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|July 8th 2002|
|Ted Koppel Interviewing David Letterman
KOPPEL: I suppose people would be terribly disappointed if we didn't talk about the recent unpleasantness. I know why ABC came after you. You're a money-making machine, a cash cow. People just walk down Madison Avenue and $100 bills are
thrown into baskets as soon as they hear your name. But I've never heard why you were interested in moving. Why did you
even entertain that thought?
LETTERMAN: Well, this is a long story.
KOPPEL: That's good. We have lots of time.
LETTERMAN: I was expecting that I would just finish my career here at CBS. And by and large they've been very nice.
They've certainly been generous and patient. And I like the facility, I like the theatre, I like the neighborhood. So it occurred
to me we probably didn't really want to go anywhere else. And then at a certain point it was called to my attention that there
was another possibility and I had not felt that that was likely. I mean, what would that be? Probably not Fox, certainly not NBC. ABC - seemed like things were buttoned up there. So this other opportunity eventually presented itself and it was ABC, much
to my surprise, and the people I talked to were very enthusiastic and equally generous and really enthusiastic. So at a certain
point my opinion, my feeling, very strong, that I would stay suddenly started to be not so strong. You know, when people
start flying in kind of unannounced, it gets your attention. And phone calls from people in Paris, and gifts from children of executives.
KOPPEL: Seductive, isn't it?
LETTERMAN: You begin to think that, well, maybe people know something I don't know about this. Maybe they actually understand that this could be a great success. So in all honesty I had to consider that seriously, where prior to that I was only looking at always staying here.
KOPPEL: But just to explain it to people who look at folks like you and me - and I say you and me only because we both make more money than we're worth - they look at us and say, "You're making plenty of money, you're a big hit over there at CBS,
do you really think about pulling up roots just because somebody woos you a little more than somebody else, is that what it
LETTERMAN: Yeah, yeah. I think it crosses your mind. Anybody can create their own misery, even if it's not legitimate. It's
like dating. You show up at the prom with a girl and you look across the floor and you think, "Maybe I'd be having more fun
with that girl over there." I just think it's human nature. But in practical terms I don't think I could ever have really made that move.
LETTERMAN: I'm really quite comfortable here. Very comfortable here and it would have been an enormous challenge to go anywhere - not just ABC - to go anywhere. And I think at a certain point in a person's career - and I'm speaking for myself completely - the comfort and ease and confidence of surroundings and environment are far more important than undertaking a new challenge.
KOPPEL: There's something very midwestern about you still. I mean, you've lived here in New York for what, 20 years?
LETTERMAN: 20 years, yeah.
KOPPEL: Worked here for 20 years. You seem to be in some strange way better able to handle when things are going badly. I mean when things are going badly you seem to rise to the occasion. When everything is going well for you, you seem acutely uncomfortable with that.
LETTERMAN: I think there's something to that, and I don't know if it's geographic or just rampant insecurity. But that seems
to be a fair assessment, yeah.
KOPPEL: It's difficult, I think, for anybody out there to understand. What do you have to be insecure about? I mean, you're
I mean, you really are. The public loves you. Your colleagues love you. You make a lot of money. You're very successful by
any objective standard.
LETTERMAN: I guess I have a very low threshold of embarrassment. And I just don't like embarrassing myself. You know
we have this - the theatre and the machinery and the people - and every day we try to put on a new show... and it all comes down to the one hour, 5:30 to 6:30. If I somehow do something stupid that embarrasses me, I feel like I've thrown away that effort for the day. It's very frustrating. But I think it's the same for anybody, you know, regardless of your work. It's like a baseball player: a big game, and an important series, a pennant race and you go 0 for 4 - I mean that's embarrassing. That
guy goes into the dugout takes the bat to the water cooler. It's the same thing. I think humans just don't want to embarrass themselves.
KOPPEL: How long ago is it now - I think it was back in 2000 - you had your quintuple bypass?
LETTERMAN: Two-and-half years.
KOPPEL: Two-and-half years ago. And just observing from the outside, it almost seems as though you have been more at peace with yourself since you went through that. I mean, that does tend to focus the mind a little bit. Talk about that a little bit, would you?
LETTERMAN: I love talking about this.
KOPPEL: Do you?
LETTERMAN: Just love it.
KOPPEL: I bet you do.
