David Letterman retires next Wednesday, which means for about a month now, the internet has been awash in a deluge of valentines. But for our money, the best tribute to Letterman’s mind-bending cultural legacy might just be David Foster Wallace’s “My Appearance,” a short story about a panicked guest waiting to step in front of the cameras, and remarkable now (among other reasons) for the way it showcases Dave at peak irony — when he hadn’t mellowed yet or gotten lovably grandpa-grumpy, but was still so militantly ironic that a guest could be legitimately terrified of speaking a single earnest word in his presence. The story was first published in Playboy in 1988 (as “Late Night,” Wallace’s first story in a major national magazine), and then again a year later in the collection Girl With Curious Hair. It appears here with the generous permission of that collection’s publisher, W.W. Norton, and might just be the best thing ever written about television in America, period — by a writer who was famously obsessed with both.
I am a woman who appeared in public on “Late Night with David Letterman” on March 22, 1989.
In the words of my husband Rudy, I am a woman whose face and attitudes are known to something over half of the measurable population of the United States, whose name is on lips and covers and screens. And whose heart’s heart is invisible, and unapproachably hidden. Which is what Rudy thought could save me from all this appearance implied.
The week that surrounded March 22, 1989 was also the week David Letterman’s variety-and-talk show featured a series of videotaped skits on the private activities and pastimes of executives at NBC. My husband, whose name is better known inside the entertainment industry than out of it, was anxious: he knew and feared Letterman; he claimed to know for a fact that Letterman loved to savage female guests, that he was a misogynist. It was on Sunday that he told me to handle and be handled by Letterman. March 22 was to be Wednesday.
On Monday, viewers accompanied David Letterman as he went deep-sea fishing with the president of NBC’s News Division. The executive, whom my husband had met and who had a pappus of hair sprouting from each red ear, owned a state-of-the-art boat and rod and reel, and apparently deep-sea fished without hooks. He and Letterman fastened bait to their lines with rubber bands.
“He’s waiting for the poor old bastard to even think about saying holy mackerel,” Rudy grimaced, smoking.
On Tuesday, Letterman perused NBC’s chief of Creative Development’s huge collection of refrigerator magnets. He said:
“Is this entertainment ladies and gentleman? Or what?”
I had the bitterness of a Xanax on my tongue.
We had Ramon haul out some videotapes of old “Late Night” editions, and watched them.
“How do you feel?” my husband asked me.
In slow motion, Letterman let drop from a rooftop twenty floors above a cement lot several bottles of champagne, some plump fruit, a plate-glass window, and what looked, for only a moment, like a live piglet.
“The hokeyness of the whole thing is vital,” Rudy said as Letterman dropped a squealing piglet off what was obviously only a pretend rooftop in the studio; we saw something fall a long way from the original roof to hit cement and reveal itself to be a stuffed piglet. “But that doesn’t make him benign.” My husband got a glimpse of his image in our screening room’s black window and rearranged himself. “I don’t want you to think the hokeyness is real.”
“I thought hokeyness was pretty much understood not to be real.” I said.
He directed me to the screen, where Paul Shaffer, David Letterman’s musical sidekick and friend, was doing a go-figure with his shoulders and his hands.
We had both taken Xanaxes before having Ramon set up the videotapes. I also had a glass of Chablis. I was very tired by the time the refrigerator magnets were perused and discussed. My husband was also tired, but he was becoming increasingly concerned that this particular appearance could present problems. That it could be serious.
The call had come from New York the Friday before. The caller had congratulated me on my police drama being picked up for its fifth season, and asked whether I’d like to be a guest on the next week’s “Late Night with David Letterman,” saying Mr. Letterman would be terribly pleased to have me on. I tentatively agreed. I have a few illusions left, but I’m darn proud of our show’s success. I have a good character, work hard, play her well, and practically adore the other actors and people associated with the series. I called my agent, my unit director and my husband. I agreed to accept an appearance on Wednesday, March 22. That was the only interval Rudy and I had free in a weekly schedule that denied me even two days to rub together: my own series tapes Fridays, with required read-throughs and a Full Dress the day before. Even the 22nd, my husband pointed out over drinks, would mean leaving L.A.X. very early Wednesday morning since I was contracted to appear in a wiener commercial through Tuesday. My agent had thought he could reschedule the wiener shoot — the people at Oscar Mayer had been very accommodating throughout the whole campaign — but my husband had a rule for himself about honoring contracted obligations, and as his partner I chose also to try to live according to this rule. It meant staying up terribly late Tuesday to watch David Letterman and the piglet and refrigerator magnets and an unending succession of eccentrically talented pets, then catching a predawn flight the next morning: though “Late Night”’s taping didn’t begin until 5:30 E.S.T., Rudy had gone to great trouble to arrange a lengthy strategy session with Ron beforehand.
