|TV Guide - David Letterman Interview
According to the digital clock in the control room, it is 6:02:30 on a rainy Friday in August. And something has just gone wrong during the taping of tonight's Late Show with David Letterman. "Tell Paul (Shaffer) to play for two more minutes," the Late Show's director, Hal Gurnee, instructs with a quiet urgency. The show is in a commercial break. The atmosphere in the control room has suddenly gone from calm to high-voltage electric. On two of the almost 50 TV monitors facing Gurnee,
Letterman can be seen standing behind his desk in shirtsleeves, conferring with executive producer Robert Morton and head
writer Rob Burnett. The look on Letterman's face is one of intense concentration: His mouth is drawn in a single tight line. His eyes are like two tightly focused lasers.
To a bystander, it's hard to tell what -- if anything -- has gone wrong. The show seemed to be going perfectly: a funny monologue, the nightly "Top Ten" list, then a comedy bit from the desk about Dave's weekend video-rental choices, and two talk segments with Coach's Jerry Van Dyke. But now, after showing a taped piece called "Staff Talent Show" (featuring members of the Late Show staff doing semidumb things in their offices), the program has come to a dead halt.
In the theater, the audience is completely unaware that anything is wrong. In the back of the control room, executive producer Peter Lassally huddles with producer Jude Brennan ("Can we move act 5 up into act 4?"). On the stage, Letterman remains focused on Morton and Burnett as Shaffer leads the band through yet another verse of "Summertime." And then, somewhere, somehow, a decision is reached: the running order of the show will have to be changed. The talent show will be dropped from the broadcast version, and singer Sheryl Crow's musicians will have to set up now -- although it's still hard to tell exactly why these changes are necessary. "Cue Paul. We're back in 30," Gurnee announces, although Letterman is still standing in his shirtsleeves, talking with Morton and Burnett. "Fifteen," says Gurnee. But Letterman still hasn't moved.
"Ten. Nine." Letterman still hasn't put on his jacket; Morton and Burnett remain in front of the desk. "Eight. Seven. Six..." In the control room, the TV screens go black. The skyline of Manhattan appears, and the Late Show logo floats in. And as the video comes up on the set, Letterman is -- miraculously -- sitting behind his desk, wearing a dark-blue suit jacket, cool, calm, and collected, as if nothing were amiss. He shines a million-watt grin at the camera. "...and welcome back to the big show," he says, tossing a pencil at the camera, and the audience cheers.
Standing in the control room, watching this little episode for a few minutes, one is left with a single impression: We tend to think of talk-show hosts as interviewers or comedians. But of all the performers who have appeared on Letterman -- all the Emmy- and Oscar-winning actors, all the Grammy-winning musicians -- David Letterman may be the most polished performer of all. "Damn! Would you look at that? She crashed right into the wall!" Two hours later, Letterman is standing in a conference room 12 stories above the Ed Sullivan Theater. The suit is gone; he's wearing khakis, a baseball cap, a T-shirt
and glasses. Two female staffers are attempting to teach him how to play an Indianapolis 500 racing videogame, something for which he appears to have absolutely no natural talent. "This oughta save my license," he jokes, fully aware that America has been following not only his rating points, but also the points that various police authorities have attached to his license for speeding. "Yup. This oughta make the state troopers real happy."
So what exactly went wrong with tonight's show? Letterman, notorious for disliking interviews, assumes the body language of somebody visiting the dentist. He tugs at the brim of his cap and utters four words almost never heard in show business: "It was my fault." He explains, "The producers and the writers didn't want to use the 'Staff Talent Show.' But, genius that I am, I overruled them. Then it didn't seem to go so well with the audience. So we reconvened." It's been a full year since Letterman talked with TV Guide. And tonight, under the fluorescent lights of the conference room, he looks tired. And thinner. He's still
wearing his stage makeup. Maybe it's due to the lateness of the hour, or the end of the grinding week, but the man looks
older. Has the year -- the pressure, the spotlights, the attention -- changed him?
"I'm still the same old happy-go-lucky guy I always was," Letterman says with an ironic laugh, making a thinly veiled reference to the old days, when he was sometimes accused of being distant, brooding, and obsessed with details. But, happy-go-lucky or not, the year has still seen amazing changes; after 30 years of NBC's Tonight Show dominating the late-night talk-show ratings, Late Show with David Letterman has bested its competition in the Nielsens each week since it premiered on CBS August 30. Moreover, according to one insider, Letterman now generates fully 30 percent of the profits for the network.
So what does it feel like being on top? "I'm not going to complain," he says. "It's very gratifying." Then he pauses. "Of course, there's nothing in America that will set you up for failure faster than success." Interviewing David Letterman is a curious process. Like most genuinely funny people, his first instinct is to answer almost any question with a joke. What is the future of television? "Black-and-white. I hope we're going back to black-and-white. This color stuff hasn't really improved anything."
Maybe it's because the jokes come so easily to him, or perhaps it's a defense mechanism -- a way of not letting too many people know what he really thinks. But spend enough time with him and you discover he is a surprisingly thoughtful man.
Consider his comments:
* On the near-sale of CBS to QVC boss Barry Diller: "We were excited at the idea of Barry Diller taking over. Even though
the sale didn't go through the first time, I hear he may try again. I hope so. When you look at CBS, some of the programming seems pretty anemic -- though to be fair, there's not that much quality stuff being done anywhere on TV today."
