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Stupid Biographer Tricks

In 1980, Fred Silverman, flailing and failing at his efforts to bring to NBC the same golden touch he displayed at first CBS and then ABC, offered young David Letterman a morning TV show, an abortive effort that would ultimately morph into his long-running late night show. During a brainstorming session, Silverman told the young stand-up comedian that his show should be structured like Arthur Godfrey’s old TV show from the 1950s. Letterman winced at the idea, Jason Zinoman writes in his new biography Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night, both because of how corny it sounded and because “I liked Godfrey,” Letterman said, “until he started firing people on the air.”

The moment in 1953 where Arthur Godfrey sacked popular young crooner Julius LaRosa on air was one of the first examples America saw of how the power of a network show can twist the mind of its host, causing him to lose all humanity, perhaps because he thinks that no matter what his excesses, he’ll never lose his audience. However, by the time Letterman retired in 2015, he had several moments on the same scale, if not arguably worse than Godfrey’s. Zinoman mentions some of Letterman’s creepiest, such as crude on-air flirting with supermodels, and a self-loathing alter-ego character called “Creepy Dave” who would appear on screen using videotape and split screen and silently stalk Letterman-Prime. As Zinoman writes, “Peter Lassally, who produced The Tonight Show, said he found Creepy Dave truly creepy. ‘It’s that stare— something very unpleasant. Dave tells him to get out, but Creepy Dave won’t go. It could be Dave’s conscience, I don’t know.’”

Prior to launch of Creepy Dave was Angry Dave. Helping NBC executives decide to give the post-Carson Tonight Show to Jay Leno was this incident:

Whereas Leno was friendly and approachable, Letterman was distant, even hostile. NBC’s president, Warren Littlefield, had no personal relationship with him. Brandon Tartikoff, his predecessor, had told him, “You can’t have a meal with Letterman.” When he asked why not, Tartikoff said he was not “comfortable having food with people.”

In an attempt to make a connection with the star, Littlefield had once sent Letterman a crystal decanter as a present. Letterman took the gift, put it on his desk during one show, and explained what it was to his audience, then proceeded to smash it with a hammer on the air. It didn’t endear him to his bosses. “It was a little shocking to me,” Littlefield said decades later, the memory still fresh in his mind. “He intimidated me.”

Backstage, Letterman intimidated and angered many of his writers with his behavior. Perhaps the most shocking backstage incident that Zinoman reveals involves Letterman’s attempted manipulation of the woman who did the most to launch him towards the big time. In the early 1980s, Merrill Markoe, a burgeoning sit-com writer whom Letterman dated since shortly after moving to Hollywood in the previous decade, created many of the elements that defined NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman. By the end of the 1980s her relationship with Letterman had ended, she was gone from the show, and once Letterman lost the opportunity to replace Johnny Carson, most of her comedic innovations were largely jettisoned or greatly watered down, in an effort to create a more mainstream 11:30 PM show at rival CBS.