Before I fell asleep Tuesday night, David Letterman had Teri Garr put on a Velcro suit and fling herself at a Velcro wall. That night his NBC Bookmobile featured a 1989 Buyer’s Guide to New York City Officials; Letterman held the book up to view while Teri hung behind him, stuck to the wall several feet off the ground.
“That could be you,” my husband said, ringing the kitchen for a glass of milk.
The show seemed to have a fetish about arranging things in lists of ten. We saw what the “Late Night” research staff considered the ten worst television commercials ever. I can remember number five or four: a German automobile manufacturer tried to link purchase of its box-shaped car to sexual satisfaction by showing, against a background of woodwinds and pines, a languid Nordic woman succumbing to the charms of the car’s stickshift.
“Well I’m certainly swayed,” Letterman said when the clip had ended. “Aren’t you, ladies and gentleman?”
He offered up a false promo for a cultural program PBS had supposedly decided against inserting into next fall’s lineup. The promo was an understated clip of four turbaned Kurdistani rebels, draped in small-arms gear, taking time out from revolution to perform a Handel quartet in a meadow full of purple flowers. The bud of culture flourishing even in the craggiest soil, was the come-on. Letterman cleared his throat and claimed that PBS had finally submitted to conservative PTA pressure against the promo. Paul Shaffer, to a drum roll, asked why this was so. Letterman grinned with an embarrassment Rudy and I both found attractive. There were, again, ten answers. Two I remember were Gratuitous Sikhs and Violets, and Gratuitous Sects and Violins. Everyone hissed with joy. Even Rudy laughed, though he knew no such program had ever been commissioned by PBS. I laughed sleepily and shifted against his arm, which was out along the back of the couch.
David Letterman also said, at various intervals, “Some fun now, boy.” Everyone laughed. I can remember not thinking there was anything especially threatening about Letterman, though the idea of having to be peeled off a wall upset me.
Nor did I care one bit for the way the airplane’s ready, slanted shadow rushed up the runway to join us as we touched down. By this time I was quite upset. I even jumped and said Oh as the plane’s front settled into its shadow on the landing. I broke into tears, though not terribly. I am a woman who simply cries when she’s upset; it does not embarrass me. I was exhausted and tense. My husband touched my hair. He argued that I shouldn’t have a Xanax, though, and I agreed.
“You’ll need to be sharp,” was the reason. He took my arm.
The NBC driver had put our bags far behind us; I heard the trunk’s solid sound.
“You’ll need to be both sharp and prepared,” my husband said. He judged that I was tense enough to want simply to agree; Rudy did know human nature.
But I was irritable by now. Part of my tension about appearing knew where it came from. “Just how much preparation am I supposed to need?” I said. Charmian and I had already conferred long-distance about my appearance. She’d advised solidity and simplicity. I would be seen in a plain blue outfit, not jewelry. My hair would be down.
Rudy’s concerns were very different. He claimed to fear for me.
“I don’t see this dark fearful thing you seem to see in David Letterman,” I told him. “The man has freckles. He used to be a local weatherman. He’s witty. But so am I, Rudy.” I did want a Xanax. “We both know me. I’m an actress who’s now forty and has four kids, you’re my second husband, you’ve made a successful career change, I’ve had three dramatic series, the last two have been successful, I have an Emmy nomination, I’m probably never going to have a feature-film career or be recognized seriously for my work as an actress.” I turned in the back seat to look at him. “So so what? All of this is known. It’s all way out in the open already. I honestly don’t see what about me is savageable.”
My husband ran his arm, which was well-built, out along the back seat’s top behind us. The limousine smelled like a fine purse; its interior was red leather and buttery soft. It felt almost wet. “He’ll give you a huge amount of grief about the wiener thing.”
