I Wanna Be Literated #156

I Wanna Be Literated #156

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Wednesday, 07 June 2017
COLUMN

Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night
by Jason Zinoman

If you’re a fan of comedy you’re going to have to answer the following question at some point: are you a Leno or Letterman person. I’ve always been a Letterman guy, even when I was unaware of the whole Late Night battle. In high school, we just didn’t talk about the Leno segments in class (and no, we weren’t paying attention to the teacher), but focused mostly on what Letterman was doing. His bits, his jokes, and his persona were just funnier.

I’d been a Letterman guy for decades and watched the show every day in last several years of its run. And as much as I wanted to absorb everything I could on Letterman, I don’t believe any of us could really crack that egg. The man was mysterious which made him even more interesting to watch.

Zinoman’s book Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night tries to dig deeper into the man and what made his show what it was, and being a fan, I was both pleased and disturbed by the picture he paints of the man and his show. I most certainly learned to appreciate the show more once I discovered what was going on behind the scenes and just how writer-driven the show was, but the man who was the spotlight was a completely different matter.

If there’s one underlining pattern in Letterman’ career is that he was never happy with the show or himself and would dwell in obsession and self-loathing. A guarded man, Letterman seemed more engaged when he was on top (during Late Night and the first part of the Late Show years), which had something to do with the enemies he fought on the air. It just made for great non-phony television. The man made protest toast on the air for God’s sake! But as his ratings started slipping, it seemed like no one was able to figure out how to get back on top. Letterman was obsessed about making his show a success but refused to step outside of his comfort zone and had to be coerced by trusted individuals to do bits or sketches and generally interact with anyone outside of the room where he was taping the show. As frustrated writers kept leaving (and boy did they keep leaving) and Letterman regressed more and more and became more elusive, writing the show for an absent and detached host became an incredible challenge. Zinoman even portrays Letterman as a downright cruel boss by essentially holding his staff hostage to distract him from his personal life late into the night. He wouldn’t want to talk about the show, but about WWII history. And the jokes? He would review them and veto them 30 minutes before air time leaving the writers to scramble. Not helping things was how Letterman was so set in his ways that he wanted the material written with typewriters on cards. But as we could attest, night after night, Letterman probably put on a more interesting, funny, loose, and honest show than anyone else because his point of view was so interesting. His show felt more raw, and we just loved that self-deprecating old goof.

What bothers me about this book is just how much Zinoman leaves out. At about 300+ pages, I would have easily read 150 more pages. What about his relationship with the musicians on the show (he had a love for 90s alternative for some reason), what input could Biff (who seemed closer to Dave than most) have provided, what about his relationship with guests he clearly had a connection with (like Martha Stewart and Howard Stern)? It seems like Zinoman had access to Letterman for this book, but never does he give more than superficial commentary. But maybe that’s just a sign of the good work Zinoman has done here: leaving his readers wanting more.

It’s been years since Dave’s departure and his absence can be felt. Late night TV is just viral memes now. Like Julia Roberts said, late night is too nice now because there’s no one left to be afraid of and she’s right: stars would take a risk with Dave because the illusion of their grandeur just wouldn’t work on him. He was as unimpressed by the spectacle as the rest of us should be. SHOULD be.

There will never be another talk show host like Dave.

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