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Steve Martin turned the cliches of stand-up comedy around in the 70’s. David Letterman did the same thing for comedy talk shows in the 80’s, turning things around literally when he had his cameras broadcast one show upside down. Viewers kept watching, quite in keeping with Letterman’s comfortable brand of anarchy.
The cult hero of late night television, Letterman, like his idol Johnny Carson, synthesized the styles of other comedians and evolved into something unique. Steve Allen let his cameras roam the streets while he offered ad-lib commentary. Letterman made that a regular feature, peeking into local shops and office buildings with mock-querelousness and snickers. Allen also loved stunt comedy, once turning himself into a human tea bag and being lowered in a huge cup of water. Letterman dunked his Alka-seltzer tablet festooned body in water. Groucho Marx favored a detached, insulting style with people on “You Bet Your Life” and Letterman quickly became known for needling guests and putting them off-balance, sometimes to the point where they vowed never to return (something he’d allude to the next night with flabbergasted surprise). Early sketches on Letterman’s show suggested the influence of “Saturday Night Live.”
Most of all, Letterman initially copied Carson’s attitude, the combination of cool urbanite and affable mid-American. Letterman could be commanding and daunting, looking all of his 6’2” height, or he could seem 4’3” with his Alfred E. Newman gap-toothed grin and the unruly mop of wavery, wavy hair that he liked to tug at and pretend was a toupee. He liked to self-destruct his own cool pointing to his “goof boy scouring pad” hair. He might add, “I’m not a jerk but I play one on TV.” Over the years, Letterman’s style did become looser and in some ways more vulnerable; he even delighted in some guests who could regularly fluster him.
Carson was perceived as a lovable scamp and Letterman shared that element, whether in conducting comically impatient phone interviews with his own mother or throwing watermelons from a roof just to see them smash. Letterman dressed like a rebellious youth forced to wear something proper: blazer, slacks…and a pair of sneakers. Like a typical teen, his sense of jeering cynicism could only be broken by “neat stuff,” like playing with a “thrill-cam” video camera soaring above the audience or the appearance of an especially thrilling female model or budding actress in a slinky dress. This would usually illicit a squint, a high-pitched giggle, or perhaps a moan of “Oh, man!”
Two decades younger than Carson, Letterman lacked Carson’s reverence for show business and won over fans with his mock-curmudgeonly intolerance for sentiment. While Carson endeared himself to audiences via cute segments holding precocious wild animals, Letterman’s regular feature was “stupid pet tricks.”
After a few years, Letterman’s anti-show biz hostility turned into a more detached amusement. He evolved a style comfortable enough to withstand nightly duty, but prickly enough to keep viewers expecting the unexpected. They could always expect to see him, though. In July of 1991 he celebrated his 1500th show—not one of them helmed by a guest host. Along the way, his viewership rose from an average 2.5 million to 3.4.
Born and raised in Indianapolis, Letterman attended schools with names that seem like pungent parodies of mid-America normality: Broad Ripple High School and Ball State University. In high school he and a pal would throw eggs at the houses of the class’s prettiest and most inaccessible girls. In college he grew a beard (but no moustache) and was thrown off the classical radio station for his tongue-in-cheek wisecracks: “That was Claire de Lune. You know the de Lune sisters. There was Claire and there was Mabel.”
Letterman formed “The Dirty Laundry Company,” an improv group that included Joyce DeWitt as a member. He debuted on local TV hosting late night movies and doing the weather. “You can only announce the weather, the highs and lows, so many times before you go insane,” he said. “In my case, it took two weeks. I started clowning…I made up my own measurement for hail, and said hailstones the size of canned hams were falling…People said, ‘who is this punk and why is he making fun of the relative humidity?’”
Letterman moved on to stand-up comedy, performing in Los Angeles in 1975 where he wrote for other comics and joined the staff for “The Paul Lynde Comedy Hour.” He remained just another young journeyman in a suit doing “The Starland Vocal Band Show” in 1977, “Rock Concert,” “The Gong Show” and game shows like “The 20,000 Pyramid.” He recalled with a grim, self-effacing smile that the contestants “all lost with me.” He was in the cast of Mary Tyler Moore’s ill-fated “Mary” show. Finally, on November 26, 1978, he made his “Tonight Show” debut.
NBC eventually gave him a morning show which was cancelled in October of 1980 (it won a posthumous Emmy). His next move would be as different as night and day. “Late Night with David Letterman” premiered on February 1, 1982. The New York Times wrote: “he is more of an acquired taste.” The New York Post: “a hip generation’s Carson show.” The Village Voice “he can push a suggestive joke without offending the sensibilities of the more conservative sleepy-pies.”
Letterman acknowledged his influences, saying “I’d rather be Johnny Carson.” He admitted, “I was a real fan of the Steve Allen Westinghouse show and I would be happy if I could capture a part of that feeling.” Just as Steve Allen’s show had a clubhouse feel, with viewers tuning in every night just to be a silent sidekick to Steve, Letterman viewers watched no matter who the guest was. They enjoyed Dave’s attitude, which suggested that show biz was just a sham—but that it was better than anybody else’s day job. Letterman and his fans also shared the attitude that anyone with nothing more exciting to do at 12:30am was in trouble—but that misery loves cheerfully hostile company. Speaking pointedly to his generation, Letterman’s speech was filled with ironically used ejaculations from 50’s TV, a mocking use of “Oh my,” “Oh Gee,” “What’s the deal?” “Say Kids” etc. all designed to underline the reality behind childhood promises and adulthood.
