David Letterman Probably Likes David Letterman Less Than You Do

Once, when Terri Garr was a guest on Late Night with David Letterman, she tried to make small talk with her host during a commercial break. The World’s Most Dangerous Band was playing too loudly to allow for conversation, but Garr managed to ask Dave how he was doing.

Rather than attempt to shout over the music, Dave scribbled a note on a piece of paper and pushed it across the desk to her.

“I hate myself,” it read.

Garr assured Dave that that was silly, that he was a very talented man and a famous celebrity.

Dave took the note back from her and scribbled some more before giving it back.

I hate myself,” it read.

* * *

David Letterman is notoriously reclusive. But I have this thing where I figure if I read up on any topic enough, I’ll know enough to at least fill in the blanks.

I also have this thing where I’m wrong a lot of the time.

* * *

In this case, I began with Caroline Latham’s 1987 pocket paperback, The David Letterman Story, which proudly declares itself an unauthorized biography, as was the fashion of the time after the immensely popular muck-raking works of Kitty Kelley. The book itself is far from incendiary, as Latham is clearly a fan of Letterman’s, and its unauthorized state has more to do with its subject’s noted reclusiveness than anything. The same goes for what we could consider this book’s companion piece, The Letterman Wit by Bill Adler.  Adler did a series of these Wit books, like The Cosby Wit, The Kennedy Wit, all presumably written at an 8th grade reading level like his Letterman one. In fact, I wouldn’t be the least surprised if these books were to be found in the Troll Books catalog upon their original printings.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these books beyond the fact that you can probably find the same relevant information on Wikipedia these days. But there is one anecdote both share that does seem to be key to understanding Dave: In an interview with Rolling Stone, Letterman talks about how he and his friends at Broad Ripple High School felt like outcasts even among the outcasts, so they just made fun of everybody. When it came to dating, in the spirit of a best defense is a good offense, Dave said, “We’d find the best-looking girl and without ever asking her out—we’d just assume she wouldn’t go out—we’d just go egg her house on theory, you know, just, hell, ‘Screw you, I know you’re not gonna go out with me, so we’ll egg your house.’”

* * *

If you ask me if self-loathing directed outwards is acceptable behavior among well-adjusted adults and/or just nice people in general, I say no, of course not. You ask me if I can relate, and my answer is the exact opposite.

* * *

Yes, I am something of a Letterman disciple, the kind of jerk who makes excuses for a guy I’ve never met and who I likely never will. I’d call myself a Letterman apologist, except that I seriously doubt the guy wants or needs anyone to apologize for his behavior.

I think it’s safe to say that journalist Bill Carter is in the same camp. Carter has written what are considered the definitive late-night talk books, 1994’s The Late Shift, which detailed the battle between Letterman and Jay Leno for The Tonight Show, and 2010’s The War for Late Night about the same thing for the same show between Leno and Conan O’Brien. These books are extremely well-written by a guy who knows his stuff (which is hoped for in a media reporter for The New York Times), and Carter brings to the fore the swirling drama behind the scenes of an American institution. If you’re at all interested in this topic enough to have read this far, I’d highly recommend picking both these books up if you haven’t already.

But even given all that, Carter does take a pretty unmistakable anti-Leno stance. This isn’t to say that Carter paints Leno as some kind of monster; at the worst, Leno comes off as a kind of comedy cyborg, a joke machine that, like your blender, doesn’t want to hurt you but will rip your hand off if you reach in there at the wrong time. And even if Leno was a complete saint, it’s hard for people to not root for an underdog, which is something Leno has not been in at least 25 years. But even in War, Carter manages a couple of very pro-Dave chapters, although his involvement in that particular mess was largely peripheral. And so what journalistic leanings I have towards objectivity are first put to the test here.

The edition of The Late Shift that I have came out a year after its initial publishing with an all-new chapter of material. The new chapter is a post-script, and it details heavily the absolute thrashing Letterman’s new show over at CBS was giving The Tonight Show. Carter also uses Letterman’s then-approaching gig as host of the Oscars to highlight how Dave was clearly America’s host—the quirky, fun guy that people really enjoy—and not the tired, workman-like humor of Jay Leno, who despite claims of wanting to be liked by everybody, came off as the mustache-twirling villain in that whole debacle (a role he would reprise almost twenty years later).

