David Letterman: Playboy Interview

Special Feature

In the last decade of the 20th century, there came upon the land the dread and terrible Late-Night Wars. Network was pitted against network, band against band, comic against comic. The wars aren't over yet, but the probable victor has emerged from the unholy stench of battle: David Letterman, new lord of late night and heir apparent to the title of National Comedian.

Revenge is still the best revenge, and for Letterman, it has to be especially sweet. As host of Late Show with David Letterman, he is succeeding beyond the expectations of many industry savants in the time slot NBC refused to give him. And he's doing it at CBS, which has never before been a player in late night. Since 1980, if not earlier, Letterman had been spoken of as the logical man to succeed Johnny Carson behind the Tonight Show desk. But in 1991, when Carson announced his plans to leave, NBC gave the gig to Jay Leno, the stand-up comic with the Buick jaw who grew to national popularity largely through his appearances on Letterman's show.

Letterman won't say bad things about Leno, and Leno won't say bad things about Letterman, but a bitter rivalry had been set up. Dave's dissatisfaction with NBC may have started much earlier, however. When General Electric took over NBC in 1986, Letterman strolled to GE headquarters—with a fruit basket and a camera crew—to make a gag welcome-wagon visit, only to be met in the lobby by a hired goon who, putting his hand over the camera lens, ordered him to leave. It was a seminal moment. Also quite funny.

When the time came to renegotiate his contract, Letterman was wooed by both ABC and Fox before jumping ship. But it was CBS Broadcast Group president Howard Stringer who waged the most elaborate courtship, replete with flowers, bonbons and a custom-made videotape starring Letterman pal Connie Chung. Stringer likened landing Letterman to CBS's signing of Jack Benny 45 years ago.

CBS had lost millions on its disastrous deal with major-league baseball, and there was talk that a big-bucks Letterman grab could turn out to be another embarrassing fiasco. Letterman hired Hollywood monster-agent Michael Ovitz to engineer a deal that included a reported $14 million salary (a figure Letterman disputes), ownership of the program through Letterman's Worldwide Pants company, the right to produce the show that follows Letterman's and the lavish gift of the Ed Sullivan Theater, which CBS renovated at a cost in the neighborhood of $10 million. The network got some financial help from the city of New York, which had granted the theater landmark status and, as Letterman would say, ponied up some of the dough as part of a herculean effort to keep him from moving to Los Angeles.

Right out of the gate, Letterman looked like a hit. Even though only 70 percent of the CBS affiliates were carrying the show at 11:35 p.m. (compared with 99 percent of the NBC affiliates who were taking Leno), Letterman delivered a 6 rating to Leno's 4. CBS executives had quietly said they would make money on the deal even if Letterman delivered only a 3.5.

"It's a better show than I ever thought it would be," exults Stringer, who has hailed Letterman as a genius.

Not only were the viewers tuning in, not only was the show getting more publicity than most of the new prime-time programs, but also, early in the run, CBS stock took a big jump, a rise that many people, not including Letterman, attribute to his show's success.

Beyond the ratings, the profits and all the other measurements of success in television, Letterman and Late Show instantly boasted one element that can't be faked or manipulated: People talk about it the next day. They talk about Dave running out of the theater to buy tickets for "Miss Saigon" for the folks in the standby line who couldn't get into his show; they talk about Debra Winger ripping off her dress to reveal her old Wonder Girl outfit from the Seventies; they talk about Al Gore bringing his own top-ten list with him for Letterman's delectation; they talk about Paul Newman standing up in the audience on premiere night to ask, "Where the hell are the singing cats?"; they talk about Dave driving around New York in a rented Stealth and making crank calls from his new car phone.

They talk about Letterman the next day the way people used to discuss some outrageous shenanigan by Jack Paar, or some wickedly withering ad-lib by Johnny Carson. Letterman's program isn't just a talk show but a talked-about show, and that makes the crucial difference. The Late Show seems more scrubbed and polished and much less ragged than Late Night was, but it's still the show on which something entertainingly unpredictable is most likely to happen.

