TIME - David Letterman Interview
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TIME - David Letterman Interview

Workmen are still wandering through the halls, rats are being chased in the basement, and bullet-proof glass is being
installed in David Letterman's office. Not really bulletproof; that's just the way Letterman likes to describe the protective pane designed to prevent him from accidentally tossing a baseball right through the glass, as he did once at his old NBC office, raining shards on pedestrians below. But Letterman is already gushing over his unfinished suite as if he had just moved into Windsor Castle. "Look at this," he says, striding into the room in his workaday outfit of T-shirt, shorts and sneakers. "It's brand-new. Clean walls. New carpet. Office furniture. I used to have a paper route, and now I have three floors of a theater building on Broadway in New York City. I'm the luckiest man alive."

After a decade of the fabled Letterman irony, one can be excused a skeptical pause. Is he serious? Or is this another Letterman put-on, one of those statements meant to convey its precise opposite -- the way "those fine, fine people at General
Electric" on his old show usually meant Dave has had another dustup with his bonehead corporate bosses. Letterman's new
headquarters -- located a few stories above New York City's Ed Sullivan Theater, where he is about to unveil his new
late-night talk show on CBS -- are clean, all right, but not without intrusion. The smell of roasting chicken wafts up every afternoon from the fast-food place downstairs and causes most of the staff to make faces. "I don't mind it," he says cheerily. "You build the place over a chicken restaurant, what is it gonna smell like -- catfish?"

No getting around it; David Letterman sounds, well, happy for a change. Or, at least, as happy as an insecure, driven,
angst-ridden performer with a pathological fear of failure can be. Certainly no one has more of a right to enjoy himself for a spell. For the past two years, Letterman has been the most wrangled-over, gossiped-about, sought-after star in television. When Jay Leno was chosen to succeed Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show, it was Letterman, the disappointed office seeker, who drew the sympathy vote. Last fall, when his contract with NBC was coming due after 11 years as custodian of the post-Carson time period, he was besieged with offers. In January, when he announced he was jumping to
CBS for a reported $14 million a year, Letterman reached the superstar pantheon. Starting next Monday when his show
resurfaces on CBS at 11:35 p.m. Eastern time -- going head to head against Leno's Tonight Show in most cities -- he will be
the point man in the most frenzied battle for late-night viewers in TV history.

This matters, not just because a lot of money is at stake -- about $675 million in advertising revenue this year for a time period that once was a quiet backwater -- the struggle is also for the soul of late-night TV, where America goes live and loose, where the rituals of daily life give way, on occasion, to the risky and serendipitous. Late night comes after the cheery sitcoms and earnest magazine shows have gone to bed. It is where Americans have the freedom to rabble-rouse, ruminate or maybe just relax -- their small-scale midnight rebellion.

Letterman's second coming in late night has set off a high-stakes scramble. A week after his debut, Chevy Chase will launch his own talk show on the Fox network. A week after that Conan O'Brien, the tousle-haired comedy writer plucked from
obscurity by producer Lorne Michaels, will try to fill Letterman's old chair on NBC. Leno, feeling the competitive heat, has had his mug plastered on billboards around the country, while Arsenio Hall, despite slipping ratings, is still a hip-hop force to reckon with. Add to that Ted Koppel's sturdy (and frequently top-rated) Nightline and wild cards like Rush Limbaugh, and you have the most hotly contested creatively bustling time period in television. "Late night," says Leno, "is just about the only place on network TV where anything interesting is happening. It's almost the new prime time."

All of it is revolving around Letterman. His new TV incarnation represents more than just a change of networks and an earlier bedtime; it marks the ascendance of a new generation. When Late Night with David Letterman made its debut on NBC in 1982, it was the prankish outsider, a subversive send-up of talk shows, television, the entertainment world in general. Letterman refused to fawn over guests; with the help of Vegas-obsessed bandleader Paul Shaffer, he took deadpan aim at show-biz phoniness. He griped about his NBC bosses, turned stagehands into stars, conducted elevator races in the hallway.

His medium-twisting inventiveness was influenced by Ernie Kovacs, his man-on-the-street playfulness by Steve Allen. But Letterman seasoned them with his own sardonic, cranky, cooler-than-cool personality. For a young generation of viewers bored with television's formula and fakery, Letterman was fresh, liberating, indispensable.

The TV question of the moment is whether Letterman's offbeat, sometimes abrasive style will work at 11:30, where the
mainstream audience is more accustomed to the enthusiasm that Carson (and now Leno) brought to the job of helping celebrities promote their new movies. Industry prognosticators are cautious, if not downright skeptical. Leno, inheritor of the
powerful Tonight franchise, is generally regarded as the front runner, if only because Letterman's show will have a weaker
station lineup: more than 30% of CBS affiliates will be delaying his program by half an hour or more to make room for
syndicated fare.

CBS is projecting that Letterman will average a 4 rating -- a big jump over its current ratings, though still behind Leno's (who averaged 4.6 last season). Some advertising gurus think even that is too optimistic.

