TV Guide - David Letterman Interview

Disgruntled? Moody? Not David Letterman. The mischievous master of absurd late-night revelry is once again walking on air to listen to the rumblings (most of them from competitors), David Letterman, host of CBS's Late Show, has become an isolated, brooding, crankier-than-usual personality. Rumors have the host depressed over his ratings and obsessed with the quality of his program. Letterman pleads guilty to the latter count. But all other evidence -- on-air and in-person -- points to a David Letterman who is very much rejuvenated.

His recent interviews -- with Bob Dole, Sarah Ferguson, and Diane Sawyer, to name three -- have had the snap of the most memorable conversations from his original Late Night on NBC. His comedy segments -- working a Taco Bell drive-thru, touring San Francisco with Joe Montana -- have been laugh-out-loud funny. And his road shows -- in Washington, Boston, Chicago, and Miami -- have been among TV's liveliest hours of the past year. The momentum seems to have put the competition on the defensive; NBC executives recently denied Letterman's request to use clips from his former show in an upcoming CBS prime-time special (February 24).

In an interview in his remarkably spartan office, Letterman discussed with TV Guide's editor-in-chief Steven Reddicliffe his dedication to Late Show, his enthusiastic new producer (Rob Burnett), and his life off-camera.

TV Guide: The show seems to be on a roll the last six months or so. Why?

David Letterman: Well, the first year and a half we were (on CBS), there was so much energy and excitement we could hardly do anything wrong. And then Rob (Burnett), our head writer, left to work with Bonnie Hunt, and that was a huge deficit. Having Rob back (as executive producer) has given us a lot of help creatively. If there's any real measurable improvement, it would be to his credit.

TVG: What are some of your favorite recent moments?

DL: The four-city tour got us some attention. Those shows are so much easier for us because we have so much stuff prepared, and then occasionally you'll get lucky and get someone like Bob Dole.

TVG: Do you like him?

DL: Yes, I do. He was great. Honest to God, I could have stepped out, as I do many nights, and he would have just been fine. He was warm and graceful and very, very funny. I had to do nothing.

TVG: Who are your favorite guests?

DL: Diane Sawyer. You can ask her anything. I'm always happy to see Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Richard Simmons, Tom Hanks, and Steve Martin. These guys are bullet-proof. Anything you throw at them, they go with it.

TVG: What do you do to relax?

DL: The first Saturday of every month I invite a bunch of farm kids from the (Connecticut) area up to my house and we have bare-knuckle boxing all afternoon and then a big picnic supper.

TVG: Do you watch The Tonight Show?

DL: Not since Johnny (Carson) was on. But don't read any great significance into that. I just don't want to be subconsciously influenced by something on their show. It's not like I've sworn some kind of vendetta.

TVG: You're not angry with Jay Leno?

DL: No. I was disappointed because I had always wanted a shot at The Tonight Show. But anger wouldn't have been a legitimate response.

TVG: Leno has said that he wishes you two were still friends. How about you?

DL: He and I were never really friends. We knew each other from the Comedy Store early on, but it's not like we were both Cub Scouts and then went through high school and the Marine Corps together.

TVG: How about the executives at NBC?

DL: I get a kick out of them. Here's (NBC Entertainment president) Warren Littlefield running around being a programming genius. I knew him when he had Nurses on Saturday night and nobody was watching. And (NBC West Coast president) Don Ohlmeyer -- if you ever need somebody to help you pick out cuff links, he's the guy.

TVG: Did you watch the movie The Late Shift, about you and Leno?

DL: No. I looked at a clip reel HBO sent over, and they gave me red hair. That p----- me off. It's not like we're talking about some obscure Mexican performer on whom we have no existing videotape, you know? It's not like this was a bit of folklore put together by talking to natives: "Oh, we think he had red hair."

TVG: What about this persistent rumour that the show is moving to Los Angeles?

DL: Honestly, there's no truth to it.

TVG: There were also reports last year that you were getting engaged. Is that still a possibility?

DL: I've been living with the same woman (Regina Lasko, who works in development at Letterman's company, Worldwide Pants) for the last nine years, and that does not seem likely to change in the near future.

TVG: Do you ever want children?