“Let him,” I said.
As we were driven up through a borough and extreme southeast Manhattan, my husband became anxious that the NBC driver, who was young and darkly Hispanic, might be able to hear what we were saying to one another, even though there was a thick glass panel between us in back and the driver up front, and an intercom in the panel had to be activated to communicate with him. My husband felt at the glass and at the intercom’s grille. The driver’s head was motionless except to check traffic in mirrors. The radio was on for our enjoyment; classical music drifted through the intercom.
“He can’t hear us,” I said.
“… if this were somehow taped and played back on the air while you looked on in horror?” my husband muttered as he satisfied himself about the intercom. “Letterman would eat it up. We’d look like absolute idiots.”
“Why do you insist that he’s mean? He doesn’t seem mean.”
Rudy tried to settle back as serious Manhattan began to go by. “This is the man, Edilyn, who publicly asked Christie Brinkley what state the Kentucky Derby is run in.”
I remembered what Charmian had said on the phone and smiled.
“But was she or wasn’t she unable to answer correctly?”
My husband smiled too. “Well she was flustered,” he said. He touched my cheek to open my face toward his. “Edilyn,” he said, “meanness is not the issue. The issue is ridiculousness. The bastard feeds off ridiculousness like some enormous Howdy-Doodyesque parasite. The whole show feeds on it; it swells and grows when things get absurd. Letterman starts to look gorged, dark, shiny. Ask Teri about the Velcro. Ask Lindsay about that doctored clip of him and the Pope. Ask Nigel or Charmian or Ron. You’ve heard them. Ron could tell you stories that’d curl your toes.”
I had a compact in my purse. My skin was sore and hot from on-air makeup for two straight days. “He’s likeable, though,” I said. “Letterman. When we watched, it looked to me as though he likes to make himself look ridiculous as much as he does the guests. So he’s not a hypocrite.”
We were in a small gridlock. A disheveled person was trying to clean the limousine’s windshield with his sleeve. Rudy tapped on the glass panel until the driver activated the intercom. He said we wished to be driven directly to Rockefeller Center, where “Late Night” taped, instead of going first to our hotel. The driver neither nodded nor turned.
“That’s part of what makes him so dangerous,” my husband said, lifting his glasses to massage the bridge of his nose. “The whole thing feeds off everybody’s ridiculousness. It’s the way the audience can tell he chooses to ridicule himself that exempts the clever bastard from real ridicule.” The young driver blew his horn; the vagrant fell away.
We were driven west and slightly uptown; from this distance I could see the building where Letterman taped and where Ron worked in an office on the sixtieth floor. Ron used to be professionally associated with my husband before Rudy made the decision to go over to Public Television. We were all still friends.
“It will be on how your ridiculousness is seen that whether you stand or fall depends,” Rudy said, leaning into my compact’s view to square the knot of his tie.
Less and less of Rockefeller’s skyscraper was visible as we approached. I asked for half a Xanax. I am a woman who dislikes being confused; it upsets me. I wanted after all, to be both sharp and relaxed.
“Appear,” my husband corrected, “both sharp and relaxed.”
“You will be made to look ridiculous,” Ron said. He and my husband sat together on a couch in an office so high in the building my ears felt as they’d felt at take-off. I faced Ron from a mutely expensive chair of canvas stretched over steel. “That’s not in your control,” Ron said. “How you respond, though, is.”
“In your control,” Ron said, raising his glass to his little mouth.
“If he wants to make me look silly I guess he’s welcome to try,” I said. “I guess.”
Rudy swirled the contents of his own glass. His ice tinkled. “That’s just the attitude I’ve been trying to cultivate in her,” he said to Ron. “She thinks he’s really like what she sees.”
The two of them smiled, shaking their heads.
“Well he isn’t really like that, of course, “Ron told me. Ron has maybe the smallest mouth I have ever seen on a human face, though my husband and I have known him for years, and Charmian, and they’ve been dear friends. His mouth is utterly lipless and its corners are sharp; the mouth seems less a mouth than a kind of gash in his head. “Because no one’s like that,” he said. “That’s what he sees as his great insight. That’s why everything on the show is just there to be ridiculed.” He smiled. “But that’s our edge, that we know that, Edilyn. If you know in advance that you’re going to be made to look ridiculous, then you’re one step ahead of the game, because then you can make yourself look ridiculous, instead of letting him do it to you.”