After an initial burst of curiosity tune-in, predicts Gene DeWitt, president of a New York City media management firm, the audience will drift back to Leno. "CBS's audience seems to skew a bit older (than Letterman's). It's kind of like putting
a SoHo comedian into the Fontainebleau hotel."

Yet Madison Avenue has a poor record of foreseeing seismic shifts in TV viewing patterns. As he moves closer to the mainstream, Letterman may find the mainstream has met him more than halfway. Letterman's hip, ironic, show-biz-hardened
sensibility has, in the decade since he arrived, moved to the center of the culture in everything from sitcoms to Spy magazine. Billy Crystal used to poke fun at Tonight Show blather on Saturday Night Live ("You look mahvelous"); now he hosts the Academy Awards. Knockoffs of Letterman's Top 10 lists have turned up everywhere but on the backs of cereal boxes.

Leno himself has appropriated, clumsily, Letterman-style bits (Jay too makes phone calls for people picked from the audience). The only late-night host who still seems to regard Merv Griffin as an acceptable role model is Arsenio Hall, and he introduces rap groups and wears an earring.

None of which appears to be causing much concern among Letterman and his brain trust, who have spent the past month
settling into their new digs and holding twice-daily meetings to plan their new show. Much of the activity has been on the
architectural front. In 12 furious weeks, the old Ed Sullivan Theater -- where Elvis and the Beatles were once presented by
the Great Stone Face --- was given a complete overhaul. In his new setup Letterman will have a more cavernous auditorium, a bigger audience (about 400 seats, nearly double the capacity of his old NBC studio) and a whole new neighborhood for his snoopy cameras to roam around in. "You can leave the stage, go down three or four steps, open the door, and you're right on 53rd Street," says Letterman. "I can scream every night at Miss Saigon. I can literally holler at her. I can make enough
noise on our sidewalk to disrupt their show every night."

A few other changes are being planned. Shaffer has added two more members to the band, renamed it the CBS Orchestra and rescored the bluesy theme song to give it "more Pizazz." Guests too are likely to be ratcheted a notch higher in marquee value. "At 11:30, with such heated competition, you have to have guests that are more surefire," says executive producer Robert Morton. "On the old show, we had more breathing room. We might put on a guest who wasn't a great talker but someone we really liked. Now we're going for the best possible performers."

Among those scheduled for the first week: Robin Williams, Martin Short, Debra Winger and John Mellencamp. (In a nice bow to tradition, Letterman's very first guest will be Bill Murray, his inaugural guest on NBC in 1982.)

But Letterman and his staff dismiss any notion that the show will be toned down or changed in any substantive way to suit the earlier time period. In a series of brainstorming meetings on the subject, Letterman and his producers considered several
ideas -- expanding the opening monologue, switching from a single chair for guests to a Tonight-style couch -- and
rejected them. Says Morton: "We decided we do a pretty darn good show."

For several weeks, the Letterman crew has been taping "remotes" that will look little different from the taped bits familiar to fans of his old show. So far, Letterman has gone on a tour of the CBS Broadcast Center, manned a drive-up window at McDonald's and escorted Zsa Zsa Gabor through a New Jersey neighborhood in a segment titled "Do You Have a Question for Zsa Zsa?" (Letterman's postmortem: "Only one person asked her about slapping the cop. I thought that was odd.")

Nor does Letterman seem troubled about the much publicized dispute with NBC over the rights to his signature bits, such as the Top 10 list and Stupid Pet Tricks. The Letterman camp has conceded some points; it has changed the title of the show from Late Night to Late Show with David Letterman, for instance. But the Top 10 list and other familiar bits will be back, Letterman promises, though possibly under different names. "I would never put CBS in a position where they would have to legally defend me," he says.

Meet the new, cooperative, user-friendly David Letterman. At NBC, Letterman was a notorious malcontent, getting upset over real and perceived network slights, like a cost-saving proposal that he share studio space with The Maury Povich Show. At CBS he has schmoozed with affiliates, had nothing but kind words for network executives and recorded dozens of on-air promos, which have run ad infinitum since mid-July -- a campaign, says Letterman, that "is now officially embarrassing even me." Some of the spots, in their snide way, seem intended to reveal a softer side of the acerbic late-night host. In one, Letterman talks about his two sisters. The older one, he says, taught him, "When you go to the bathroom, close the door"; and the younger one was "one of the smartest people that I've ever been around" but "won't give me her phone number."

Yet Letterman, 46, remains an aloof, almost opaque celebrity. In conversation he is articulate, disarmingly modest and genuinely, effortlessly funny. Having shed 30 pounds since last year, he seems more relaxed and upbeat than ever before. Yet he guards his emotions tightly and talks only reluctantly about his private life.

