TIME - David Letterman Interview

When the late-night show debuted on NBC in 1982, David Letterman was a young stand-up comic known mainly for occasional stints as a Tonight Show guest host. Now, as his own show prepares to celebrate its seventh anniversary, Letterman has established himself as the medium's most inventive and influential comic. Like Saturday Night Live in the '70's, Late Night with David Letterman has defined the cutting edge of TV comedy in the '80s: hip, irreverent, self-parodying, both scornful of and fascinated by the cliches of show business. Sitting in his Rockefeller Center office recently after a late-afternoon taping of his show, Letterman talked about his career and his comedy with associate editor Richard Zoglin.

Q. When you started this show, you were sort of TV's avant-garde, and now you're almost the king of the mountain. You're the guy people are trying to knock off, or copy. Does that make you uncomfortable?

A. Well, I think your assessment, while flattering, is largely inaccurate. I wouldn't say we're the king of the mountain. And I'm not sure we were ever avant-garde. I think it's true that in the early days we felt like we had to establish ourselves as being different, so maybe it was easier for us to do odd things and take more chances. I think the grind of doing a show every night makes you more inclined to say, "Well, we did that once before, we can do it again." A certain kind of inertia takes over. But I think what has come over the years is a more consistent spirit. We have more confidence now in what we do. Whereas before it was like rolling a hand grenade into a hen house -- you just waited to see where the feathers would land. You know, that's not a bad idea, rolling a hand grenade into ...nah.

Q. What things on the show really make you laugh?

A. I like having a camera in different locations and being able to talk with people there. And I always love it when the
"civilians" are able to do something that gets a huge laugh. I like it sometimes when things just don't work, and you're overwhelmed with this hopeless, giddy attitude. I liked a couple of months ago when, for no reason, we just made waffles,
as an adjunct activity to the show. I liked having a show and then, every few minutes, seeing if the waffles were done. I don't know why exactly. When somebody came up with the idea -- "Well, we could make waffles" -- you thought, "Why would we make waffles?" But it's the Why-would-we-make-waffles? attitude that I think made it fun to do.

Q. In cases like that, you seem to be parodying the talk show itself: This is how mundane we can get. We can make waffles,
and people will think it's entertainment. Are you satirizing TV?

A. It was never our intention to satirize or parody a talk show. It's just that we have an hour of TV to do each night, and it's got to be a talk show, so what can we do inside that framework that would make us laugh? It's just goofy, silly additional behavior. We never said, "What we want to do here is construct a mirror of the American talk show and hold that up to the viewer." We never really set out to show people a parody of a talk show. I mean, it is a talk show.

Q. You seem to have got better at doing interviews than in the beginning.

A. Well, you'd almost have to, wouldn't you?

Q. Did you have a problem with your own performance?

A. I still do. I didn't think I'd have a problem with interviews because I had hosted The Tonight Show, and there, if you just sit and follow the notes that the staff has prepared for you, you can do a pretty good interview. But for some reason, on this show I had a lot of trouble. I think I just was frightened that suddenly I had to perform as the host of my own show. I was intimidated by guests. So it took a while to overcome that. I remember at one point having a major shift of attitude. After two or three years, it didn't seem that we could do anything to improve the ratings. I can remember just feeling this frustration and despair and exhaustion, and it was kind of like -- screw it. At that point I think I was able to relax more.

Q. When you first became known as the hip talk show, many guests started coming on with attitude -- trying to top you or
do crazy things. Did that make you uncomfortable?

A. It still happens and still makes me uncomfortable. I've always been a big fan of Jack Paar's. I had met him, and he had invited me to his home a couple of times. I had always found him to be really interesting and still very energetic and dynamic, and I had wanted to get him on the show. But the response was that he had been advised by friends not to go on our show because we would make fun of him. I was saddened by that.

Q. Some viewers find you condescending, smug, even mean.

A. I suppose I am all of those things, but we never invite somebody on to demonstrate condescension -- or condensation. If somebody comes on and is a bonehead and is loafing through an interview, I resent that, and maybe I will then go after
them. But if you come on and are polite and well-groomed and behave yourself, then you've got nothing to worry about. I'm
stunned at the number of people in show business who come on and don't seem to get that what we want from them is a
performance, you know, tell us three stories out of your life. Anybody who has been on this planet 20 years and doesn't have
three stories, well, they should re-examine what they're doing. It used to trouble me that people thought our sole purpose for being in business was to make fun of people. Unfortunately, there is no joke that does not make fun of somebody. I try to make it, as often as not, me or the show or somebody in our little group. So if we do say something that looks like we're making fun of somebody else, it's in the spirit of everything. But some people don't buy that. I know that some people can't stand me, and it troubles me because I think we're just trying to do the funniest show we know how.

Q. Any guests who have particularly annoyed you?

A. The one that really upset me recently was Shirley MacLaine. Shirley was too big a star to do a pre-interview. We had no
idea what she wanted to talk about. So the talent staff put together a list of four or five questions based on research material. Then she comes on the program and she brings with her an attitude, which she mentioned early on: "I guess Cher was right." (Cher once called Letterman an unprintable name on the air.) I thought that was untoward, needless. And then, when I would ask her the questions, about her past lives or about her book or about her film -- projects that she had devoted no small measure of time and effort to -- she just couldn't be bothered. So I thought to myself: Why are you on this show, lady? There was not a gun at this woman's head. I have less and less patience for that kind of behavior.