DL: Oh, yeah. Even though I'm going to be 50 in a couple of months, I think to not have kids would be to deprive myself of something great.

TVG: How many kids do you want?

DL: How many you got? Send 'em over!

TVG: Are you a better interviewer now than when you started?

DL: (Laughing) I'd almost have to be. A lot of times I watch Regis (Philbin), and he makes everything look so effortless. Some nights it's like people are shooting at me, I feel so uncomfortable. And when Howard Stern talks to people, there's something very honest about the communication between him and whoever the guest is.

TVG: Who did you like watching when you were a kid?

DL: I guess the first late-night show I saw was Jack Paar's. Everything that Jack was, boom, it went right through the camera. He wasn't pretending. The same is true with Regis and Howard. I wish I could be more like them.

TVG: Why do people call you mean?

DL: This started on the old show. From day one, people were saying, "He's mean. He's mean." I was just crushed. I thought, I don't want to be on TV and be mean. I just want to be funny.

TVG: Did you make Cindy Crawford cry in October?

DL: I made fun of her eye makeup. But I didn't think that it would hurt her feelings. Then, later, I find out that her eye makeup wasn't silly at all; that's the way people are wearing it. I shouldn't be let out of the house. I recognize that if you make a joke at someone else's expense, it can be perceived as mean. And over the years, I've tried to be careful. And then we got to CBS and people said, "Oh, now all he does is kiss up to his guests." Well, which is it? Am I a kiss up or am I mean?

TVG: So, did Madonna's cursing jag make you laugh?

DL: No. It made no sense. I was shaken by that and embarrassed for the audience.

TVG: Did it bother you when Cher upbraided you on the air?

DL: No. I'll take all of Cher I can get, you know? And who hasn't, by the way?

TVG: How about Drew Barrymore?

DL: She's such a sweet person. I'm just tickled pink that she's alive and happy and doing well and will be a huge star after all her problems in life. And then naked. Throw that in. That's a rare bonus.

TVG: Much has been made of the fact that you don't socialize. Do you care?

DL: No. I wouldn't even know where to go. I never went out when I was in high school or college. I was pathologically shy, and because of that I was drunk all the time. I was a problem drinker. And when I was drunk, you'd see me everywhere. When I quit drinking, I just stayed home more. (Laughs) But I don't feel like I miss much. Besides, I feel like most of my time ought to be spent here at work.

TVG: Are you happy with the ratings?

DL: Given all the competition, The Tonight Show on NBC and now Politically Incorrect on ABC, we do pretty well. We're making a move. I'm not saying we'll ever be back where we were the first year, where it was just through the roof, but we'll be right back there breathing down people's necks.


Why does Letterman get to ask the questions all the time? Here he gives his guests a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play host.

DAN RATHER: Could you please turn down your air-conditioning? What your show spends on electricity bills could reopen three foreign bureaus of CBS News.

That's not really a question, is it, Dan? You're using this forum just to gripe and moan -- and I'm pretty sure that's Andy Rooney's job!

What's the fastest you've ever driven a car?

All right, you got me. Once, on a deserted highway, I got up to 58 mph. But that was only for a few seconds, at which point I safely returned to my old pal 55.

I happen to have R.E.M. right here. Would you care to join us in a medley of their greatest hits?

Are you kidding? You'd have to be insane to get up and sing with R.E.M.

MARY TYLER MOORE: Does anyone actually call you Dave?

Yes, many people call me Dave. But those close to me call me Lois.

If you were king of America, what would your first ruling be?

I'd rename North Dakota South Dakota. But then I'd just go ahead and leave South Dakota named South Dakota. Trust me, the confusion would be well worth it.

SARAH JESSICA PARKER: Do you go to the supermarket alone or with somebody? Are you particular about your produce?

Yes. I always travel to the market with my houseboy, Ricky, and my private nurse, Elaine. Once there, we search for the freshest legumes we can get our hands on. In fact, we make a game out of it!

You seem like a type A personality to me. So I wonder if you sleep late, and what does sleeping late mean to you?

As you know, I sleep under the porch. The heavy accumulation of dew usually has me up and on my feet by seven.

I have a few months off in early '97 and recently learned to type. Do you need any help around the office?

No, not around the office. But up at the house I get several shipments of firewood each month. If you can handle an axe and don't mind minimum wage, you got yourself a job.