Colleagues say one reason is that there isn't much of it. Letterman, by most accounts, is consumed by his work, has few close friends and spends little time socializing outside the office. His current girlfriend, Regina Lasko, used to work on his show (she is now production manager for Saturday Night Live), but most staffers were unaware of their relationship until the two had been dating for months. She shares his lower Manhattan loft, though he still spends much of his time (more than she would like, he admits) at his house in Connecticut.

Letterman has mentioned her name publicly only once and regrets it. "People started following her family around," he says.
Others attribute Letterman's reclusiveness to his Midwestern reticence and a sincere discomfort with playing the celebrity game. "It's good taste," says Steve O'Donnell, who spent eight years as the show's head writer. "He doesn't want to lay that stuff on you."

Despite his kids-in-the-hall casualness around the office, Letterman is a fiercely driven perfectionist who controls virtually every detail of his show. "There's more tension than any place I've ever worked," says an ex-staffer.

Letterman rejects reams of material submitted by his team of a dozen writers, and he crosses off potential guests by the score. "We'd hand in a list of 50 guests, and he's say no to 48," says a frustrated former booker. He is also notoriously moody and has last-minute pangs of self-doubt. "In the makeup room five minutes before the show," says head writer Rob Burnett, "Dave will suddenly say, 'This bit is not going to work.' Sometimes he needs to be almost pushed in front of the camera." After the show, he typically replays the videotape and broods about mistakes or bits that misfired.

"He's incredibly insecure and very self-torturing," says Merrill Markoe, his former girlfriend, who helped create Late Night, devised such popular bits as Stupid Pet Tricks and wrote for the show until 1986. "He doesn't ever reward himself for a job well done. He always feels that he screwed up. In fact, in all the years I knew him, I never once heard him say he thought something went pretty well. The most he ever gives himself is remarks like, 'Well, I guess that stuck to the tape.'"

Markoe and Letterman split up five years ago and no longer speak. Letterman expresses no bitterness and praises Markoe as "the smartest, funniest woman I've ever been around." Markoe, who is now writing books, says she hasn't watched Letterman's show since the breakup and "won't even talk to people about working on another late-night show. I have no
interest in helping any other white man in a suit do an inventive show. Let them all find their own damn inventive shows."

If women staffers describe Letterman's program as a boys' club, it is not just because only one of the show's 12 writers is female; it is also because the off-camera Letterman is much like the on-camera, prank-playing fraternity boy. Staffers recall the chaos that ensued during an office celebration several years ago when he set off a flare in Morton's office and triggered the building's smoke alarms.

A couple of weeks ago, Letterman challenged head writer Burnett to an oyster-eating contest: $150 if he consumed 50, $10 for each one thereafter. (Burnett wolfed down 60.) Letterman's outside interests mostly involve sports. He jogs and swims (more of the latter since he injured his neck in a car accident two years ago), plays basketball and went to the all-star baseball game in July. His No. 1 passion is auto racing. Letterman keeps a collection of foreign sports cars in an airplane hangar in Santa Monica, pores over British racing magazines and takes a different friend each year to the Indianapolis 500, part of his campaign to show that the sport is "more than cowboys in cars going as far as they can."

Racing has a nostalgic appeal for Letterman, who grew up in Indianapolis. "I can remember as a kid going out to the
speedway with my uncle to watch time trials for the race," he says. "I loved those days."

Letterman treats his Midwestern roots with a mixture of ironic detachment and affection. He visits his mother a couple of times a year; the last time was after this year's Indy 500. Letterman says he was tickled by the experience. He called the
house at 7 p.m. and came by after dinner. "I got there at 8:30, and Mom says to me (affecting her quiet, church-lady voice), 'David, would you like some strawberry pie?' I go into the kitchen, and there's a brand-new, fresh-baked strawberry pie. I said, 'When did you make this?' She said, 'I started right after I got off the phone with you.' It was just the cutest. I was so touched. Isn't that motherhood? She gets off the phone, drops what she's doing and bakes a pie."

Letterman's father, a florist who died when David was 27, was a "polar opposite. When he would walk through a room, lamps would rattle. He was funny and energetic and a goofball, screaming and hollering, making corny jokes. Then when he died, the focus shifted obviously to my mother, and none of us realized how quiet and undemonstrative she was. It took some
re-getting used to. My first 27 years, I'm living in a fraternity house. It was all thunder and lightning. And with my mom now, it's kind of a gentle spring rain."

Letterman married his college sweetheart and moved with her to California, where they divorced after nine years. Friends say he was rarely without a steady girlfriend thereafter, though Letterman gets a troubled look whenever the subject of female relationships comes up. "Every relationship that's failed in my life has been my fault," he says.

His closest male friends are mostly comedians he met on the club circuit in Los Angeles. Even they concede that Letterman reveals little about himself. George Miller, who lived in the same apartment building as Letterman, across the street from the Comedy Store, recalls taking him along on his first three or four guest appearances on The Tonight Show. When Letterman was invited for his first Tonight gig, however, "I found out about it from Merrill," says Miller. "I was a
little ticked off. But it's just because he's so private."

