anything I'm uncomfortable with. So if I get accused of being 'mean' to a guest, it's like, well, they're making two billion dollars a year....can't we make fun of somebody like that?"

Consider Letterman on movies: "It just grinds me that I see the same stories -- the same lines, the same chase scenes, the same 'we have a warm moment and now our lives are richer for it' -- over and over and over again. Am I the only one
who's noticed this or are all movies the same because they're supposed to be the same?"

Dave on network executives: "I used to come out of meetings at NBC and just want to put my head down on a table. I
mean -- are they as dumb as they seem, or do they actually know something? If they are just stupid, is it only blind luck that anything gets on the air and is successful?"

On today's stand-up comedians: "I think I'm getting to be like my parents. It seems like attitude and style are taking the place of things that are actually funny. Steve Martin is brilliant. But it's like an entire generation saw his Wild and Crazy Guy and thought, 'I get it! All I have to do to be funny is put an arrow through my head!' They possess no sense of irony; they don't understand the wit, the intelligence or the originality behind what he was doing."

On Clint Eastwood: "He's so smart. I was on The Tonight Show with him about a week before Johnny Carson retired, and I made some remark about his clothes. He dresses like whatever came into Goodwill today. So I said, 'You! Mr. Movie Star! You could have worn a tie!' So Clint looks at me and says something like, "Nice socks," and gets a huge laugh. So I stand up and challenge him to a fight. I thought, this is great! Me, a 180-pound scared, wimpy ninny, and now I'm calling out Clint Eastwood on national television! Wouldn't it be great if he just stood up and dropped me! Boom! 'There you go, funny boy.' He's so cool. I just loved 'Unforgiven,' especially the end; he kills like 7000 people, then moves to San Francisco to open a grocery store, as if to say, 'Let's just leave this unpleasantness behind.'"

So who is David Letterman? Who is this guy who gave America "Stupid Pet Tricks" and the much-imitated "Top 10 List," infuriated Shirley MacLaine, and managed to build a cult-like following over the past 11 years at 12:30 on NBC -- all while the rest of us were at home in bed, just trying to get a decent night's sleep. Perhaps some biographical detail is in order.

David Letterman is 46. He's single, although he uses the word "we" a lot, indicating there's probably a Significant Other, a part of his life he will not discuss. Born in Indianapolis, he did local TV before moving to L.A. in 1975 to do stand-up comedy and work as a writer for the ill-fated CBS variety show Mary, starring Mary Tyler Moore. This led to his 1978 debut as a guest on The Tonight Show, followed by 50 turns behind Johnny Carson's desk as guest host. In 1980 he moved to New York and starred in a morning show that was short-lived but paved the way for Late Night with David Letterman, which premiered in 1982. Letterman lives in Connecticut. His father, a florist, died in 1973. His mother, a retired church secretary, still lives in Indiana. And if there's any surprise in all of this -- especially for those who say Dave doesn't relate well to women -- it's that Letterman grew up flanked by two sisters: Janice, a married mother of two in Indiana, and Gretchen, a married mother of one who writes editorials for Florida's St. Petersburg Times.

He remains close with both of his sisters. "The house I grew up in was nuts because I was there," Letterman says, reminiscing about his childhood with fondness. "I was a maniac. From the time I was 6 until I was 16, there wasn't a peaceful minute. I was always picking fights, starting trouble. I don't think there was a single meal where my mother didn't have to say, 'All right, David, if you can't behave, take your plate and eat outside.' Maybe it was all that estrogen. One older sister, one younger -- It was like, 'Hey! I'm fightin' for my life here!' But what I put those poor folks through!"

So how does a pest turn into a cash-making comic? "Early on, I realized I had this one little tool: I could make people laugh. The problem was, where? How? What am I going to do? Join the circus? In the meantime, my family is convinced I'm gonna go through life being a wise-ass. I wasn't in the smart classes in high school. I couldn't do math. I couldn't learn German. So instead of college courses, I was getting put into things like general merchandising."

Letterman snickers at the words. "Then one day I realized, 'I'm just as smart as my friends. But while they're studying calculus, I'm sitting in here reading a book about how to make a pleasing display of canned goods.'" He snorts, shaking his head. "So I took a class in speech and just loved it. I thought, 'Wait a minute. I can actually get a grade here, just standing up and telling stories?' That was real insight to me. So I thought, 'How do you apply this?' And when I found out you could study broadcasting in college, I thought, 'Holy cow! There you go! It's a miracle! What's next?' And what was next was figuring out how to get on the radio."

