He looked genuinely, deeply upset. A couple of days passed. CBS affiliates roiled and yahoos wrote to Les Moonves. Letterman made a second apology more gauged to the affiliates. When Sarah Palin grudgingly accepted the apology, she did it through Fox News.
But he snapped back. He seemed to compensate with a new onslaught of Palin jokes, then back to Dick Cheney for a comfort stop. Mostly he had just entered some stage of his career as a kind of crabby eccentric, complaining about his new wife’s friends, setting up tales of sleeping in the tree house with his 5-year-old son, Harry, and picking up a virus that brought him into work for four nights with a 103-degree fever. He put himself in a video triptych with Regis Philbin and Larry King as the three oldest men in TV. He imagined being elder-abused by subway bullies and imagined the distaste with which his open-heart-surgery scars would be viewed on the beach.
He had become something out of James Thurber or Twain, a satisfyingly complete humorist, telling satisfying character tales that didn’t seem to have an endpoint. His pursuit of dinner with Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey on Martha’s Vineyard spanned many nights, epic in its statement of Dave’s injury. “Oprah—a national treasure,” he said, looking us straight in the camera. “Me—a … guy with a television show.” A look of confusion and hurt narcissism filled every crevice of his 62-year-old face. “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, I’m going to borrow a busboy’s uniform and find out where Obama and Oprah are eating dinner and then … ” He pantomimed carrying the tray over to the table where they were eating, sure that he would then be invited to sit down with them. Later in the week, he insisted that the Secret Service had banned him from the entire island and that he had to explain it to his son Harry, who had his heart set on a shell-seeking vacation.
Jack Paar used to do something like this on The Tonight Show in the fifties, the program that personalized and revolutionized late-night television. Paar would shock and delight his audience with his persona—stuttering and assuring them by putting his hand on his chest, “This is true, I swear, I mean I could not make this up. I kid you not”—then telling a story about his daughter shopping for a training bra or what he thought of Fidel Castro, or he would self-flagellate his own neurotic inability to negotiate modern life. Johnny Carson—mentholated and surgical—followed Paar in 1962, and it was he, of course, whom Letterman idolized. Finally, Letterman had merged Steve Allen’s absurdity, Jack Paar’s neurotic confessionalism, and Carson’s topicality.
The Conan part of the battle is easier. Dave has become the tenured Ol’ Professor of American comedy, and Conan O’Brien, brilliant and delightful as he is, seems to be playing the graduate student. On August 31, as Letterman was sending dogs off a diving board and running through a bramble bush of madness with Howie Mandel, Conan was struggling manfully with the deliriously funny but audience-inscrutable Norm MacDonald, who had silenced his audience by performing a cruel mockery of Jay Leno’s “Headlines” routine, the deadness of which was the joke itself. O’Brien, on his magnificent new set in a beautiful new suit, was almost breaking a sweat and visibly exhaled when the segment was done. Over on CBS, Dave was giggling and whinnying away.
It’s a late-inning victory, but apparently Letterman is incapable on some level of believing it or accepting it. And the numbers are not unambiguous: Dave is winning significantly, but he seems to be the King of Geezer Nation; Letterman is beating Conan by close to a million viewers in the Nielsens despite O’Brien’s legitimate demographic claims. Conan has time on his side. Letterman will almost certainly hang it up at the end of this contract. He’ll be 65 in 2012, and Carson hung it up at 66 in 1992.
When he does, he will have been on late night for 30 years, the same length of time as Johnny Carson. When Carson died, David Letterman gave the classiest tribute to the man to whom he said he owed his career, an elegant Viking funeral. He came out onstage and did his monologue brilliantly, squeezing it for each laugh he could, returning to the desk and eulogizing his mentor. He then told the audience—separating the laughs from the attendant sentimentality—that each joke he had told had been written and submitted to the show by Carson himself in the previous months. He may have been losing to Leno in the ratings, but he K.O.’d him on lineage.
In 1895, Mark Twain, another dapper crabapple discoursing on politics and society, prepared a worldwide lecture tour that he began in New York City—actually using inmates at Randalls Island House of Refuge as his warm-up audience. A little like Letterman complaining about Oprah and Obama, in a modern nod to the coming new century, he planned to put up photos of all the celebrities who had decided not to show at his first lecture: General Sherman, General Lee, Gladstone, and Disraeli. “Every one of these illustrious men was sorry, and sent regrets; even lamentations.”
Then the speech went: “As soon as a man recognizes that he has drifted into age, he gets reminiscent. He wants to talk and talk; and not about the present or the future, but about his old times. For there is where the pathos of his life lies—and the charm of it.”
David Letterman has hit the part of life where he wants to talk and talk. But he seems to be still speaking of the present and the future. He is 62 and has chosen not to drift but to floor it, a boy of autumn, Huck Finn in September, the last American codger, the crabby voice of American reason, heedless, uncompromising, and driven. Long may he chortle.