USA Today - David Letterman Interview

After eight months at CBS, David Letterman is the new King of Late Night. His bosses love him. So do his fans. He's hot, red hot.

What's next? Disney World?

Hardly, and the reason is Letterman -- in Los Angeles for a week of Late Shows beginning tonight -- is running scared. He's looking over his shoulder, anticipating disaster, worried he'll never live up to his mentor, Johnny Carson. "We do one or two good shows a week," he says seriously, firing up one of his short, fat cigars as he rests his adidas on a conference table.

Sure, he says, he's gotten some lucky breaks: having Vice-President Al Gore appear early on was a nice boost. And Letterman's mom, Dorothy, turned out to be a hit during the Winter Olympics. But the way he handled Madonna -- who used the F-word repeatedly on his March 31 show -- still haunts him. "Madonna could have been a real boost, but I'm not pleased with the way it turned out. I'm not pleased with the way I handled it. I should have said, 'You say that word one more time and you're gone. That's it. Adios.' And I didn't."

At times like that he says to himself: "You're such a pretender. You're pretending you're The Tonight Show -- but you never saw Carson break a sweat." Madonna, he says, carried a bad joke even further. "She sent me a fax on my birthday, and it was more of the same. Happy fucking birthday. Have a nice fucking day. I know she was trying to be funny about it." Onto brighter things. His mom, Dorothy, is doing just fine, and having her report from Lillehammer during the Olympic Games "was a great experience for her. It was a nice, sweet, decent thing I could do for my mother."

Upon her return to Indiana, he says, she had more than 50 requests for interviews and appearances. It was tempting, but the 47-year-old son had to give his seventy-something mom some gentle advice: "You know, Mom, if you wander too far off a comfortable circumstance..." A few days later she called him and said quietly: "I don't think I'll be doing them."

"It was kind of cute and a little sad," Letterman says. But she is scheduled to appear "live via satellite" on the show this week.

Arsenio? "My feeling is he could have done the show for as long as he wanted." Still, Hall did the smart thing deciding to step down May 27, when he's still able to "celebrate the success of his show. You can't walk away too early."

Jay? "I don't know much about his show, but I couldn't be happier," says the man who is trouncing Leno's Tonight Show
nightly. "I know it would eat me alive if I were in his position."

Conan? "It took me a long time to watch it," says Letterman of O'Brien, who succeeded him on NBC's Late Night. "At first I thought, 'This looks odd.' But he's doing a tremendous amount of stuff. People were lining up to take shots at him like they couldn't wait to hurt him. My feeling is: He'll prevail."

Letterman approached Late Show "with a sense of obligation." One reason: All the press could talk about was his whopping $14 million-a-year salary. Letterman says he set his sights low: He planned to be a distant third for a year -- behind Leno and Ted Koppel's Nightline on ABC. "I was ready to live with that." Then the first night was a hit and the ratings were good "and they never really came down and that became exhilarating.

It's like opening up a restaurant and having people show up and you haven't poisoned anyone." Late Show was No. 1 for the season, beating out No. 2 Nightline and No. 3 The Tonight Show. "It's a different emotional feeling here," he says. Plus, "there was a huge cloud over last year" -- a reference to the back-and-forth that ultimately led to his leaving NBC.

"But that cloud has drifted off and hasn't been seen since." Yes, he's aware that he and his Late Show are hot, and it's all very flattering. "It's a little more of what I experienced at 12:30. More people stop me at the filling station, outside the theater. I get a lot more mail that I used to. I've not come even close to a negative experience. By and large people are pretty darned nice if you give them half a chance," he says, noting that he's beginning to sound a bit like his dad, Joe, an Indianapolis florist who died in 1974.

Madonna accused him of losing his edge, throwing softball questions at his guests, saying in effect that the cutting Letterman had died. Letterman says it's true, to an extent. "I was laboring under the impression of being mean, nasty," at NBC, he says. "I never thought I was mean or nasty, but I thought, 'I have to do something to dispel this.' I've tried to maybe be gracious. Sometimes I think I'm a complete jerk, but TV is mostly synthetic and I fall prey to that like everyone else."

So he's trying to be more picky these days about guests -- no longer having a "Marv Albert, who we had on 100 times, for the 101st time." He talks about aiming at giving a "positive presentation" five nights a week. Whatever that means. And he doesn't manhandle, abuse or otherwise torture CBS execs like he did to the suits from NBC and its owner, General Electric.

Some might say that when someone is paying you a cool $14 mil a year, it pays to be polite. Letterman explains it otherwise.
"GE was such a perfect target. You could set fire and piss on them and bat them all you wanted to" and not put a dent in the megafirm's extension cord sales. Plus, GE "came in as an adversary" with a cost-cutting mentality. He couldn't help himself.
CBS, on the other hand, has been supportive. Fly Mom over to Lillehammer for a couple weeks? "'Whatever you want to do. Satellite? Sure.' I never saw anything like that in 12 years at NBC." "It's addictive -- having people be nice to you, saying nice things to you. I feel like a sap saying this. I thought every day would be a fistfight."

His aim, he says, is simple: Do a show as well as Johnny once did -- one that gives off pheromones that say "This is what The Tonight Show used to be when it was a big, powerful show. This is a prestige show, and we're not going to let you down."

He flew out to Los Angeles awhile back and shot a videotaped bit with Carson for this week's shows. Carson, he reports, has gained some weight and is happy and relaxed and has "no interest in being on TV again."

Letterman speaks of him reverentially. "In my life, I've been lucky enough to befriend an actual living legend." But living up to Carson's record, "is a lot of pressure, a lot of work. I feel I'm working on a show in third place. I don't know how else to do it."
"Riding crest of huge ratings wave has Dave 'feeling like a sap'"

"At No. 1, Dave still tries harder, but despite pressures, he enjoys a flood of fan mail and the praise of his bosses"

Late Show With David Letterman Webpage>
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May 9th 1994
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