* On O.J. Simpson: "How do I react to all those people on the overpasses cheering him on? It means nothing. Since the
beginning of time, there has always been inappropriate behavior on the part of humans. Coverage of this event is what made the event. It was not about the downfall of an American hero. It was people watching buildings burn down." Why hasn't he been in the monologue? "It is my true feeling that there is almost nothing that can't be made fun of. But maybe it's still too
soon -- I haven't figured my way into it yet."
* On charges that his segments with Asian merchants Sirajul and Mujibur are racist: "I suppose if you're the kind of person who looks for things, you could say, 'Absolutely. You're taking advantage of the fact they don't speak English.' The minute the charges surfaced, I was sensitive to them. These guys are so nice, I wanted to make sure we were not demeaning them. If the situation were reversed, I could not have gone to Bangladesh and done what these guys have done for themselves in America."
* On criticism that he's gone soft and lost his edge: "Am I nicer to guests? I don't think so. Well...maybe just a wee bit nicer. But I can explain. Back in the old days, when nobody was watching us, I had a reputation -- probably undeserved -- for being nasty. I guess people just weren't used to seeing a talk-show host call somebody out for coasting. So when a guest came out and just sat there -- like they were there to cut the ribbon to the Hall of Fame -- I might have gone after them, figuring, 'What the hell, nobody's watching anyway.' If there's a difference these days, it's not that I'm kinder -- it's just that I know the show is so strong, we've got so much funny stuff going on, that I'm more likely to let them slide."
* On his TV viewing: "I'm not necessarily proud of it, but I do watch Beavis and Butt-head. It's the only thing that consistently makes me laugh. I know it's crass and crude and vulgar, but it never deviates from its premise. They never get
smarter. And they always do the dumbest, worst possible thing. Every night I turn on the set, and my girl friend says, 'Oh,
no. It's Beavis and Butt-Head again.' And I'm sorry, but I sit there laughing. These guys are always idiots. And
something about that is very satisfying."
* On world politics: "Every night I go home and listen to the BBC. It's the first place I heard about Rwanda or Somalia -- long before we heard about it here. And I'm sorry, but human beings -- the human condition -- never cease to confound me.
Think about the worst thing one human being can do to another, and somehow, somewhere, someone is doing it."
It is almost impossible to watch Letterman and not make comparisons to Johnny Carson. And surely, the list of Letterman's guests over the past year equals, if not surpasses, Carson at his peak: Sean Connery arriving on-stage in 007 jet-pack. Barbra Streisand delivering two tickets to her sold-out concert. Ted Koppel teaching Dave to Rollerblade on 53rd Street. Al Gore breaking ashtrays on Dave's desk. Dan Rather singing train songs. Dave's mom at the Olympics, asking Hillary Rodham Clinton if she could fix her son's speeding tickets. Plus Carson himself, delivering the "Top Ten" list when the show visited California in May.
Although Letterman is quick to name an additional handful of performers who have particularly delighted him, perhaps a discussion of the one star who didn't come through for him would be more enlightening: namely Madonna -- and the
night in March when the Material Girl came out, lit a cigar, asked Dave to sniff her panties, and spent most of the interview cursing.
"I was not pleased with how I handled that," he admits. "My understanding was that she was going to say, 'The reason I'm here is because you've been telling all these jokes about me,' and I was going to say, 'What do you mean? Give me an example.' At which point we were going to show tapes from 'Top Ten" lists or the monologues. It would have been great. I would have been happy to apologize or make more jokes. But it deteriorated right from the top. I probably should have saved her from herself. The second time she cursed, I should have just said, 'OK, if you do that again, you're going to have to leave,' and then told her to hit the road." He shrugs. "Maybe I was intimidated because she's such a big star. I don't know. I didn't feel heroic. The really strange thing is that here's this woman who's so shrewd at promoting herself. I figured she would have been savvy enough to turn this around. Maybe come back in a few weeks and say, 'Hey, maybe it was you, maybe it was me but -- God -- there was really something going on up there between the two of us. I don't know what, but something.' Instead, she tells the press it had all been approved by the writers, which is just totally not true." Letterman shakes his head. "We offered her the opportunity to come back, but she turned us down."
So -- to rephrase a question -- is this what it's like being on top? "This show is harder, much tougher than I ever expected it to be. And it's like we're still fighting for our lives here. You don't have time -- or the luxury -- to sit back and congratulate yourself. Monday you're thinking about Tuesday; Tuesday you're worried about Wednesday. It's like every night you've got to load the truck and drive to Phoenix."
Mr. Letterman, Producer.
Dave celebrated his first anniversary as CBS' nightshift slugger by starting an expansion team: On August 9 the network announced that The Late Show would be followed by The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder, produced by Letterman's
Worldwide Pants Inc. and to premiere in late 1994 or early 1995. Press reports following the announcement underscored
the irony of Letterman's hiring Snyder, since it was Snyder's series that NBC canceled in 1982 to make way for Letterman's
original show. Helping to ease any bitterness that may linger from that bit of history is an even older TV connection:
Letterman's executive producer Robert Morton started his TV career in the '70's on Snyder's show. Now all three are reunited as part of Letterman's sweetheart deal with CBS, but they had better hope this Pants production is more successful than Letterman's last CBS project: The Building, a sitcom he created for comedian and frequent guest Bonnie Hunt, disappeared after its brief summer run in 1993.
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By BRUCE FEIRSTEIN
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|August 27th 1994|
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