David Letterman: The New Yorker Festival 7 October 2016

I was more excited than humans should be allowed. I first became aware of David Letterman with his appearances and guest-hosting on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. During a period of unemployment, the first episode of Late Night with David Letterman aired and I watched and loved it. The host seemed a little nervous but it looked like it was going to be a show worth watching. My evenings became The Tonight Show, Late Night, NBC News Overnight with Lloyd Dobyns and Linda Ellerbee, and finished at the local bar. NBC News Overnight was a smart, funny, and ironic look at the news with extended news analysis missing from early evening broadcast news. But this isn’t about that beloved show. And so it goes. I was bummed about Tomorrow with Tom Snyder being cancelled because Snyder had smart funny guests but he made an interesting host whoever the guest. Late Night had the intelligence of Tomorrow, irony (sometimes with more of a lean towards sarcasm) of NBC News Overnight, and humor of The Tonight Show. For me, Late Night (and later Late Show with David Letterman) changed the late night talk show landscape and everyone who has followed has done his best to imitate and honor Letterman’s lead.

In addition to that, I’ve always found Letterman himself to be very funny, witty, intelligent, self-deprecating, and sexy. After we’d bought the tickets for the Letterman interview, the New Yorker Festival announced a Bruce Springsteen interview at Town Hall. Tickets were way expensive (even by New Yorker Festival standards) but it included a copy of Springsteen’s book. I had a brief moment of indecision – after all, Springsteen was my boyfriend way before Dave was. But I’ve seen Springsteen many times and despite all his years in NYC, I never saw Dave in person and that made my choice easy.

This was my first event at this year’s The New Yorker Festival. I remembered the SVA Theatre as being off 7th Avenue and was walking east on 23rd Street from the 8th Avenue subway when I looked up at the numbers and realized I was going in the wrong direction. The theater was actually off 8th Avenue on the west side and I was walking away from it. Even when my lack of any sense of direction does not rear its ugly head, I manage to walk the wrong way. They had opened the doors earlier than they had advertised but I still found two good seats in the center of the theater and texted rtb where I was. I saw a man with a baseball cap pulled all the way down walking down the aisle. It was the fact that he was covering his face that made him so noticeable. I am 99% positive that it was David Schwimmer. One of the volunteers headed over to put a ‘reserved’ placard on the back of his seat (sort of too late already, no?) and it looked like she was apologizing to him. Right in front of me a man was returning to his seat and said that Letterman had come into the bathroom whistling.

On the screen were advertisements for various New Yorker Festival items and messages about the sponsors. Before the interview began, there was a short commercial from Tiffany. When Susan Morrison and Letterman took their seats, Letterman told us all to look under our seats for our Tiffany boxes. We were off and running. Letterman told Morrison that after she asked a question, he would talk and talk and he did. It was great seeing him again – still witty, funny, intelligent, and self-deprecating. Morrison introduced Letterman by saying that her editor David Remnick said the two most important things to come out of the 20th century were kitty litter and air conditioning. Morrison would add David Letterman to that list. So, of course, Letterman joked about being compared to kitty litter. It turns out that kitty litter was invented the same year that Letterman was born.

Probably the most important thing that Letterman said that evening and the most telling is that he “always drove the car that others had built for him.” No matter how many accolades you throw at him, Letterman will always credit his staff for his success. But if you spend just a short amount of time with him, you will see that he is intelligent and witty all on his own. When he states an opinion on a political matter he will always cite the column or article he read that helped him form his opinion. He then acts as if he is just restating what someone else said, but isn’t this how most of us form our opinions – by reading and listening to others we consider smarter than ourselves and then coming to our own conclusions? Many times Letterman said he’s not the funniest guy in the room but his quips proved him wrong. There was a running joke for the night about FDR – Morrison asked what presidents he had had on the show – and Letterman called over to his assistant and asked if FDR had been on. He didn’t go back to that too many time but, each time he did, it was funny in a classic Dave way.

The president question led to questions about Bill and Hillary Clinton. Letterman said that Hillary was kind, gracious, smart, and very frank. He said he hopes she’ll make a good president. She hasn’t been the perfect candidate but then who has been the perfect candidate? Letterman was worried the first time Bill appeared on his show. But Letterman asked him one question and then the segment was over and Letterman was thanking Bill for being on the show. “The man can yak.”

