Somehow, without anyone looking, David Letterman has superseded the usual TV categories of comic, or talk-show host, or broadcaster. He paces the stage at night worrying about the Afghan-election recount and generally free-associating about the flies and vultures flapping around in his head. His nightly broadcast from Broadway has become a weird and great American entity unto itself, a blurred throwback, an amalgam of the tradition he came from: Johnny Carson, Edward Murrow, Jack Paar. And the most middle-American of talk-show hosts has become the most New York–centric.
He is also an increasingly interesting human being who has absorbed, not evaded, events and recorded, not denied, human experience.
Craggy, bewildered, irascible Dave, with his gray crew cut, designer suits, and white socks—a nightly mind-blowing image in HDTV—has become a persona, a distinctive agglomeration of character traits, even more than his idol Johnny Carson, much more like Carson’s own idol, Jack Benny. His monologues are indifferent as one-liners and jokes, but the character who delivers them is one memorable American. He can reel off dozens of Obama jokes and McCain jokes and Paris Hilton jokes, but it is when Letterman begins to invert and mutter, when his personal neuroses and raw wounds are inflamed by the assaults of everyday life—and whose aren’t?—that is when he becomes something more than a good comedian and something like the scarred protagonist of his own comic novel—a bewildered, gutty mid-lifer at the crash intersection of American culture.
Who can’t identify with that?
Of course, he won’t cop to it. But for sixteen years, he’s been battling his archrival, Jay Leno. The Letterman versus Leno battle, while not as direct as the Late Show versus Tonight Show 11:30 skirmish—is still the most fascinating conflict on television, part Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier, two former kid comics, Carson acolytes turned old pros who know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, engaging each other once more, from an hour’s distance.
It is the itch Letterman can’t quite scratch. He has not let the NBC ten o’clock move alone in his monologues. “Spitzer is not only coming back,” he said last Tuesday night, “but they’re gonna give him the 10 p.m. slot.” Letterman has anticipated the battle with riff after riff denigrating the ten o’clock slot but with a scintilla of obvious envy.
As Dave has become a stripped-raw Jack Benny, Leno has become late Bob Hope, playing the State Fair audiences. “Cat jokes work,” The Wall Street Journal reported on him, as he tested new material in Boston this summer. “Edible underwear doesn’t.” His incessant shtick and weightless political attacks have made him a risk-free franchise. Of course President Obama visited his couch in Burbank. “I don’t like the edgy comics out there,” Deb Stoddard of Natick, Massachusetts, told the Journal. But she loves Jay Leno.
Twenty-eight years ago, I was working on a profile of David Letterman, a young, scruffy comedian who at that point had retreated west to Los Angeles after the noble collapse of his critically appreciated, under-watched 10 a.m. talk show. Letterman was considered the next big thing—NBC had decided to pay him a million dollars a year to wait for his next project. He and his writers were advocates of what they called “found comedy.” But suddenly he was lost.
He and I had just gone to the Improv in Hollywood and watched a lot of stand-up acts work. When we came out, he looked down the street and saw a comedian with a spiky wave of black hair and a high whine of a voice surrounded by other comics.
“That,” said David Letterman, “is the funniest stand-up guy working.”
It was Jay Leno doing an ad hoc routine on the street corner: Pat Cooper, the great malevolent Vegas comedian, had been on Tom Snyder’s late-night show the night before and attacked Cher, Tom Jones, and Tony Bennett frontally enough to make sure he would not work west of Allentown, Pennsylvania, for a long time. Leno pantomimed Pat Cooper taking out a razor and slitting his wrists and his own throat as he gave the interview.
It was deeply, viciously funny, and Letterman was floored by it. But neither he nor Leno could have known at that moment that it was a predictive moment and a cautionary one. In the years following, Leno took The Tonight Show and, after a bumpy start, sailed above and ahead of Letterman’s Late Show on CBS to become the processed food of American comedy.
In 1982, Letterman got the 12:30 a.m. slot at NBC and changed American comedy. Leno, meanwhile, became not the King of Late Night as Carson had been but a kind of Viceroy, a holding pattern that became a habit and then a long-term habit, benign and risk-free. He seemed genuinely nice—he once compared himself to Old Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol—building a success but rarely flooring it with the show. He was, he liked to say, a “big-tent guy.”