When NBC and Carson Productions gave Letterman his show, they believed they were establishing another NBC star; they didn’t understand that they were laying the groundwork for a pervasive culture of irony. Letterman’s program created a sensibility that permeated TV, movies, literature, music, art, and magazines: The ceaseless joke of cultural debunking became the surgical tool that guided a generation of college students to strip the showbiz skin of the past 50 years. Letterman played disgusted consumer and truth teller; “Oh, that’s good,” he would say. Or occasionally just, “It’s crap, ladies and gentlemen!”
Long before he took Zsa Zsa Gabor to fast-food restaurants, he hauled out an actor named Calvert DeForest to play Larry “Bud” Melman as a kind of affectless piece of human tofu in the Letterman soup, reading his lines atonally and playing Santa Claus to slightly horrified children. In 1985, he made an enemy of Bryant Gumbel by turning a bullhorn on an outside taping of the Today show. Letterman established himself decisively on April 8, 1986, when he turned up in the lobby of the G.E. Building with a fruit basket to meet NBC’s new owner and was thrown out by security. He became the voice and the face of affectionate disaffection, so that when, six years later, Carson retired, NBC anointed not the scruffy jester but the smoother ward politician, Jay Leno—a man who could be counted on to work the affiliates.
As you know, Jay Leno got the gig and delivered.
But the choice hurt Letterman deeply: When in 2000 he had quintuple-bypass surgery and returned to work after five and a half weeks, one of his first jokes was, “Bypass surgery, it’s when doctors surgically create new blood flow to your heart … A bypass is what happened to me when I didn’t get The Tonight Show.”
David Letterman has become the national daddy—not a particularly pristine dad, or full of Cronkitean certitude, but confused and serious and full of anger and ambiguity.
Nevertheless, a lot of his pain was self-inflicted. He moved three blocks west and three blocks north from Rockefeller Center to the old Ed Sullivan Theater, which CBS renovated for him in 1993 and where he had a short period of intense success and then a long period of mild self-destruction. At first, he could do no wrong on CBS. Every joke hit, and he was trouncing The Tonight Show. But then some mysterious mechanism kicked in, as though he could not endure his success. From a beautifully tuned machine, the springs popped and it seemed to bottom out on a strange night in which he began literally beating the stuffing out of a David Letterman mannequin onstage.
Then something amazing happened to David Letterman, some weird combination of history and biography that moved him from a distinctive oddity of American comedy to something that came strangely close to greatness. It may have happened in three spasms of event.
One thing was his heart surgery elicited a depth of emotion from him that few suspected he had. The night he came back, he looked cadaverously—almost dangerously—thin but throbbingly exuberant. The irony had departed, as had his emotional detachment. Letterman still wasn’t sentimental, but he seemed suddenly grateful for both his life and his gig.
Another was his return to the air on September 17, 2001; he was the first entertainer back on, and his extemporaneous, husky-voiced monologue was a landmark in broadcasting. “As I understand it … we’re told that they were zealots,” he said that night, “fueled by religious fervor. And if you live to be 1,000 years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any goddamn sense?” It also fused him to New York City.
The third may have been this year. It was the year in which he had a protracted political participation, bringing the Republican nominee for president, John McCain, to his couch in contrition for having lied to him, the year in which he drew the mad ire of Sarah Palin of Alaska for a sloppy burlesque joke about her daughter for which he has performed a kind of anti-contrition after Governor Palin’s attempts to somehow stitch Letterman to the Eastern Media Establishment and to knit it into a combination of conservatism and feminism. He apologized immediately, but his long recoil has been a giddy froth of nightly retribution. And he does not appear sated.
“At one of these town-hall meetings,” Letterman said August 27, pacing back and forth, “McCain had to have a crazy woman removed by security … And I’m thinking, well geez, he should have done that a year ago.”
It didn’t reek of self-righteousness; he seemed to be protecting his program like a frontier landowner with a rifle. He wasn’t wrong—the right wing was getting ready to light bonfires and demonize him. There actually was a Fire Dave rally. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to say that Sarah Palin’s daughter had been knocked up by Alex Rodriguez during the seventh-inning stretch. The first night of the controversy, he said, “You know, this very well could be my last show. I don’t know why we all find that amusing.” Then later: “Would I do anything to advocate or contribute to underage sexual abuse or misconduct? Absolutely not. Not in a thousand years! Look at me. Do I look like I’m trying to make trouble?”