Morrison asked Letterman about Donald Trump and his many appearances on both talk shows. I thought she spent too much time on this subject and the New York Times had just printed an interview with Letterman that morning that covered this also. Letterman basically repeated what he’d said in the article. Trumpy (he kept referring to Trump that way) went too far when he made fun of a man with a congenital disorder on a national forum and not apologize. He is a badly damaged human being. When you see someone behaving that way, you tell them to get an appointment, see a therapist, and get a prescription. Letterman had always enjoyed having Trump on his show because he was an easy foil; no one took him seriously and Letterman would make fun of his hair, call him a slumlord, or note that his ties were all made in China. Letterman doesn’t believe that “there is a chance in hell that Trumpy will become president.” He quoted the David Brooks’ column from the New York Times that Trump would receive the nomination but never become president.

Letterman credited the head writers on his shows, Merrill Markoe, Jim Downey (longtime writer for SNL), Rob Burnett, and others whose names I did not get. Morrison said that Late Night segments gave NYC a small-town feel and Letterman credited the writers, especially Markoe, for that. He said she would get out the Yellow Pages and just thumb through them and write down the names of businesses. “Oh look. Just Bulbs. (the audience applauded for one of his best segments) And Just Lamps.” The first clip we watched was Letterman taking Siskel & Ebert to homes around New Jersey and letting Siskel & Ebert show off their talents (Ebert can play the “William Tell Overture” on any surface and Siskel can name all the helping adjectives) among other things. What makes those segments work are the cutaway shots to the residents and Letterman gave all the credit to director Hal Gurnee for that. Morrison said that cutaway shots like that are now commonplace and you see them in commercials and other media and she credits the use of them on Letterman’s shows for its constant use for comic effect.

The other segment they showed was “The Strong Guy, the Fat Guy, and the Genius.” These three guys followed Letterman around NYC with one destroying things, one eating things, or one answering questions. What made the segment was the music, which was by Paul Shaffer and vocals by bassist Will Lee. I think it was this segment that Letterman said they received call (letter?) from the writers of The Arsenio Hall Show saying that they give up.

If you want to study comedy, Letterman suggests New Yorker cover artist Bruce McCall’s books and Steve Martin. Portlandia is a TV show that he enjoys a lot because it stays true to its premise that everyone is quirky and funny. Letterman’s influences include Steve Allen and Johnny Carson. He used to watch Jonathan Winters and Bob & Ray with his father and they also had a great influence on him. On Sunday evenings his family would gather around the TV to watch The Ed Sullivan Show (at this point he called out for the name of the artist who represented that ‘family gathered together feel’ and got some funny responses until the correct one – Norman Rockwell) but his mother hated Sullivan. She hated that he would beg and/or command the audience to applaud for the guest. Letterman laughed that she felt the performance should stand on its own. Of course, Morrison had to ask how his mother was doing and Letterman said that they had all gathered recently to celebrate Mom’s 95th birthday. Her granddaughter gave her a tub of home-churned butter, which everyone ooohed and aaahed over. Then her grandson gave her home-baked bread. Now everyone was excited to have some homemade bread and butter. But Mom’s hearing is not too good and she took the cover off the crock of butter and it became obvious that she thought it was hand lotion. They wiped Mom down and eventually enjoyed the bread and butter.

Letterman also gave credit to his partner, Paul Shaffer, with whom he could not have done those 6000 shows. Letterman said you want him in the room with you. He said what he misses most, besides the friends on staff, is the great live music every night. Shaffer, along with two other women chose the musical guests and, again, Letterman gives them full credit for the great musical guests and teaching him a lot about music. Sheila Rogers was the “Random Notes” columnist for Rolling Stone and is now a supervising producer for “that Johnny Condom guy” (Late Late Show with James Corden). Sheryl Zelikson now works for Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Letterman doesn’t watch the late night shows, although he did appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live so when he was there that counts as watching it. He doesn’t know anything about getting videos to become viral but Morrison said that many of his segments, if on today, would become viral. He didn’t do political humor because Carson didn’t do political humor. He thought that Jon Stewart has changed the late night landscape in terms of discussing politics. He also didn’t meet with guests beforehand because Carson didn’t do that. Letterman liked the first encounter to be fresh, surprising, and he liked the energy of getting to know someone for the first time. On being on the Tonight Show, Letterman said he moved from Indianapolis to Los Angeles because Carson would introduce a comic by saying s/he would be appearing at the Comedy Store. So he found out what the Comedy Store was. He moved there in 1975 and by 1978 he was on Carson. “It was like being on a bus and you look over and holy crap it’s Abe Lincoln.”