Letterman pauses, turning serious for a moment. "You know, when I hear about a kid getting out of school and not knowing what he wants to do, I'm dumbfounded," he says. "What are you good at? Figure it out! If you want to fly to California, you go to a travel agent and buy a ticket. And you get there." He hesitates; a flicker of doubt crosses his face. He shrugs, "Maybe it's because I knew early on. Or was lucky enough to know early on." Luck? Ambition? Or was it maybe a little of both, stumbling along?

"Stumbling, that's for sure," he laughs. "But it's one of those deals where when you look back and see it all laid out, it makes sense. When I was first starting out, my real dream was to work at a radio station in Cincinnati. Did I want a network television show? Sure. But the truth of it is, it's the same circumstances working for Channel 13 in Indianapolis as it is for CBS in New York. It's the same equipment, the same techniques -- and you get the same satisfaction from doing a good job. That's what's important. If everything had fallen apart last year -- if I couldn't be on NBC anymore and CBS
wasn't interested in doing a late-night show -- I think that's what I would have missed the most."

So who is David Letterman? Well...maybe that's the wrong thing to ask. Maybe the right question is: "What is David Letterman?" Because that's easier to define: David Letterman is an attitude. A way of looking at the world. Not angry. Or tortured. But more like going over to visit the guy next door -- somebody's older brother -- where you sit down, crack open a beer and agree what the world has gone insane with hype and nonsense, but only the two of you seem to know it.

"I can always tell when a guest is going to be a disaster," Letterman explains, "when our producers do the pre-interview that afternoon, and the person says, 'Just tell Dave he can ask me anything he wants.' Well, that ain't the way it works, kids! It may work that way on Good Morning America, but not here.

"Every night, we've got an hour of television to fill. And it doesn't matter if it's at 12:30 or 11:30 -- although 11:30's better because more people are watching. But still, whether you're a comedian or an actor or an author, you're being given seven or eight minutes of network time to come out with your sample case, open it up, and show people why they ought to buy your new miracle sponge. We expect you to come out and entertain.

"I'm always amazed at how few people understood that and did it," he says, ticking off the honor roll: "Steve Martin. Bill Murray. Both these guys always try something new, different and rewarding. Albert Brooks, Kirstie Alley, Sarah Jessica Parker, Charles Grodin, Tom Hanks. Even somebody like Tom Brokaw. You could talk to him about his shoes, his trip to
Nepal, his daughter's wedding. He understood; 'I'm demonstrating that I'm a reasonable, engaging, entertaining person,' which he is. Still, it's stunning to me how many people have taken huge chunks of money out of the show-business mother lode and don't understand it.

"Look," he continues, "when you come out to be on a show, it's not an homage, it's not a newspaper interview. You're there to show people why they oughta spend seven-and-a-half bucks for your new movie, or watch your show on TV. Even I did it. When I'd go on The Tonight Show, I'd spend weeks writing anecdotes, working on stories. It's not easy. And it's not fun. But it's what is important. You owe it to the people watching."

Robert Morton, a Letterman producer, knocks at the office door. A half-dozen people are pacing outside Letterman's office. There are decisions to be made, guests to book, segments to discuss. The interview is almost over. There's time for one more question.

If he could speak directly to TV Guide's 40 million readers -- many of whom have never seen him because of the
post-midnight hours he has kept -- what would he say? Why should they watch his new show? Dave thinks for a moment.

"I've never been in prison," says Letterman. "I've never done hard time." He gazes out his office window. "I'm the kind of guy that on a hot day, if a neighbor comes over and needs help installing a through-the-window air conditioner...I'll be there."

Was Johnny Kissed Off?

There have been murmurings in Hollywood that Johnny Carson did not retire of his own free will -- that with the late-night
competition heating up, NBC wanted to go for a younger audience. When asked the question directly -- "Was he pushed?" --
Letterman hesitates: "I don't know. I sure hope not," he says, choosing his words with obvious care. "But if he was, he
sure handled it well. If there was ever a grace to royalty, he had it.

"I saw Johnny a few weeks ago, when he was being honored at a luncheon in New York," Letterman says. "He went right to
work. All this energy, all these observations that had been accumulating for a year just came gushing out. It was great.

And frustrating. Because I'm sitting there thinking, 'Wait a minute. This guy's funnier than I am on my best night, and he's retired? Why isn't he still on the air?'" Will Carson be a guest on his show? "I've asked him. I've called. I've sent letters," he explains, then adds: "I would just cry if he came on."
"Late Night Star Wars!"

"Behind The Scenes With: David Letterman, Jay Leno, Chevy Chase..."

Late Show With David Letterman Webpage>
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August 28th 1993
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