LATE-NIGHT LEGEND DAVID LETTERMAN’S UGLY PERSONALITY NO LAUGHING MATTER, FORMER COLLEAGUES SAY:
The tale of Tim Long, one of several head writers hired during the show’s run, was typical. Unable to deal with the host’s constant rejections and dark moods, Long took to chewing Coke cans — and swallowing pieces of tin.
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Comic Rich Hall, a writer for Letterman’s NBC show, was floored by the host’s new, abrasive nature when he appeared as a guest. Hall followed actress Andie MacDowell, who had just flopped in her segment. Before the cameras came on, Letterman leaned over and snarled, “How’d you like to be married to that c—?”
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The feeling of foreboding was exacerbated by the 1980 cancellation of his NBC morning show, “The David Letterman Show,” within months of its debut.
His girlfriend at the time and for years to come, Merrill Markoe, was a brilliantly inventive comedy writer and instrumental in shaping the show…[Markoe] told the author about the resulting fallout.
“If it weren’t for you and your crazy ideas,” Letterman shouted at her on the street, “I’d still have a talk show like John Davidson!”
It’s a comment funny only in retrospect.
“A veteran staffer who served under Letterman through both his late-night shows” quoted in the article “observed that getting close to the boss was perilous: ‘There comes a moment when he turns on you.’”
Shades of Letterman’s idol turned boss Johnny Carson, who, by the end of the 1980s had dispatched both Joan Rivers and longtime business advisor Henry Bushkin to the Los Angeles-equivalent of Siberia, and whose inner-circle at the time of his retirement, at least as depicted by biographer Laurence Leamer was down to his wife Alexis and Ed McMahon. Both Leamer and later Bushkin describe Carson as a miserable man when the cameras weren’t rolling. As Rob Long, who knows a thing or two about television, wrote in his 2014 review of Bushkin’s book:
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.
Of course, in the ‘60s, every guy in America wanted to be as cool, handsome, and outwardly charming as Carson. (My businessman dad, who never missed at least the first half-hour of every episode of the Tonight Show during its entire run also owned a couple of Carson-branded sportcoats in the early 1970s, as I recall.) I doubt few guys watching Letterman, even during Late Night’s mid-‘80s peak, wanted to be Letterman, with his famously prickly on-air persona and all of its weird tics. But the brand of irony that Letterman’s show launched is absolutely omnipresent in American culture. Or as Markoe warned Salon in a 2015 interview:
More broadly: Does the knowing, ironic style you and the others traded in in the ‘80s seem to have filtered more deeply into comedy in specific and American culture in general? Do you see or hear echoes of it now as you go through your day?
Yes. It’s frequently the language of advertising and corporate P.R. now. It is the voice of what [musician Andy Prieboy of the rock group Wall of Voodoo, her longtime companion] calls “Your buddy the corporation.” Everyone’s hip. Everyone’s ironic. Everyone who is selling you something wants you to know they have the same limitations and daily strife that you do. You definitely should be wary when you hear this voice now. It’s not to be trusted. Unless you’re in the market for an aluminum cookware set or an Apple watch.
And politics as well – to those of us who didn’t drink the Second Coming Kool-Aid in 2008, Obama’s eight years frequently seemed like a postmodern Letterman or Saturday Night Live sketch come to life, from his Ten Commands-like shtick while receiving the Democratic nomination to his interviews with YouTube “stars” who bathe in milk and Cheerios to his vicious “The 1980s are now calling” Letterman-esque putdown of Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential debate, when Romney warned of the geopolitical dangers of Russia. And Obama flashed more than a hint of Jerry Seinfeld’s “it’s a show about nothing” detached wry bemusement throughout it all. (Perhaps the apocalyptic doomsday-fury of the hypersensitive SJW screaming campus garbagebabies* is in part explained as a reaction to a generation of detached leftwing irony — or nihilism with a happy face, to paraphrase Allan Bloom.)
And yet, between the earlier, funnier SNL of the 1970s, the 1980s-era Letterman, and Jerry Seinfeld in the ’90s having set the tone of the American overculture, the left seemed astonished that another veteran of NBC television could have bested the plonking Hillary Clinton. Funny, that.
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