For all his guardedness, Letterman can be generous and loyal to friends. In 1979 Miller was among several comics who
boycotted the Comedy Store in a labor dispute. Letterman, who by this time was guest-hosting The Tonight Show, kept
performing there because he needed to try out material. Miller showed up one night to watch his friend, but the club's owner
called the police and had him thrown out. "After Dave heard what had happened, he never worked another show there," says
Miller. "That was quite a sacrifice."

Letterman's standards and sense of propriety are apparent as well in his choice of material. Writers say he often rejects jokes that stray too close to tragic news events or real-life misfortune. Rob Burnett recalls Letterman turned down a gag for a segment called Charts and Graphs -- "Dyslexics' Favorite Beatles," featuring names like ULAP and OGNIR; the host said it made fun of a serious disability.

Comedian Jeff Altman, another Letterman pal from the Comedy Store days, remembers a guest appearance on Late Night in
which he made a lewd crack that included the word "genitals." Letterman didn't laugh, and Altman complained about it later at
dinner. "I said, 'You could have helped me out a little there.'" Dave said, "Maybe you shouldn't have said that on TV.'"

In his Midwestern modesty and reserve, Letterman recalls no one so much as the man he publicly idolized, Johnny Carson.
Like Carson, much of Letterman's appeal comes from the counterpoint between his heartland Wasp looks and his edgy
irreverence. The two have become closer since Carson retired, Letterman says. "I'm more at ease around him now." Letterman had dinner at Carson's house in April, along with former Tonight producer (and now Letterman executive producer) Peter Lassally. Carson served meat loaf and mashed potatoes and talked about his recent African safari. "He had learned Swahili," says Letterman. "I'm thinking, is this a dream? I'm here in Johnny Carson's dining room, and he's speaking
Swahili."

After flirting with a movie career (he signed a development deal with Disney several years ago, but it came to nothing), Letterman seems determined, for now, to continue doing what he does best. The move to Carson's old 11:30 slot means the sort of mainstream acceptance he could never achieve as host of a fringe-period talk show -- "entertaining prisoners and college students," as he once put it. Says Markoe: "Dave is the most competitive person I have ever spent a lot of time with. It really matters to him to win everything he goes into.

Dave has taken a new time slot because he wants to win." And if he wins, then what? "I'm not going to be around as long as Carson was around," Letterman vows. "After a period of time with this, I will leave and go on. I'll probably never be on television again, on any kind of regular basis. This will be my new and final project." A pause for the old self-doubt to surface. "You can hear America breathing a sigh of relief."


-- with reporting by Georgia Harbison/New York


(Follow-up article in February, 1994)

"In the kingdom of Letterman"

"After a smash Olympic performance, he is dominating late night. But he's not the same old Dave"

By RICHARD ZOGLIN


Now that the dust has settled, it all seems so obvious. Of course David Letterman was the logical person to take over the
Tonight Show when Johnny Carson retired. Of course NBC made a mistake in betting on Jay Leno and letting Dave slip away to CBS. Of course Letterman's hip, edgy 12:30 a.m. sensibility could be adapted for a more mainstream audience at 11:30 p.m. And, of course, hindsight is easy.

As Bill Carter reveals in The Late Shift (Hyperion, $24.95) his richly reported book on the network battle over Letterman, NBC's blunder was, if not excusable, at least understandable. When the network negotiated a new contract with Leno in 1991, in part to keep him from jumping (ironically) to CBS, it guaranteed him The Tonight slot after Carson left -- not an unreasonable promise to the man who had been capably filling in for Carson for four years. Letterman, who preferred private
sulking to office politics, never let top NBC executives know how crucial The Tonight Show was to his own conception of
career growth.

So NBC wrongly assumed it could give the job to Leno and still somehow keep Dave happy. Letterman's ascension at CBS as the undisputed king of late night was confirmed by the Winter Olympics. Appearing each evening with his Top 10 lists and Gillooly gags, Letterman's Late show was the Official Comedy Wrap-Up of the '94 Games. Ratings for his second Olympic week soared to 8.9 (compared with an average 5.8), the show's highest ever. What clinched it for Middle America was Dave's mom, who was sent to Lillehammer to report on the Games and banter on the air with her son. What a guy: he not only has higher ratings, makes more money and provides more laughs than anybody else in late-night TV -- he's nice to his mother too.
The formidable influence of Letterman, the man and the mystique, could be felt when he showed up last Monday as a
guest on Conan O'Brien's show. Dave's gracious praise for his successor on Late Night -- "You've really done a great job to
carve out a wonderful identity for yourselves" -- was like the Pope's benediction. O'Brien needs it; after six months he is
as awkward and clueless in front of the camera as the day his show was born.

