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'After Losing to Jay Leno, David Letterman’s Bitterness Cost Him His Indiana Soul'

When NBC and Jay Leno took the dream of hosting the Tonight Show away from David Letterman, "the sweet, charming, irreverent Indiana kid became the angry, bitter, lazy New York asshole." Spot-on take from John Nolte at Big Hollywood on how David Letterman lost his midwestern soul and alienated so many potential viewers, beginning with losing the Tonight Show to Jay Leno in 1992:

It was sometime around 2003 when I began to realize Letterman didn’t like me anymore. His anger was no longer subversive and clever, it was bitter and mean-spirited and palpably real. He was a jerk playing to his loyal audience — urban, cynical, elite, Blue State jerks. The humble, self-deprecating Dave had become the nasty, arrogant Letterman, an unrecognizable bully who reveled in pulling the wings off those he saw as something less.

Chris Christie’s weight; Rush Limbaugh’s personal life; everything Bill O’Reilly; Bush, Cheney, Palin, and the last straw, a statutory rape joke about Palin’s 15 year-old daughter. Suddenly you were a dangerous idiot for protecting the most Indiana of things — your gun.

The man who could make you laugh at yourself now wanted to hurt and humiliate.

Letterman’s politics were never the issue. You can’t share my passion for show business and movies and let politics get in the way. Carlin was probably to the left of Letterman, but Carlin was funny and thoughtful and smart. Watching Letterman berate and hector and attempt to humiliate conservative guests over guns and the climate and the brilliance of Obama was boorish. Describing Mitt Romney as a “felon” was just sad.

The American Heartland had disappointed its own Indiana son, and for more than a decade the son was out for payback.

Or maybe Letterman was just so scared and insecure about losing what little audience he had, that he sold out his genius and Midwestern decency to bitterly cling to them? He certainly never again displayed the courage to challenge them, or to make them feel in any way uncomfortable.

Night after night the man who became my hero for biting the hand was now licking the boot — and convinced while doing so that he’s superior to the rest of us.

How I pity him.

While I rarely watched Letterman on a regular basis by the mid-naughts (especially beyond the Top Ten List), all it took was one question from his guest Bill O'Reilly in 2006 that caused Letterman to drop the mask, and caused me to permanently tune out his show:

In now a famous “You Tube” moment, Bill O’Reilly of the Fox News Channel, went on Letterman to be the recipient of the host’s rude and sophomoric antics. As the segment shifted into high gear, O’Reilly asked Letterman a pointed and direct question: “Do you want the United States to win in Iraq?”To the surprise of no one but his sycophants, Letterman could not or would not answer the question. When pressed by O’Reilly to answer, the best he could do was to play to his mostly left-leaning audience for cheap debating points and say, “It’s not easy for me because I’m thoughtful.”

I don't think it was anything in the water particularly at CBS; all of the Big Three are filled with equally cocooned and equally smug leftists. But Peggy Noonan, who began her career working for Dan Rather, had a revealing profile of what caused both his warped worldview and ultimately his self-destruction in 2004. This passage also rings true of Letterman; just substitute Indiana for Texas:

Ultimately this is what I think was true about Dan and his career. It's not very nice but I think it is true. He was a young, modestly educated Texas boy from nowhere, with no connections and a humble background. He had great gifts, though: physical strength, attractiveness, ambition, commitment and drive. He wanted to be a star. He was willing to learn and willing to pay his dues. He covered hurricanes and demonstrations, and when they got him to New York they let him know, as only an establishment can, what was the right way to think, the intelligent enlightened way, the Eastern way, the Ivy League way, the Murrow School of Social Justice way. They let him know his simple Texan American assumptions were not so much wrong as not fully thought through, not fully nuanced, not fully appreciative of the multilayered nature of international political realities. He swallowed it whole.

He had a strong Texas accent, but they let him know he wasn't in Texas anymore. I remember once a nice man, an executive producer, confided in me that he'd known Dan from the early days, from when he first came up to New York. He laughed, not completely unkindly, and told me Dan wore the wrong suits. I wish I could remember exactly what he said but it was something like, "He had a yellow suit!" There was a sense of: We educated him. Dan wound up in pinstripe suits made in London. Like Cyrus Vance. Like Clark Clifford. He got educated. He fit right in. And much of what he'd learned--from the civil rights movement, from Vietnam and from Watergate--allowed him to think he was rising in the right way and with the right crew and the right thinking.

That's also a reminder of something that Christopher Caldwell wrote a decade ago at the Weekly Standard on the motivations of small town liberals:

There are basically two kinds of people in small towns--those who assume, as Shaw put it, that the customs of the tribe are the laws of nature; and those who have sussed out that there is a big and varied world beyond Main Street. This division used to have little to do with politics. But small-town politics in its Norman Rockwell variant--all those democratic battles over school bonds and ousting the crooked sheriff--is not what it was. Now, all politics is national. Political ideology, for most people, is a matter of whether they prefer to have Bill O'Reilly or Diane Rehm console them for their impotence in the face of events happening elsewhere.