Ron I thought I could at least understand. “I’m supposed to make myself look ridiculous?”
My husband lit a cigarette. He crossed his legs and looked at Ron’s white cat. “The big thing here is whether we let Letterman make fun of you on national television or whether you beat him to the punch and join in the fun and do it yourself.” He looked at Ron as Ron stood. “By choice,” Rudy said. “It’s on that issue that we’ll stand or fall.” He exhaled. The couch was in a patch of sunlight. The light, this high, seemed bright and cold. His cigarette hissed, gushing smoke into the lit air.
Ron was known even then for his tendency to fidget. He would stand and sit and stand. “That’s good advice, Rudolph. There are definite do’s and don’ts’s. Don’t look like you’re trying to be witty or clever. That works with Carson. It doesn’t work with Letterman.”
I smiled tiredly at Rudy. The long cigarette seemed almost to be bleeding smoke, the sunlight on the couch was so bright.
“Carson would play along with you,” Rudy nodded. “Carson’s sincere.”
“Or who are sincere-seeming, who think they’re sincere, Letterman would say,” my husband said.
“That’s well put,” Ron said, looking me closely up and down. His mouth was small and his head large and round, his knee up, elbow on his knee, his foot on the arm of another thin steel chair, his cat swirling a lazy figure-eight around the foot on the floor. “That’s the cardinal sin on ‘Late Night.’ That’s the Adidas heel of every guest that he mangles.” He drank. “Just be aware of it.”
“I think that’s it: I think being seen as being aware is the big thing here,” my husband said, spitting a sliver of drink-ice into his hand. Ron’s cat approached and sniffed at the bit of ice. The heat of my husband’s proffering fingers was turning the sliver of water as I looked at my husband blankly. The cat sneezed.
I smoothed the blue dress I’d slipped on in Letterman’s putty-colored green room. “What I want to know is is he going to make fun of me over the wiener spots,” I told Ron. I had become truly worried about at least this. The Mayer people had been a class act throughout the whole negotiations and campaign, and I thought we had made some good honest attractive commercials for a product that didn’t want Oscar Mayer wieners to be made to look ridiculous because of me; I didn’t want to be made to look as though I’d prostituted my name and face and talents to a meat company. “I mean, will he go beyond making fun? Will he get savage about it?”
“Not if you do it first!” Rudy and Ron said together, looking at each other. They laughed. It was an in-joke. I laughed. Ron turned and made himself another small drink. I sipped my own. My cola’s ice kept hitting my teeth. “That’s how to defuse the whole thing,” Ron said.
My husband ground out his cigarette. “Savage yourself before he can savage you.” He held out his glass to Ron.
“Make sure you’re seen as making fun of yourself, but in a self-aware and ironic way.” The big bottle gurgled as Ron freshened Rudy’s drink.
I asked whether it might be all right if I had just a third of a Xanax.
“In other words, appear the way Letterman appears, on Letterman,” Ron gestured as if to sum up, sitting back down. “Laugh in a way that’s somehow deadpan. Act as if you knew from birth that everything is clichéd and hyped and empty and absurd, and that that’s just where the fun is.”
“But that’s not the way I am at all.”
The cat yawned.
“That’s not even the way I act when I’m acting,” I said.
“Yes,” Ron said, leaning toward me and pouring a very small splash of liquor on my glass’s ice cubes, furred with frozen cola.
“Of course that’s not you,” my husband said, lifting his glasses. When tense, he always rubbed at the red dents his frames imposed on his nose. It was a habit. “That’s why this is serious. If a you shows its sweet little bottom anywhere near the set of ‘Late Night,’ it’ll get the hell savaged out of it.” He tamped down another cigarette, looking at Ron.
“At least she’s looking terrific,” Ron said, smiling. He felt at his sharp little mouth, his expression betraying what looked to me like tenderness. Toward me? We weren’t particularly close. Not like Ron’s wife and I. The liquor tasted smoky. I closed my eyes. I was tired, confused and nervous; I was also a bit angry. I looked at the watch I’d gotten for my birthday.