That same night, Greg Kinnear took over as host of Later, NBC's post-Late Night half-hour recently abandoned by Bob Costas. Kinnear, the snickering host of the E! channel's Talk Soup, has done exactly what might have been expected with
Costas' low-key single-guest interview show: turned it into another Letterman knockoff. He has added a studio audience, an
opening monologue (video clips of the day's news followed by Kinnear wisecracks) and lots of prepared shtick to keep the
interviews from bogging down in, say, real conversation. For Julia Louis-Dreyfus, he introduced a taped bit purporting to
reveal that she is actually bald. For Martin Short, he took out a script of The Bodyguard and asked Short to read for the
Kevin Costner part. The program's redeeming feature is Kinnear himself, who is confident and comfortable in his first talk-show gig. If he doesn't replace O'Brien within six months, NBC really does need psychiatric help.

Letterman, meanwhile, has done a masterly job of refashioning his show to appeal to a broader audience. He has
easily outclassed the square, high-pitched Leno (who has taken to selling monologue jokes by appending the line "You'll be
tellin' that in the morning") and has converted thousands of onetime skeptics into Letterman lovers. Only to his old fans has he, in the process, become less interesting.

The changes in Letterman's show and persona have been important but little noted. His old four-jokes-and-out opening
monologue has been expanded into a more traditional (and less funny) Carsonesque one. Bandleader Paul Shaffer, whose
Vegas-inspired repartee with Letterman was the heart and soul of the old Late Night, has retreated oddly into the background.

In every way the show is bigger, louder, flashier -- and less adventurous. No more weird phone calls to Moscow or South
Dakota; no more barging in on Joan Collins before her Live at Five appearance. Now Dave's cameras pay "surprise" visits to
shop owners in the neighborhood, who seem all too prepared for instant celebrityhood. He brings on the cast members of Cats for bits and welcomes Tony Bennett to help sing the Top 10 list.

Dave is in a better mood too. The grumbly, peevish Letterman of Studio 6A days could sometimes be a drag. But the upbeat Letterman who has resurfaced on CBS seems defanged. He still takes shots at network executives, but there's no passion
in it anymore. With actresses like Debra Winger and Jennifer Jason Leigh, he seems positively awestruck. It is hard to
imagine Cher coming on the show and calling this David Letterman an asshole.

Oh, well, Dave's on Broadway now, and there are more seats to fill. His show is like a Pinter psychodrama that has
been reworked with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Nothing wrong with that, but why is this man making fun of Cats?

THE ENDTIME - David Letterman Interview

Workmen are still wandering through the halls, rats are being chased in the basement, and bullet-proof glass is being
installed in David Letterman's office. Not really bulletproof; that's just the way Letterman likes to describe the protective pane designed to prevent him from accidentally tossing a baseball right through the glass, as he did once at his old NBC office, raining shards on pedestrians below. But Letterman is already gushing over his unfinished suite as if he had just moved into Windsor Castle. "Look at this," he says, striding into the room in his workaday outfit of T-shirt, shorts and sneakers. "It's brand-new. Clean walls. New carpet. Office furniture. I used to have a paper route, and now I have three floors of a theater building on Broadway in New York City. I'm the luckiest man alive."

After a decade of the fabled Letterman irony, one can be excused a skeptical pause. Is he serious? Or is this another Letterman put-on, one of those statements meant to convey its precise opposite -- the way "those fine, fine people at General
Electric" on his old show usually meant Dave has had another dustup with his bonehead corporate bosses. Letterman's new
headquarters -- located a few stories above New York City's Ed Sullivan Theater, where he is about to unveil his new
late-night talk show on CBS -- are clean, all right, but not without intrusion. The smell of roasting chicken wafts up every afternoon from the fast-food place downstairs and causes most of the staff to make faces. "I don't mind it," he says cheerily. "You build the place over a chicken restaurant, what is it gonna smell like -- catfish?"

No getting around it; David Letterman sounds, well, happy for a change. Or, at least, as happy as an insecure, driven,
angst-ridden performer with a pathological fear of failure can be. Certainly no one has more of a right to enjoy himself for a spell. For the past two years, Letterman has been the most wrangled-over, gossiped-about, sought-after star in television. When Jay Leno was chosen to succeed Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show, it was Letterman, the disappointed office seeker, who drew the sympathy vote. Last fall, when his contract with NBC was coming due after 11 years as custodian of the post-Carson time period, he was besieged with offers. In January, when he announced he was jumping to
CBS for a reported $14 million a year, Letterman reached the superstar pantheon. Starting next Monday when his show
resurfaces on CBS at 11:35 p.m. Eastern time -- going head to head against Leno's Tonight Show in most cities -- he will be
the point man in the most frenzied battle for late-night viewers in TV history.

This matters, not just because a lot of money is at stake -- about $675 million in advertising revenue this year for a time period that once was a quiet backwater -- the struggle is also for the soul of late-night TV, where America goes live and loose, where the rituals of daily life give way, on occasion, to the risky and serendipitous. Late night comes after the cheery sitcoms and earnest magazine shows have gone to bed. It is where Americans have the freedom to rabble-rouse, ruminate or maybe just relax -- their small-scale midnight rebellion.