Letterman talked about Tom Snyder and how much he loved Tomorrow (so did I). Snyder was egotistical and he played into it. Snyder thought he was Ed Morrow with the cigarette and its smoke circling above him. Letterman doesn’t know why then NBC president Brandon Tartikoff and NBC chairman and CEO Grant Tinker took a chance on him after his disastrous morning show. Carson’s consigliere sat them down and told them everything they could not do. They realized this freed them up to put on the show that we all saw. When he moved to 11:30pm on CBS, everyone thought he had to change the show. The belief was that the 12:30am audience was just a bunch of kids smoking weed.

On losing to Jay Leno for Tonight Show host, Letterman said he didn’t know how the game was played. He thought someone would just offer it to him. Most people considered him the heir apparent. He didn’t know you had to ask for it. After a meeting with Tartikoff when Late Night was experiencing great ratings, Tartikoff asked him, “Anything else?” and Letterman replied, “No, everything’s great.” It wasn’t until years later that he realized he should have said that he wanted to host the Tonight Show. After getting the Late Show gig, Letterman received a letter from NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer that stated all the things he couldn’t do – Stupid Pet Tricks, Stupid Human Tricks, Mailbag, etc. And in his signature Ohlmeyer had put a little smiley face in the ‘O’, so how could he take it seriously? He put a puppet in his signature.

On losing the ratings war with Leno, Letterman said at first he blamed the network but he realized it was him. He was embarrassed by the ratings and felt he had let down his staff and his family. Letterman was not fired from CBS. He and CBS president Les Moonves had agreed to renew for one year that last year, so it was mutual.

Morrison thought that Letterman had won the ratings war, despite Leno’s higher ratings, because his audience was smarter. Irony has become the default setting for everything, in a large part to Letterman’s shows. I think that Letterman won the late show war because every host after him has pointed to Letterman as their most admired host and someone they want to emulate.

The reason why Letterman is doing these interviews is because he’s appearing on the October 30th episode of National Geographic Channel’s documentary series on climate change. He traveled to India to investigate their energy grid. There are 400 million people in India without electricity. The prime minister’s goal is to supply solar energy for 7000 homes a day. Letterman talked about the extreme poverty he saw there and how touched he was. He wants to do more shows like that with the hope that it convinces people of the problem and to make the planet a better place for his son and to show his son that he did something.

When asked what he does on an average day, Letterman said he sits around all day and waits for Ellen to come on. Actually, he started the interview by saying he went for a run with his two yellow labs, Sully and Dutch, (every dog owner knows what going for a run is a euphemism for) and then he went for a run by himself. But what he and his family does is travel – recently they’ve been to Montana, Martha’s Vineyard, and Japan.

In answer to the audience questions, he said he gets offers all the time to do cameos. But he has no desire to play a street vendor in the next Spiderman movie. “I don’t think there is a device that’s invented that is capable of measuring the amount of time it took for me to hang up the phone.” Norm MacDonald is one of the most underrated comedians in this country and should be more famous. Letterman will be appearing on one of his podcasts. Letterman was surprised and touched by MacDonald’s and Ray Romano’s tribute to him on his last shows. He said the two of them were practically in tears.

Letterman got the sock question again – “Why does he wear white socks?” And again he rolled up his pants, showed off his socks and asked what color they were. Everyone replied gray, except for one person who said taupe and made Letterman laugh. He signed a guy’s hat and said it was wet. He took a long time to sign but it just said the guy’s name and “Best, David Letterman.”

For 9/11, Letterman and his family had been in Montana and he didn’t know what he was going to do in terms of the show. He drew inspiration from Rudolph Giuliani – the audience laughed and Letterman said “This was the old Rudolph.” He remembers Dan Rather grabbing his arm and starting to cry. Then Regis Philbin came on and Letterman knew he could make fun of Regis and for six to seven minutes the world righted itself.

One man said he was a comedian and wanted to be a late night host. Letterman thinks it’s time for a woman to be a late night TV talk show host. But he did take a photo with the man, who looked very short next to Letterman, who joked, “It takes a big man to do a talk show.”

Morrison told an endearing story about Carson. Steve Martin had written pieces for the New Yorker and he told Morrison that Carson wanted to submit some pieces. Morrison was thrilled. She received an envelope with his articles and in the envelope was a stamped self-addressed envelope. Carson had included the envelope as if he was some 21yo writer sending a first submission.

When asked if he misses it, Letterman replied that he did not. It’s for young people. He misses the music and misses the routine the most. But “I had a lovely time and only need this.”



By Carene Lydia Lopez