Thing is, Letterman bombed out as host of the Oscars. Personally, I thought what I saw of that telecast was just as solid as anything else the guy had done. But my opinion obviously pales in comparison to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Prada Gowns, who got all bent out of shape that Dave didn’t treat the whole enterprise with the reverence befitting such a gala, even though the ratings that night were the highest they’d been in over a decade.

On top of that, it was around this time that ratings for Late Show began to slip, and once they did, Dave was more or less unable to top The Tonight Show until Conan’s truncated run as host. Due perhaps to the poor backlash from Dave’s Oscar hosting duties, or maybe just because Leno is really good at delivering the middling, comfortable junk-food comedy America really wants, it wasn’t long before Dave was back in second place, in the ratings and in the public eye. Even if he had achieved some folk-hero status back there, Carter’s claim that Letterman is truly “America’s host” does not seem to have proven out so much.

* * *

So now I’ve read two cheapie knock-off biographies and two well-written and researched, if somewhat biased, tomes on the state of late-night and its stars, yet I still don’t feel like I know anything more about David Letterman. In fact, the blanks I thought I could fill in on my own have only gotten larger.

One of the reasons Letterman is so reclusive, it seems to me, is that he wants his show to define who he is more than anything. He’s been quoted as saying the only time he’s really happy is that hour when he’s out there on camera (although it seems he’s also really taken to fatherhood, so perhaps that’s changed by now). But even if that’s the case, even if we the viewing public take that Dave, the host Dave, to be the actual Dave, the only Dave we can know, he can still seem like, as Cher so famously declared, an asshole.

In order to be a comedian, one has to step on some toes. Even comedians one would likely never describe as edgy—Jeff Foxworthy, Tim Allen, and yes, Jay Leno—still need a target for their humor, even if it’s something as so-what as airplane food or the like. Does one need to be mean-spirited in order to be funny? Of course not. But I’d like to present as counter-argument A: Shirley MacLaine.

MacLaine is an extremely talented actress, having turned in stellar performances in such classics as The Apartment and Two Mules for Sister Sara. She’s also gained some notoriety for her deeply held and outspoken beliefs in such things as past-life experience and UFOs. Especially back in the 1980s, MacLaine took a lot of ribbing over this and the books she had written about her spirituality. I can certainly see where that would begin to rankle on the nerves, but at the same time, when one holds to beliefs that are difficult to prove, your choice becomes fairly clear: either believe for your own sake and damn the naysayers, or get super defensive and come off like a major asshole.

When MacLaine appeared on Late Night in the fall of 1988, to promote the coming release of her film Madame Sousatzka, Dave began to ask her about the past lives she’d claimed to have had, reading off a list. MacLaine said that she couldn’t really get into it in just a talk-show segment and out of context, which strikes me as fair enough. But it is a talk show, after all, and Dave makes the point that this does seem to be a topic she is invested in, and as such, would make for an interesting chat.  MacLaine begins to get upset that Dave “keeps harping” on the subject, and then suggests that Cher was right to call him an asshole.

Hey, maybe he is. If that’s the case, why would you go on his show, why would you go into the public eye and talk about something that, frankly, you can’t prove to be true? As Dave points out to her, she can’t be too upset with him wanting to ask about it since she’s so well-known for believing in it. That’s the choice she’s made.

This past September, talk-show host and comedian Jimmy Fallon was a guest on Late Show with David Letterman, and he told a hilarious story about running into Bruce Jenner at the 2012 Olympics. Jenner has had quite a lot of plastic surgery, and Fallon had made a joke on his show that Jenner’s face was made of 100% recyclable goods. A solid joke, and really pretty innocuous. And Fallon told Dave about how horrible he felt when Jenner came up to him and said, “Stop saying shit about my face.”

Dave, who can obviously relate to this sort of backlash, went on to point out that basically Jenner brought it on himself. In the strange belief that copious amounts of plastic surgery would not make him look freakish and weird, Bruce Jenner made that decision and the subsequent decision to live in the public eye.

So who’s the asshole now?

At the same time, Dave says that he feels bad when that sort of thing happens because: “When people say ugly things about me, even in jest, you think, ‘Oh, really?’ But then you realize, yeah, they’re right.”