Letterman's second coming in late night has set off a high-stakes scramble. A week after his debut, Chevy Chase will launch his own talk show on the Fox network. A week after that Conan O'Brien, the tousle-haired comedy writer plucked from
obscurity by producer Lorne Michaels, will try to fill Letterman's old chair on NBC. Leno, feeling the competitive heat, has had his mug plastered on billboards around the country, while Arsenio Hall, despite slipping ratings, is still a hip-hop force to reckon with. Add to that Ted Koppel's sturdy (and frequently top-rated) Nightline and wild cards like Rush Limbaugh, and you have the most hotly contested creatively bustling time period in television. "Late night," says Leno, "is just about the only place on network TV where anything interesting is happening. It's almost the new prime time."

All of it is revolving around Letterman. His new TV incarnation represents more than just a change of networks and an earlier bedtime; it marks the ascendance of a new generation. When Late Night with David Letterman made its debut on NBC in 1982, it was the prankish outsider, a subversive send-up of talk shows, television, the entertainment world in general. Letterman refused to fawn over guests; with the help of Vegas-obsessed bandleader Paul Shaffer, he took deadpan aim at show-biz phoniness. He griped about his NBC bosses, turned stagehands into stars, conducted elevator races in the hallway.

His medium-twisting inventiveness was influenced by Ernie Kovacs, his man-on-the-street playfulness by Steve Allen. But Letterman seasoned them with his own sardonic, cranky, cooler-than-cool personality. For a young generation of viewers bored with television's formula and fakery, Letterman was fresh, liberating, indispensable.

The TV question of the moment is whether Letterman's offbeat, sometimes abrasive style will work at 11:30, where the
mainstream audience is more accustomed to the enthusiasm that Carson (and now Leno) brought to the job of helping celebrities promote their new movies. Industry prognosticators are cautious, if not downright skeptical. Leno, inheritor of the
powerful Tonight franchise, is generally regarded as the front runner, if only because Letterman's show will have a weaker
station lineup: more than 30% of CBS affiliates will be delaying his program by half an hour or more to make room for
syndicated fare.

CBS is projecting that Letterman will average a 4 rating -- a big jump over its current ratings, though still behind Leno's (who averaged 4.6 last season). Some advertising gurus think even that is too optimistic.

After an initial burst of curiosity tune-in, predicts Gene DeWitt, president of a New York City media management firm, the audience will drift back to Leno. "CBS's audience seems to skew a bit older (than Letterman's). It's kind of like putting
a SoHo comedian into the Fontainebleau hotel."

Yet Madison Avenue has a poor record of foreseeing seismic shifts in TV viewing patterns. As he moves closer to the mainstream, Letterman may find the mainstream has met him more than halfway. Letterman's hip, ironic, show-biz-hardened
sensibility has, in the decade since he arrived, moved to the center of the culture in everything from sitcoms to Spy magazine. Billy Crystal used to poke fun at Tonight Show blather on Saturday Night Live ("You look mahvelous"); now he hosts the Academy Awards. Knockoffs of Letterman's Top 10 lists have turned up everywhere but on the backs of cereal boxes.

Leno himself has appropriated, clumsily, Letterman-style bits (Jay too makes phone calls for people picked from the audience). The only late-night host who still seems to regard Merv Griffin as an acceptable role model is Arsenio Hall, and he introduces rap groups and wears an earring.

None of which appears to be causing much concern among Letterman and his brain trust, who have spent the past month
settling into their new digs and holding twice-daily meetings to plan their new show. Much of the activity has been on the
architectural front. In 12 furious weeks, the old Ed Sullivan Theater -- where Elvis and the Beatles were once presented by
the Great Stone Face --- was given a complete overhaul. In his new setup Letterman will have a more cavernous auditorium, a bigger audience (about 400 seats, nearly double the capacity of his old NBC studio) and a whole new neighborhood for his snoopy cameras to roam around in. "You can leave the stage, go down three or four steps, open the door, and you're right on 53rd Street," says Letterman. "I can scream every night at Miss Saigon. I can literally holler at her. I can make enough
noise on our sidewalk to disrupt their show every night."

A few other changes are being planned. Shaffer has added two more members to the band, renamed it the CBS Orchestra and rescored the bluesy theme song to give it "more Pizazz." Guests too are likely to be ratcheted a notch higher in marquee value. "At 11:30, with such heated competition, you have to have guests that are more surefire," says executive producer Robert Morton. "On the old show, we had more breathing room. We might put on a guest who wasn't a great talker but someone we really liked. Now we're going for the best possible performers."

Among those scheduled for the first week: Robin Williams, Martin Short, Debra Winger and John Mellencamp. (In a nice bow to tradition, Letterman's very first guest will be Bill Murray, his inaugural guest on NBC in 1982.)

But Letterman and his staff dismiss any notion that the show will be toned down or changed in any substantive way to suit the earlier time period. In a series of brainstorming meetings on the subject, Letterman and his producers considered several
ideas -- expanding the opening monologue, switching from a single chair for guests to a Tonight-style couch -- and
rejected them. Says Morton: "We decided we do a pretty darn good show."