LETTERMAN: It was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me. And not to be overly dramatic, but the circumstances - well, we just had this kid pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals [Darryl Kile], and he had a family history of this kind of thing,
his father, I guess, died of a stroke at 44. Well, I have that same family history. My father made it to 57. So, in the back of
my mind, it was always there. So I knew it was going have to be reconciled with somehow; and I kind of just kept my
fingers crossed that it wouldn't be reconciled the way it was for the pitcher, in a Chicago hotel room - although it could have been. And that morning, when I went in for my second angiogram - which is great fun, I just love that; it's just exciting.
KOPPEL: Oh, I bet that's, I mean, I can never tell whether you're being sarcastic.
LETTERMAN: Oh no, I love it. I went from being scared silly about the thing because it's a catheter and they put a camera
into your coronary artery and they're able to detect narrowing and blockages of the artery and so forth. And you get to
watch them. It's like being at a planetarium, except you're looking at your own circulatory system.
So, right there, they said OK, this is silly. You can't - we're not even going to let you go home. You've got to have this
surgery. And, so you're laying in bed there looking around the room, and all out of a sudden it fills up with strangers,
guys you don't know in the green little pajama outfits ready to go.... You know, they've got the guy who's going to put you under; they've got the guy who's operating the bone saw, who's going to open you up; they've got the guy who's going
to stop your heart; and they've got the guy who's going to actually do the bypass. Never seen them before in your life.
And you have to pretend to have confidence in them because you just don't know.
KOPPEL: And your own fame at that point means squat, right?
LETTERMAN: It doesn't mean anything.... It was just great from that point on. It was so exciting. And it's funny because,
prior to that, I always considered it to be something barbaric, catastrophic, and something that might kill you, something that, even if you survived, you might be impaired. So I was full of dread, but from that moment on it was thrilling.
KOPPEL: When you say exciting and thrilling, those are not terms that I'd usually associate with multiple bypass operation.
LETTERMAN: I'm telling you, when you come out of that procedure, and you have no idea how long you've been gone,
and the first awareness you have is a voice that you may or may not recognize saying, "It went great, you're going to be great,
it went great" - you're in the Hall of Fame. And from that point on, with just that one or two sentence bit of encouragement, you're sky high. Even though, you're just wildly disabled. It is barbaric in the sense of they've got guys eating their lunch in
your chest, you know, they're taking breaks and they take out their lunch and you're still splayed wide open; they're smoking
and talking and cracking jokes.
KOPPEL: I believe all but the smoking part. But I don't think they'd be smoking.
LETTERMAN: So then the next day it's all up to you. They say "OK, we've done everything we can do, now it's up to you." Now that's the part that I really love because it's great. I can do this. And that
was the most thrilling part, when they turned it back over to me, you know, saying "OK, here you go."
KOPPEL: Do you think about death a lot? I mean, is death something that bothers you?
LETTERMAN: No. No. I mean, always before, I knew I was going to drop dead of a heart attack. I just knew it. You know,
I've seen it in my family. I had the genetic tendency. My cholesterol - it didn't make any difference what I was doing - was always sky high. I could eat pocket lint and it would be 800. But after the surgery, no. I don't think about it anymore.
KOPPEL: There have been two times when I've seen you get the least little bit emotional on the air. And one time was
LETTERMAN: Don't push your luck, Ted.
KOPPEL: No. No. But I mean, the one time was when you were introducing your medical team. You really seemed choked up just to see them right here on this stage.
LETTERMAN: Well, you know what it is. And I was so looking forward to that show, I was very excited about that. And you
go over things that you want to express and you have ideas how you hope it would go. But then when these seats were full, everything is different... you're publishing it in front of these people. And, that's I think what really made me kind of, well, up over the edge a little bit.
KOPPEL: Is there something of value that you derived from this experience that you can share with others? Either because they're confronting it personally or because people close to them are about to confront it. I mean, there's an awful lot of heart disease in this country.
LETTERMAN: I think the only advice I can give to people is, geez, just don't be scared about it. For the love of God, don't let
it frighten you. I mean, I recognize that as human nature, but that's the wrong instinct because these people - you know, it's
like going to tune up mufflers; it's like going to Midas. When it comes to mufflers, these folks know what they're doing. Don't
be frightened. If you even have the slightest concern, there are people that can help you, you know.
KOPPEL: The second time that I saw you choke up a bit was, of course, was after Sept. 11. I forget the date which you
came back on the air. How many days after?
LETTERMAN The 17th.