DREW BARRYMORE: What is your favorite flower?

Screw the small talk and let's get right to the point. Will you dump that punk boyfriend of yours and marry me?

If you could be any animal, which animal would you choose to be?

A goat. Now will you marry me?

If you were to have a dinner party and could invite five guests, alive or throughout history, who would those five guests be?

Easy. The Ink Spots and Harmon Killebrew.

CHARLES GRODIN: Why don't you have any friends?

I have all the friends I need in my two wonderful French poodles, Kate and Allie.

Why do you refuse to leave the house?

Two words: ball lightning. That stuff is trouble with a capital T.

Are you ever concerned that it will get out that you're paying me more than your other guests?

Are you concerned that it'll get out that on your little cable show you can't afford to pay your guests?

ZSA ZSA GABOR: When can we blow up one of your cars?

Zsa Zsa, you can blow up anything of mine you want, any time you want.

Why aren't you married, so you can get divorced again like everyone else?

I'm waiting for you to dump Prince Larry -- or whatever the hell his name is -- then you and me can get married and have a bunch of screamin' kids.

KATHIE LEE GIFFORD: What would make you happy?

Four simple words: Mrs. Kathie Lee Letterman.

If your show ended today, what would you do tomorrow?

Travel around for a few days, personally thank all the CBS viewers.

Do you have all my albums, and have you read Cody's book cover-to-cover?

Yes. One of the legs on my couch broke off, and thanks to you and your lovely son, it no longer wobbles.


To keep late-night viewers happy, you've got to keep things lively. Here's how Dave does it:

10. The perfect mix. Example: The September 20 episode featured Drew Barrymore, Pearl Jam, an octogenarian shoe-shine man, and Bob Borden's Four-State Burrito Bonanza.

9. The ever-popular "remote cam" sketches, which recently included "Can a Guy in a Bear Suit Get a Free Hot Dog?" and "Can a Dog Walker Get Into Friday's?"

8. Mom. On Thanksgiving, Dave called Dorothy and played "Guess the Pie." (She had baked three pies, and Dave had to guess what kind they were.)

7. Kids. Dave often smirks when he says, "You know, I'm good with the kids." But he actually is. Last month, during a "Kids Tell Jokes" sketch, he let a curly-haired tot twirl around and model her new jumper. Her joke: "Knock, knock." "Who's there?"
"Olive." "Olive who?" "Olive you, David Letterman."

6. His no-holds-barred interviews. When Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, came for a visit, he put her at ease by flirting with her, then asked her pointed questions like "What is York?" and "Do you like wrestling?"

5. The "Fun with Rupert and Leonard" sketches. Dave hides in a curbside van with a walkie-talkie and feeds instructions to his "pals" Rupert Jee and Leonard Tepper, who have receivers hidden in their glasses. Recently Dave had them telling puzzled store clerks, "Don't call me Veronica."

4. Superstar guests. "You're both very unusual looking," Dave told guests Beavis and Butt-head. "Yeah, well, you look kinda old," Butt-head replied. Beavis picked his nose and talked about the TV show he wants to do: Big Boobs and Fire.

3. His ability to make complicated issues accessible to Everyman. During a candid conversation with Diane Sawyer about Michael Jackson, Dave boiled it down to one question: "Is this a guy that I would feel comfortable with in a car driving to Newark?"

2. His power of persuasion. During the sketch "Dave Interviews CBS Job Applicants," he got one guy to stand on his head while singing songs from "Guys and Dolls," then brought him into the studio to sing "The Oldest Established" with "Guys and Dolls" star Nathan Lane.

1. The element of surprise. Who'd have thought that Dave and Bob Dole would get on so famously? On the November 8 show, Dole made his first post-election talk-show appearance. He and Dave chatted about serious matters for a while, then Dave lightened things up a bit by joking about Bill Clinton. "He is fat. He's huge! He's got to be close to 300 pounds, Bob." Replied Dole, "I never tried to lift him; I just tried to beat him."
"Why it's still cool to love Dave"

"Hotter guests, hipper music, rocking road trips -- David Letterman is on a roll!"

"What's Dave up to?"

Late Show With David Letterman Webpage>
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February 15th 1997
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