For several weeks, the Letterman crew has been taping "remotes" that will look little different from the taped bits familiar to fans of his old show. So far, Letterman has gone on a tour of the CBS Broadcast Center, manned a drive-up window at McDonald's and escorted Zsa Zsa Gabor through a New Jersey neighborhood in a segment titled "Do You Have a Question for Zsa Zsa?" (Letterman's postmortem: "Only one person asked her about slapping the cop. I thought that was odd.")

Nor does Letterman seem troubled about the much publicized dispute with NBC over the rights to his signature bits, such as the Top 10 list and Stupid Pet Tricks. The Letterman camp has conceded some points; it has changed the title of the show from Late Night to Late Show with David Letterman, for instance. But the Top 10 list and other familiar bits will be back, Letterman promises, though possibly under different names. "I would never put CBS in a position where they would have to legally defend me," he says.

Meet the new, cooperative, user-friendly David Letterman. At NBC, Letterman was a notorious malcontent, getting upset over real and perceived network slights, like a cost-saving proposal that he share studio space with The Maury Povich Show. At CBS he has schmoozed with affiliates, had nothing but kind words for network executives and recorded dozens of on-air promos, which have run ad infinitum since mid-July -- a campaign, says Letterman, that "is now officially embarrassing even me." Some of the spots, in their snide way, seem intended to reveal a softer side of the acerbic late-night host. In one, Letterman talks about his two sisters. The older one, he says, taught him, "When you go to the bathroom, close the door"; and the younger one was "one of the smartest people that I've ever been around" but "won't give me her phone number."

Yet Letterman, 46, remains an aloof, almost opaque celebrity. In conversation he is articulate, disarmingly modest and genuinely, effortlessly funny. Having shed 30 pounds since last year, he seems more relaxed and upbeat than ever before. Yet he guards his emotions tightly and talks only reluctantly about his private life.

Colleagues say one reason is that there isn't much of it. Letterman, by most accounts, is consumed by his work, has few close friends and spends little time socializing outside the office. His current girlfriend, Regina Lasko, used to work on his show (she is now production manager for Saturday Night Live), but most staffers were unaware of their relationship until the two had been dating for months. She shares his lower Manhattan loft, though he still spends much of his time (more than she would like, he admits) at his house in Connecticut.

Letterman has mentioned her name publicly only once and regrets it. "People started following her family around," he says.
Others attribute Letterman's reclusiveness to his Midwestern reticence and a sincere discomfort with playing the celebrity game. "It's good taste," says Steve O'Donnell, who spent eight years as the show's head writer. "He doesn't want to lay that stuff on you."

Despite his kids-in-the-hall casualness around the office, Letterman is a fiercely driven perfectionist who controls virtually every detail of his show. "There's more tension than any place I've ever worked," says an ex-staffer.

Letterman rejects reams of material submitted by his team of a dozen writers, and he crosses off potential guests by the score. "We'd hand in a list of 50 guests, and he's say no to 48," says a frustrated former booker. He is also notoriously moody and has last-minute pangs of self-doubt. "In the makeup room five minutes before the show," says head writer Rob Burnett, "Dave will suddenly say, 'This bit is not going to work.' Sometimes he needs to be almost pushed in front of the camera." After the show, he typically replays the videotape and broods about mistakes or bits that misfired.

"He's incredibly insecure and very self-torturing," says Merrill Markoe, his former girlfriend, who helped create Late Night, devised such popular bits as Stupid Pet Tricks and wrote for the show until 1986. "He doesn't ever reward himself for a job well done. He always feels that he screwed up. In fact, in all the years I knew him, I never once heard him say he thought something went pretty well. The most he ever gives himself is remarks like, 'Well, I guess that stuck to the tape.'"

Markoe and Letterman split up five years ago and no longer speak. Letterman expresses no bitterness and praises Markoe as "the smartest, funniest woman I've ever been around." Markoe, who is now writing books, says she hasn't watched Letterman's show since the breakup and "won't even talk to people about working on another late-night show. I have no
interest in helping any other white man in a suit do an inventive show. Let them all find their own damn inventive shows."

If women staffers describe Letterman's program as a boys' club, it is not just because only one of the show's 12 writers is female; it is also because the off-camera Letterman is much like the on-camera, prank-playing fraternity boy. Staffers recall the chaos that ensued during an office celebration several years ago when he set off a flare in Morton's office and triggered the building's smoke alarms.

A couple of weeks ago, Letterman challenged head writer Burnett to an oyster-eating contest: $150 if he consumed 50, $10 for each one thereafter. (Burnett wolfed down 60.) Letterman's outside interests mostly involve sports. He jogs and swims (more of the latter since he injured his neck in a car accident two years ago), plays basketball and went to the all-star baseball game in July. His No. 1 passion is auto racing. Letterman keeps a collection of foreign sports cars in an airplane hangar in Santa Monica, pores over British racing magazines and takes a different friend each year to the Indianapolis 500, part of his campaign to show that the sport is "more than cowboys in cars going as far as they can."