KOPPEL: You clearly were conflicted about whether that was the right thing to do, and you also felt conflicted about sort of going immediately into a comedy show, which I can absolutely understand. You gave Rudy Giuliani a lot of credit at the time
and said you felt what he had said was important. Can you talk about that day a little bit? I mean, unfortunately, we may
confront more of that in this country. And I don't know, it's much easier for me, all I have to do is to cover the news, but you have to make people laugh every night.
LETTERMAN: I didn't know what to do. As late as four o'clock that day I was talking to various people on the staff about:
are we honestly going to do a show? And CBS in this case, to their credit, had started talking about, "Nah, you've got do a
show; you've got to do a show." So, this is how we kind of all returned to our posts, because we felt like, "Well, they want a show, so we've got do something." And I guess I was just starting kind of trying to talk myself into why it was OK to do a show.
KOPPEL: Did it work for you? I know you're very critical of your own work. When you were through with that evening, and you were through with your broadcast, did you go upstairs to watch it?
KOPPEL: You usually do.
KOPPEL: Why not that night?
LETTERMAN: Um, I didn't want to see it.
LETTERMAN: I'm not sure.
KOPPEL: You're very tough on yourself. I mean, you really are. I mean, you seem to be a very nice man.
LETTERMAN: Well, thank you, Ted. And I can say the same for you.
KOPPEL: Thank you. And a lot of people, I think, were helped. It was a catharsis for them to see you go through that. And it was clearly a very painful process for you. Every once in a while you sort throw in a weak little joke because you felt more comfortable doing it, but you were clearly -
LETTERMAN: (Laughing) Weak little joke.
KOPPEL: Well, there were weak little jokes. They weren't roof raisers or barn burners and you clearly didn't intend them
LETTERMAN: Well, yeah, I just don't know what to say about this, Ted, because it was, it was clearly circumstantial. I was only -- I tried to remember things as it happened, as I watched and listened to the coverage, that were meaningful to me.
I tried to remember how the mayor behaved. And I was just sort of repeating all of those things. There were no original
thoughts. There were just thoughts that others had expressed that meant something to me. And I was just trying to justify returning to the air with a comedy variety talk show less than a week after the attack.... I was just kind of more or less
talking myself into why this would be OK. And, I don't know.
KOPPEL: We're coming back up into presidential election time, a few more months. Talk for a moment now about how politicians use or try to use programs like yours.
LETTERMAN: Well, I have a very graphic example of that. As the election was closer and closer, we had Al Gore on, we had George W. Bush on, we had others on. And I'm not sure what we were doing, but we certainly had the presidential candidates on. And then, with less than a week to go to election day, we received a call from one of the candidates, offering himself up to participate in comedy on the show - not an interview, but they would be willing to show up and do comedy.
KOPPEL: This was one of the major candidates?
LETTERMAN: One of the two. Yes.
KOPPEL: Would he be living in a place that we'd recognize easily? Or would he be off somewhere?
LETTERMAN: I'm going to leave this to the imagination.
LETTERMAN: And I just - I had to laugh. I just thought, Are they really that desperate? Are they really that silly? I mean, has something indicated to them that this will make a difference in the outcome of the election? And we declined the offer because,
I just, in a way - not that we're above this, but I just felt we were being used just a little bit. And then on the other hand, what
are you going do? OK. Candidate X is going to be here and we're going to work him into a - I don't know. It just seemed silly.
KOPPEL: I mean, if you had accepted it, candidate Y probably would have wanted his own time. You could have some kind
of a competition. Maybe stand-up is the way we're going to be picking our --
LETTERMAN: I mean it was interesting to me because I don't think in the case of Bush or Gore that either of them were particularly thrilled with their appearances here. Yet, when they saw this as a possible last minute opportunity, it seemed to be interesting to them.
KOPPEL: You have any conclusions that you've reached on that?
LETTERMAN: They're silly men.
KOPPEL: What does that say about us?
LETTERMAN: (Laughing) Well, at least I said no.
KOPPEL: Well you've been very nice. I'm sure this ranks immediately behind root canal work in terms of what you enjoy doing.
LETTERMAN: I enjoy talking with you. It's just my greatest fear in life that it's been dull.
LETTERMAN: And I think that's the greatest sin that a person can commit in the world of entertainment.
KOPPEL: You're not dull.
LETTERMAN: You can be great, you can be awful, but just don't bother being dull.
KOPPEL: Well, you haven't done it tonight. Thank you, Dave.
LETTERMAN: Well, thanks for the invitation, Ted.
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