Letterman’s humor was often in the sarcastic de-bunking of other peoples’ enthusiasm and pretense. Picking up a package of “Treasure Cave Blue Cheese” he imagined how the product got its overly exotic name—some guy crying out in astonishment at the mythical cave, “I’ve struck a vein of cheese!” His guests, weary over reverential treatment, seemed to enjoy his bracing sass. When New York Times gourmet Craig Claiborne was the guest, Letterman cracked, “Can you reccomend a really good instant gravy mix?” While the media glowed over Rose Kennedy’s 101’st birthday, Letterman announced in his monologue that the family gave her a grand gift: a sponge bath. A more subtle but equally barbed comment later: “Who gave her all the dalmatians?”
Acknowledging the strange humor on his show, humor that would often elude the very old or very young, Letterman might giggle into the camera and say with jaundiced glee, “instead of entertainment you get hi-jinks!” When Jimmy Carter was doing an interview for a news show in a studio across the hall, Letterman staffers begged him to drop by and do their show too. “What is David going to do?” Carter asked. A staff member answered, “I don’t have a clue.” Carter said, “That’s pretty much the appeal of the show, isn’t it?”
With occasional interruptions to ask “How much time do we have?” or meander out into the hallway to chat with a security guard, Letterman kept his show off-beat, a mix of planned and unplanned amusements. Jay Leno once pointed out one of the many contradictions in Letterman: “Dave is one of the few performers who can say something real vicious and have it come across as a cute aside.” Or vice versa.
Letterman admitted, “We may have alienated as many people as we may have won over, because there are people who hate me and hate the show.” Even Dave’s biggest fans could not be sure if, when he read one of their letters on the air, or waved back when they shout to him on the street, he liked them or was making fun of them. That uncomfortable quality, a part of the show, a part of him, went back to his own relationship with mentor Johnny Carson. Letterman recalled, “I’ve never been able to feel comfortable with the man. He’s been very gracious to me, very nice…I could spend every minute of my life from now with Johnny Carson and I don’t think I’d get over that sense of awe.”
Letterman often tried to reduce any sense of awe the audience might have of him, whether by coming out before each show to talk to them personally instead of using a warm-up comic, or by acknowledging rather than ignoring controversies in his life. When he made headlines for his own foibles (endless traffic citations for speeding) or those of others (the deranged woman who was jailed after breaking into his New Canaan house six times, convinced she was his wife), Letterman always had a joke or two that night, realizing his fans would be wondering, “what’s the deal?”
Letterman’s show became the in-program to do and often featured cameos from Tony Randall, Jerry Vale, Jane Pauley, Tom Brokaw, Arnold Schwarzenegger and others willing to make fun of their own fame via ignoble walk-ons or a line or two videotaped for impromtpu use during a sketch.
The most consistent ritual on the show was the recitation of “The Top Ten List,” an example of comedy shorthand in which the audience was expected to be hip enough and impatient enough to enjoy jokes without any fake trimmings. Rather than tell jokes the old fashioned way, Letterman set up a premise, and let the audience check off their favorite gags based on it. He might announce that the night’s topic was: “Top Ten Least Popular Candy Bars.’ Then he’d read them, from “Good and Linty,” or “Mexican Monkey Brittle” to “Roger Ebert’s Mystery Log.” Reading with detachment, Letterman would often mutter a sarcastic “I couldn’t be more proud” if an easy joke got a laugh.
The shorthand of the top ten list soon extended to the opening monologue. Letterman dispensed with the Carson staple of a long, sharp monologue in favor of a minute or two of observations and seemingly deliberate non-jokes. “I used to think my routines were pretty smart, pretty witty, pretty clever observations,” he said, “but the material is secondary. Your personality and attitude are primary. If people buy and accept you as a personality and understand your comedic viewpoint, then you can say to them, “Here is my attitude and that attitude applies to everything and if you share this attitude then you’re going to find everything I’m talking about fairly amusing.
“I don’t have that undeniable performing instinct in my veins like some guys. Robin Williams or Richard Pryor, they would get onstage six, seven times a night…I get up there and have to do twenty minutes, I’m gone in fifteen….And I don’t like the comedian image—the feeling that I’m the court jester who comes out after the banquet to make people laugh. I’ve had debates with my comedian friends about that. They say, “what are you talking about? You can make huge sums of money as a comic.’ And I say, ‘You give me Shecky Greene or David Brinkley: which of the two is going to get more respect?”
Respect was something Letterman seemed ambivalent about. Half the time he was laughing at his own “nickle and dime show” and making fun of stardom, but just as often he showed unconcealed displeasure with cheap Christmas gifts given him by NBC, or the failure to be consulted when re-runs of his show were sold to a cable network. Through it all, David Letterman displayed the one quality that kept the most successful talk show hosts in business year after year—the ability to keep an audience entertained every night, but wanting more, wanting to know: “what’s he really like?”