Racing has a nostalgic appeal for Letterman, who grew up in Indianapolis. "I can remember as a kid going out to the
speedway with my uncle to watch time trials for the race," he says. "I loved those days."

Letterman treats his Midwestern roots with a mixture of ironic detachment and affection. He visits his mother a couple of times a year; the last time was after this year's Indy 500. Letterman says he was tickled by the experience. He called the
house at 7 p.m. and came by after dinner. "I got there at 8:30, and Mom says to me (affecting her quiet, church-lady voice), 'David, would you like some strawberry pie?' I go into the kitchen, and there's a brand-new, fresh-baked strawberry pie. I said, 'When did you make this?' She said, 'I started right after I got off the phone with you.' It was just the cutest. I was so touched. Isn't that motherhood? She gets off the phone, drops what she's doing and bakes a pie."

Letterman's father, a florist who died when David was 27, was a "polar opposite. When he would walk through a room, lamps would rattle. He was funny and energetic and a goofball, screaming and hollering, making corny jokes. Then when he died, the focus shifted obviously to my mother, and none of us realized how quiet and undemonstrative she was. It took some
re-getting used to. My first 27 years, I'm living in a fraternity house. It was all thunder and lightning. And with my mom now, it's kind of a gentle spring rain."

Letterman married his college sweetheart and moved with her to California, where they divorced after nine years. Friends say he was rarely without a steady girlfriend thereafter, though Letterman gets a troubled look whenever the subject of female relationships comes up. "Every relationship that's failed in my life has been my fault," he says.

His closest male friends are mostly comedians he met on the club circuit in Los Angeles. Even they concede that Letterman reveals little about himself. George Miller, who lived in the same apartment building as Letterman, across the street from the Comedy Store, recalls taking him along on his first three or four guest appearances on The Tonight Show. When Letterman was invited for his first Tonight gig, however, "I found out about it from Merrill," says Miller. "I was a
little ticked off. But it's just because he's so private."

For all his guardedness, Letterman can be generous and loyal to friends. In 1979 Miller was among several comics who
boycotted the Comedy Store in a labor dispute. Letterman, who by this time was guest-hosting The Tonight Show, kept
performing there because he needed to try out material. Miller showed up one night to watch his friend, but the club's owner
called the police and had him thrown out. "After Dave heard what had happened, he never worked another show there," says
Miller. "That was quite a sacrifice."

Letterman's standards and sense of propriety are apparent as well in his choice of material. Writers say he often rejects jokes that stray too close to tragic news events or real-life misfortune. Rob Burnett recalls Letterman turned down a gag for a segment called Charts and Graphs -- "Dyslexics' Favorite Beatles," featuring names like ULAP and OGNIR; the host said it made fun of a serious disability.

Comedian Jeff Altman, another Letterman pal from the Comedy Store days, remembers a guest appearance on Late Night in
which he made a lewd crack that included the word "genitals." Letterman didn't laugh, and Altman complained about it later at
dinner. "I said, 'You could have helped me out a little there.'" Dave said, "Maybe you shouldn't have said that on TV.'"

In his Midwestern modesty and reserve, Letterman recalls no one so much as the man he publicly idolized, Johnny Carson.
Like Carson, much of Letterman's appeal comes from the counterpoint between his heartland Wasp looks and his edgy
irreverence. The two have become closer since Carson retired, Letterman says. "I'm more at ease around him now." Letterman had dinner at Carson's house in April, along with former Tonight producer (and now Letterman executive producer) Peter Lassally. Carson served meat loaf and mashed potatoes and talked about his recent African safari. "He had learned Swahili," says Letterman. "I'm thinking, is this a dream? I'm here in Johnny Carson's dining room, and he's speaking
Swahili."

After flirting with a movie career (he signed a development deal with Disney several years ago, but it came to nothing), Letterman seems determined, for now, to continue doing what he does best. The move to Carson's old 11:30 slot means the sort of mainstream acceptance he could never achieve as host of a fringe-period talk show -- "entertaining prisoners and college students," as he once put it. Says Markoe: "Dave is the most competitive person I have ever spent a lot of time with. It really matters to him to win everything he goes into.

Dave has taken a new time slot because he wants to win." And if he wins, then what? "I'm not going to be around as long as Carson was around," Letterman vows. "After a period of time with this, I will leave and go on. I'll probably never be on television again, on any kind of regular basis. This will be my new and final project." A pause for the old self-doubt to surface. "You can hear America breathing a sigh of relief."
C
"Dave. He's tanned. He's rested. He's ready. Is America?"

"New Dave dawning -- After 11 years, David Letterman is the man of the hour in late night. Now if he can only learn to enjoy it"

By RICHARD ZOGLIN with reporting by GEORGIA HARBISON/New York
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August 30th 1993
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