The card shoved back across the desk:

I hate myself

* * *

On Sunday, January 6th, 2013, Oprah Winfrey aired on her OWN channel a very candid, very detailed TV interview with none other than Dave. I first became aware of this when my friend Frank sent me an e-mail with the subject line “Letterman’s a Turd.” In said e-mail was this link to the blog of comic-book writer and cultural historian writ large Mark Evanier. In his blog (albeit in more delicate terms than Frank’s), Evanier discusses Dave’s revelation in the Oprah interview that he finds Jay Leno to be the most insecure person he’d ever met. Evanier expresses disbelief at this, and goes on to list incidences of Letterman’s own professional insecurities, drawing an unfavorable analogy to Jerry Lewis (read Evanier’s article for the Jerry Lewis story, if for no other reason).

But Evanier was taking things a bit out of context. Oprah’s very follow-up to Dave’s comment about Jay was, “Everybody thinks you’re insecure, Dave!” To which Dave admits, but he also never hid in a closet and spied on a meeting to further his own career, as Leno was documented as having done in Carter’s The Late Shift. Granted this sort of tu quoque argument does nothing to dispel claims that Dave cuts jokes on a whim, that he doesn’t appreciate his writing staff.

People see Letterman as a bully, as a guy who uses his popular forum and razor wit to attack people—celebrities they might be, but still people—and to hurt their feelings. And this might even be true. It’s also been said that Dave partakes in the same sort of awful behavior to those with whom he works, which is even less defensible if true, and which frankly sounds true to me.

But personal experience has taught me that bullies don’t make fun of you on a talk show. Bullies steal your property and beat you up. Bullies cause physical damage. Emotional bullying and teasing can be detrimental, I also know that from experience. But I also know that, in the face of immediate physical danger, being a smart-ass can be one’s only defense. When I was a kid getting pushed around by people bigger than me, people more powerful than me, it was guys like Letterman who showed me that I could be the smart one, I could be the guy who comes out ahead. They didn’t mention that, if I wasn’t careful, that defensiveness would also drive people away, people I cared about. I had to figure that out on my own, just as Dave seems to have.

You can’t fix the things you hate about yourself when you hate yourself.

* * *

I’d like to use this section to address Dave’s adultery scandal. I’d like to, but I’m not really going to. To synopsize a bit: In the fall of 2009, Letterman made a bit of a speech on his own program and detailed how there had been an attempt to blackmail him over several extramarital affairs he’d had with female members of his staff. Not only did he get the guy busted by the cops, Dave then admitted on the air that the allegations were true, that he had been unfaithful to his wife, thereby damaging his folk-hero status in a lot of eyes. Personally, I still don’t know how I feel. On one hand, I am very uncomfortable with the notion of someone in a position of authority abusing said position, even potentially, to incur sexual favors. On the other, I find the institution of marriage to be largely outmoded and that if a husband and wife are having troubles in any regard, that is their business, no matter how much I enjoy gossip at times.

Says Dave to Oprah, “I have nobody to blame but myself.” He spoke about the lengths his wife has had to go to forgive him, to continue their marriage. And again, perhaps objectivity eludes me, but if Dave’s wife can see past his transgressions in this matter, that’s good enough for me. Obviously, the guy has got a lot of insecurities that he sought to eradicate by objectifying women, something I am no stranger to, I will admit with my head held not high. But he took responsibility for it, he owned it. He’s still owning it. To be continued is the only way I can think to end that.

* * *

Oprah closes the interview out by asking Dave about his struggles with depression. He talks about how everybody gets the blues or whatever, so when depression begins to come around, you kind of just blow it off, suck it up and get back to work. Until that doesn’t work anymore, and it just becomes this horrible, miserable experience that, says Dave, “People who have gone through it know exactly what I’m talking about.”

I do. I know exactly what he’s talking about. And as should be obvious, one of the themes here is I feel defensive of Dave because I feel the same way he seems to feel a lot of the time. And though his actions may sometimes be indefensible, the way he’s lashed out at those in his personal and professional life, I still find him funny. And because I find him funny, because he’s helped provide balm for those times when my own indefensible actions have risen to the fore, I’ll keep sticking up for him. Whether he needs me to or not.

Until he, y’know. Does something really shitty.

* * *

If you ask me if self-loathing directed outwards is acceptable behavior among well-adjusted adults and/or just nice people in general, I say no, of course not.  You ask me if I can relate, and my answer is the exact opposite.

You ask me if I find it funny, and I’ll say pretty much always, yeah.

Jimmy Callaway lives in San Diego, CA. For more shenanigans, visit his bloggy, Attention, Children.

David Letterman Probably Likes David Letterman Less […]