At some point, Democrats became the party of small-town people who think they're too big for their small towns. It is hard to say how it happened: Perhaps it is that Republicans' primary appeal is to something small-towners take for granted (tradition), while Democrats' is to something that small-towners are condemned for lacking (diversity). Both appeals can be effective, but it is only the latter that incites people to repudiate the culture in which they grew up. Perhaps it is that at universities--through which pass all small-town people aiming to climb to a higher social class--Democratic party affiliation is the sine qua non of being taken for a serious, non-hayseed human being.

For these people, liberalism is not a belief at all. No, it's something more important: a badge of certain social aspirations. That is why the laments of the small-town leftists get voiced with such intemperance and desperation. As if those who voice them are fighting off the nagging thought: If the Republicans aren't particularly evil, then maybe I'm not particularly special.

When Tom Landry retired from the NFL after coaching the Dallas Cowboys from their birth as an NFL franchise, his then-recent losing seasons were quickly forgotten, and as Skip Bayless wrote in his biography, Landry was free to become his own legend. The many losing seasons that Letterman racked up at CBS will similarly be forgotten, and what will be remembered will be the breakthrough of his early NBC years. Its empty postmodernism ultimately sewed the bitterness of Letterman's unwatchable last years, but for a time, his willingness to puncture all of television's most beloved tropes sure made for great viewing, didn't it?

Related: "Johnny Carson Worried David Letterman Would ‘Self Destruct,’" former Tonight Show head writer Raymond Siller notes at Big Hollywood:

In ‘95 I invited Johnny to lunch for his 70th birthday at a restaurant in Malibu. Letterman, having lost The Tonight Show to Jay Leno, had begun The Late Show at CBS. Johnny had hoped he’d inherit his job, but NBC chose Jay. The helicopter dad in him was critiquing his protégé.

David’s on self-destruct and it may be too late to pull out. He’s consistently two ratings points behind Leno. People won’t want to say they watch him among their friends and he’ll never get them back. He’s changed since he went over to CBS. He makes his staff stay after the show each night to analyze it. And the way he makes fun of people. I could never do that.

Johnny was a lot more sarcastic than his on-air persona, but he couldn’t bring himself to ridicule his fans.

“I didn’t like how he handled hosting the Oscars. You’re at their event. You have to respect it”.

Then on the Letterman reclusiveness. “I’m private, but David is secret”.

Last year, when he reviewed former longtime Carson confidant Henry Bushkin's memoirs at Commentary, veteran TV producer Rob Long praised Carson's incredible acting skills:

It was Carson’s mother, according to the unlicensed psychoanalysis of Henry Bushkin, who was at the root of his emotionally distant, even cruel, behavior. “As long as [Ruth Carson] lived, he strove to win her love, and he never received it. He was the child of an emotionally abusive mother—no matter how strong or successful he became, he was a child whose trust had been betrayed.”

Others agreed. “‘She was selfish and cold,’ Johnny’s second wife, Joanne, once told an interviewer. ‘No wonder he had trouble dealing with women. Mrs. Carson was cold, closed off, a zero when it came to showing affection.’”

And when she died, he called Bushkin with the news: “The wicked witch is dead.”

None of this is really news, of course. We’re all primed to hear stories of movie stars and celebrities and their creepy emotional problems. But for actors—who, after all, appear only on screen, in character, or in a few carefully stage-managed publicity appearances—it’s easy to cover up the seams of a psychotic or broken-down personality.

But Johnny appeared on television every weeknight. He was playing himself—or, rather, an idealized version of himself: jovial, chummy, witty, warm. The strain of that kind of acting must have been monumental. It’s no wonder that real movie stars—Jimmy Stewart, Michael Caine, a whole bushel of A-listers—respected him so much. In one of the best stories in a book filled with great stories, when Johnny arrives late to a very exclusive industry event filled with movie stars, he lights up the room. He wasn’t just the king of late night television. He was the king of managing not to appear like the rat bastard he clearly was.

Given Carson's own legendary anger issues off the air, Letterman's palpable on-air burnout in recent years is a reminder of what a brilliant performance Carson gave pretending to be himself while the cameras were on, even as, like Letterman, his life became increasingly insular and isolated. But then, knowing what we now know about Carson's inner demons, in an odd way, perhaps Johnny was personally far better at being a practicing the on-air art of postmodernist distancing than Letterman ever was, as he delivered nightly what Kathy Shaidle once dubbed “Carson’s cool-warmth — that charming-yet-menacing mien."