“David Letterman” is another name on my lengthy roster.
My preference for uncool Arsenio Hall and Jay Leno over hipster favorites like Conan and Letterman slots me into the “untouchable” caste of Generation X’ers.
But the simple truth is: David Letterman has (almost) always creeped me out.
I say “almost” because I started out as a loyal Letterman fan, back in 1980, when he hosted a live network morning show.
Yep, you read that right.
At the beginning of the 1980s, the former TV weatherman and favored Carson Tonight Show fill-in was being groomed by NBC for something big.
Most observers note in retrospect that Letterman’s glib, ironic sarcasm and cool indifference guaranteed that the program wouldn’t last long. After all, the show’s time slot is better suited to the likes of Regis & Kathy Lee. Especially 32 years ago, viewers at 10am were overwhelmingly housewives and seniors, accustomed to morning TV staples like cooking segments and easily digestible interviews with B- and C-list celebs.
Letterman and the show’s developers envisioned something edgier (even though “edgy” wasn’t really a word then). So The David Letterman Show was an uneasy compromise that was doomed from the start.
Everyone involved seems to know it.
One of Letterman’s promos serves as less of an enticement to tune in than a dare — or a warning not to bother:
And clearly Letterman doesn’t look all that comfortable on the show itself:
But the studio audience doesn’t seem to mind. I know I didn’t, and all these years later, I retain a certain affection for the program.
Video clips from Letterman’s morning show are hard to find. I hoped to track down some man-on-the-street segments — the show really came alive when Letterman stepped outside the studio.
Over at Splitsider, Ramsey Ess confirms my recollections of what made the short-lived show enjoyable, and Letterman’s later style so grating. He writes:
The most obvious difference between the morning show and the later programs is Dave’s interview style. While there have been many excellent interviews throughout the years, there are just as many where it is clear that Letterman has no interest in talking to his guest. Sometimes he makes no effort to hide this; when CBS made him have each newly kicked off Survivor castaway on his show, he made them stand on the opposite side of the studio. There’s none of that on the morning show. Whether he’s interviewing 80-year-old blues legend Sippie Wallace or or Dr. Howard Cotton, head of Mt. Sinai’s headache clinic, David seems engaged and interested in everything they have to say. Perhaps this could simply be chalked up to the greenness of his interviewing; he’s new to the game and hasn’t become jaded towards guests that no hold no interest for him.
Actually, I’d chalk it up to the absolute opposite of “greenness.” I’d call it “professionalism.”
While the knowing intro to this segment introduces the host as “a man who is in WAY over his head,” Letterman converses with Muskie politely and gamely, trying to get him to say something interesting instead of indulging his own desire to let the audience know that he, the great David Letterman, can’t believe he is stuck talking to this stuffed shirt, can you?!
Maybe Letterman earned those Emmys for not committing suicide on live TV.
Then again, isn’t that the minimum requirement for the rare and privileged job of TV host: graciously allowing your guests — especially ordinary folks with a crazy talent or hobby — their moment of show biz fame and fun, without smirking behind their backs, or in front of their faces?
It’s not like Letterman was being forced to work 12-hour shifts in a coal mine for a dollar a day.
Having witnessed his ability to behave like a reasonably charming (if not particularly cuddly) individual, I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone prefers today’s rude, crusty latter-day Letterman, who flashes his boredom with unfortunate guests the way particular primates display their Technocolor behinds. If he’s so “jaded” — or still embittered at not fulfilling his lifelong dream of replacing Johnny Carson — maybe Letterman should retire.
I realize I’m in the minority. I hate to think there are that many cynical, mean spirited people out there, to keep Letterman’s ratings high, but obviously that’s the case.
It’s not that “cold” and aloof doesn’t work on TV. Besides Carson himself (and his predecessor Jack Paar), Martha Stewart and Bob Barker proved that you don’t need to be warm and cuddly (like Oprah Winfrey) to become a beloved television star of long standing.
So I’m afraid I don’t have a Grand Unified Theory to explain Letterman’s continuing popularity.
They had no discernible impact on his popularity, however. (Which is another sad symptom of a sick society…)
I wonder when Letterman, now age 65, is planning to retire. When Johnny Carson said goodbye over the course of a week in May 1992, I was at a mountaintop writers’ workshop three provinces away, and had a friend tape each show. Carson’s sendoff produced many unforgettable moments, mostly sentimental.
Letterman is too “hip” to “do” sentimentality, and I’m sure his fans wouldn’t have it any other way. Assuming he bothers to do much more than sign off as usual on his last show, I expect viewers will be treated to the usual mean-spirited “entertainment” he’s been dishing up for decades.
I won’t know either way, because I won’t be tuned in.