Q. Your interplay with bandleader Paul Shaffer has become a major part of the show. Are you good friends?

A. I have a great deal of respect for Paul, and if he decided to quit the show, I don't know that I would continue without him. We're close; we chat every day before the show and after the show. We've been to dinner many times, and he's been to my house many times. I like him, and I think he's the best at what he does. But we're not best friends. I think it would be odd for me and Paul to be best friends away from the show and then have any kind of acceptable relationship on the show. By the way, this is his last night. I caught him using my comb, so we had to let him go.

Q. Like Johnny Carson, you're considered a remote personality on TV. And yet you do talk about yourself a lot -- your
problems getting cable or driving in from Connecticut or whatever. How much of yourself do you think you reveal on the air?

A. I like talking about things that happen in my life if I think I can make me the butt of the joke. But I'm not crazy about actually talking about real things in my life: the women in my life, or my own political feelings and beliefs, limited as they are. If something funny happens in the supermarket, I like trying to talk about that. Because I think -- and this may be completely misguided -- if I were at home watching a show, I'd like to hear about Johnny Carson's getting a flat tire. But I don't want to start explaining in great detail what makes me happy, what makes me sad, that kind of crap.

Q. Speaking of things you won't discuss on the show, are you dating much?

A. As much as I need to. That sounds horrible, doesn't it? (Former head writer) Merrill Markoe and I lived together for a long, long time. She is largely responsible for the success of the show, many of her ideas are mainstays, and she is one of the most important people in my life ever. I won't give you the gory details, but it seems to have come to a halt.

Q. But you're not spending your nights alone?

A. I'm not leading a monastic existence.

Q. What movies and comedians did you like growing up in Indiana?

A. When I was a kid I never really went to movies. In my house, going to movies was pretty much equated with as big a
waste of time as you could come by as a human. When I got to an age where I could appreciate comedians, it was guys like
Jonathan Winters; he used to really make me laugh hard. At about 16 or 17, on Friday nights I could stay up late and watch the Steve Allen Show. And sometimes after school I used to watch Who Do You Trust? with Johnny Carson.

Q. You began your career in local TV. Did you enjoy that?

A. It was a great time. My first television job was while I was still in college, and I was hired against all odds by a station in Indianapolis. I started as a voice-over announcer doing station identifications. Then gradually, through vacation schedules and attrition, I got to do morning news once; got to host a kids' show once; ended up doing the weather and a late-night movie show. You just do everything you can. It was great fun because there was no pressure. I could pretty much do whatever I wanted, and nobody cared because I was always the fill-in guy. What you learn there is that television is the same at that level and at this level. In fact, here maybe a little lower.

Q. Do you miss doing stand-up comedy?

A. I don't think I was a good stand-up comedian. I could do the job. I learned the skills of making a roomful of drunks laugh. But I never really enjoyed it. I always felt like I was not enough. To me, when you go see a comic, you want to see a guy like (slapstick comedian) Gallagher. You want to see lights and props and balloons and fruit being smashed. You want to see something because you're spending something like 20 to 25 bucks. They came to see me, and all I really had was 30 minutes of jokes.

Q. Your first network TV job was on Mary Tyler Moore's short-lived variety show. Was that a good experience?

A. At the time it was the best experience and the worst experience I had had. I was living in one room on Sunset Boulevard, driving a '73 pickup truck. I'd get in my truck and drive to work every day -- which was Television City. In Hollywood! And one of my co-workers was Mary Tyler Moore! It was great, the American show-biz dream come true. It was also difficult because in each show there was a big dance number, and every Tuesday the wardrobe people would come around and fit
you for like a Peter Pan suit to wear in the number. I always described it as: What's wrong with this picture? Well, Letterman has no business being there with Mary Tyler Moore, that's what's wrong with this picture.

Q. Would you like to do movies?

A. I have finally signed a deal with the Disney people. In actuality the deal is: If you ever want to do a movie, you'll do it for us. I have no ideas. But I just feel it's sort of an inevitability that one day I'll do a really bad movie.

Q. If NBC asked you to take over as host of The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson retires, would you say yes?

A. I guess of course I would. But I think ultimately I would be happy just to be considered.

Q. You seem to really look up to Carson. Why?

A. Many reasons. First of all, personally, if it had not been for The Tonight Show and Johnny Carson, I wouldn't have a
car -- probably wouldn't have shoes. But the real reason I look up to the guy is the longer I do this, the more respect I have for him. Show me somebody else in the history of television who has not only survived but also dominated for a quarter of a century. I think if you don't have respect for that, there's something wrong with you. And he still makes me laugh. In fact, I don't even watch The Tonight Show because how good he is makes me nervous and insecure. I look at that show, and I say to myself, "Yeah, see, you're no Johnny Carson."

Q. What else do you want to do with your life?

A. Well, this is it. All I ever wanted to do is to have a television show. And I've got one. So from that standpoint I feel like I've succeeded. I also think The Tonight Show is the only other show I would do. I think once this show is canceled or once I get fired, you'll never see me again in another TV show of my own. It's just too much work, too heartbreaking, and if you've done it once, congratulations. At some point during the article can you mention that I'm looking tan and well-rested? I know I'm not, but I always think that makes for a really successful piece.
"He's no Johnny Carson but David Letterman is tan and fit and the funniest man on late-night television. Not bad for a guy
who makes waffles on the air and likes to roll grenades into the hen house"

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February 6th 1989
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