Even at the age of 46—ten years older than Carson was when he took over The Tonight Show—the lanky, pranky and sometimes cranky Letterman remains TV's most reliable upstart, troublemaker and professional hooligan.

It was back in a high school speech class in Indianapolis that Letterman first dreamed of hosting a TV talk show. He had been something of a geeky kid—his dad, who died in 1974, was a florist; his mom was a church secretary—but he began to come into his own when he entered Ball State University in 1965 as a radio-TV major. He joined a fraternity, married his girlfriend and managed to work two summers as a replacement announcer on channel 13, the ABC affiliate in Indianapolis.

After graduation, channel 13 hired him full-time. He hosted a Saturday morning kids' show and the late-night movie and served as news anchor. But it was his stint as a weatherman that gave viewers a glimpse of Letterman's true talent. He once reported that the city was being pelted with hail "the size of canned hams" and enthusiastically congratulated a tropical storm when it was upgraded to hurricane status.

By May 1975, Letterman decided he was ready for big-time show business, and he and his wife moved to Los Angeles. The Comedy Store liked his stuff and made him a regular, with buddy Leno, and word got out that a new funnyman was in town. Jimmie "J. J." Walker, Bob Hope and Paul Lynde all hired him to write jokes, and Mary Tyler Moore hired him as a cast member on her ill-fated variety show.

As his career took off, his marriage fizzled. He became romantically involved with comedy writer Merrill Markoe and found success as a Tonight Show guest—in fact, he was so successful that he quickly became a substitute host. NBC, realizing it had a talk-show talent on its hands, gave him a morning show. Both he and Markoe won Emmys for it, but no one was watching and the show was canceled. Still, NBC was not about to let him go—it paid him to sit around until a new show came along.

Late Night with David Letterman debuted on February 1, 1982, and from the beginning was a hit for NBC. Markoe, who had been a creative juggernaut behind the show, returned to Los Angeles in 1986, but "Late Night" continued to thrive. For 11 years it was the hippest hour on TV—so hip, in fact, that NBC feared the Tonight Show audience would find Letterman too hip and tune out. He proved NBC wrong when he moved to CBS.

To see how Letterman is dealing with the unusual success of his new show, Playboy sent Tom Shales, syndicated TV critic for The Washington Post, to the Ed Sullivan Theater to capture the elusive comedian. Shales reports:

"For our first interview session, I took a rickety elevator to the 12th floor of the Ed Sullivan Theater building and was ushered into Dave's office, where I was met, if not exactly greeted, by the figure of Dave seated at his desk, wearing sweatpants, large Adidas sneakers and a Nigel Mansell T-shirt. He was glowering at me as if I had arrived to do proctoscopic surgery. After a few minutes of chat and of staff members' running in and out of the room, I asked Dave if I'd gotten the right impression. 'Yes, I was glowering at you,' he said. 'I'll just let you worry about it for a while. You just roll that around in your head for a bit, Tom.'

"He never explained the glowering, but I didn't take it personally. Even though he had agreed to do the interview, when the moment arrived, he probably had a sinking feeling and wished he could back out.

"At the end of the first session, Dave fixed his glower on my tape recorder and began shouting, 'For Christ's sake, this whole thing has been tape-recorded! You are really sneaky! Dear God!'

"The only thing Dave seems not to like about his new office is that from one window, looking down Broadway, he has a clear view of a billboard of Jay Leno's face and the words America is standing up for Jay. Did NBC put that there on purpose? Dave grumbled something unintelligible and looked away.

"His must be the least ostentatious star's office in the world. The room has bare white walls, few pieces of furniture, a cheap-looking stereo and a large bottle of cologne on a cabinet behind the desk. Stacks of 20-dollar bills sit around, for some strange reason, and at one point, a young woman brought in a large bottle of hot sauce and a few plastic spoons. Nothing to eat it with, or on—just the bottle. 'I loves the hot sauce,' Dave said by way of explanation."

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