I am a woman who lets her feelings show rather than hide them; it’s just healthier that way. I told Ron that when Charmian had called she’d said that David Letterman was a little shy but basically a nice man. I said I felt now as though maybe the extreme nervousness I was feeling was my husband’s fault, and now maybe Ron’s; and that I very much wanted either a Xanax or some constructive, supportive advice that wouldn’t demand that I be artificial or empty or on my guard to such an extent that I vacuumed the fun out of what was, when you go right down to it, supposed to be nothing more than a fun interview. Ron smiled very patiently as he listened. Rudy was dialing a talent coordinator. Ron instructed Rudy to say that I wasn’t really needed downstairs for makeup until after 5:30: tonight’s monologue was long and involved, and a skit on the pastime of another NBC executive would precede me.
My husband began to discuss the issue of trust, as it related to awareness.
It turned out that an area of one wall of Ron’s office could be made to slide automatically back, opening to view several rows of monitors, all of which received NBC feeds. Beneath a local weatherman’s set-up and the March 22 broadcast of “Live at Five,” the videotaping of “Late Night”’s opening sequence had begun. The announcer, who wore a crewneck sweater, read into an old-fashioned microphone that looked like an electric razor with a halo:
“Ladies and gentleman!” he said. “A man who is, even as we speak, checking his fly: DaVID LETTERMAN!”
There was wild applause; the camera zoomed in on a tight shot of the studio’s APPLAUSE sign. On all the monitors appeared the words LATE NIGHT APPLAUSE-SIGN-CAM. The words flashed on and off as the audience cheered. David Letterman appeared out of nowhere in a hideous yachting jacket and wrestling sneakers.
“What a fine crowd,” he said.
I felt at the fuzz of Pepsi and fine rum on my ice. My finger left a clear stripe in the fuzz. “I really don’t think this is necessary.”
“Trust us, Edi.”
“Ron, talk to him,” I said.
“Testing,” said Ron.
Ron stood near the couch’s broad window, which was no longer admitting direct sunlight. The window faced south; I could see rooftops bristling with antennae below, hear the tiny sounds of distant car horns. Ron held a kind of transmitting device, compact enough to fit in his soft palm. My husband had his head cocked and his thumb up as Ron tested the signal. The little earplug in Rudy’s ear was originally developed to allow sportscasters to take direction of live comedy before he made the decision to leave commercial television. He removed the earplug and cleaned it with his handkerchief.
The earplug, which was supposed to be flesh-colored, was really prosthesis-colored. I told them I emphatically did not want to wear a pork-colored earplug and take direction from my husband on not being sincere.
“No,” my husband corrected, being not-sincere.”
“There’s a difference,” Ron said, trying to make sense of the transmitter’s instructions, which were mostly in Korean.
But I wanted to be both sharp and relaxed, and get downstairs and have this over with. I did want a Xanax.
And so my husband and I entered into negotiations.
“Thank you,” Paul Shaffer told the studio audience. “Thank you so much.” I laughed, in the wings, in the long jagged shadows produced by lights at many angles. There was applause from Shaffer. The APPLAUSE sign was again featured on camera.
From this distance Letterman’s hair looked something like a helmet, I thought. It seemed thick and very solid. He kept putting index cards in the big gap between his front teeth and fiddling with them. He and the staff quickly presented a list of ten medications, both over-the-counter and ‘scrip, that resembled well-known candies in a way Letterman claimed was insidious. He showed slides side by side, for comparison. It was true that Advils looked just like brown M&M’s. Motrin, in the right light, were SweetTarts. A brand of MAO inhibitor called Nardil looked just like the tiny round Red Hots we’d all eaten as children.
“Eerie or what?” Letterman asked Paul Shaffer.
And the faddish anti-anxiety medication Xanax was supposed to resemble miniatures of those horrible soft pink-orange candy peanuts that everyone sees everywhere but no one will admit ever to having tasted.
I had gotten a Xanax from my husband, finally. It had been Ron’s idea. I touched my ear and tried to drive the earplug deeper, out of sight. I arranged my hair over my ear. I was seriously considering taking the earplug out.
My husband did know human nature. “A deal’s a deal” kept coming into my ear.
The florid young aide with me had told me I was to be the second guest on the March 22 edition of “Late Night with David Letterman.” Appearing first was to be the executive coordinator of NBC Sports, who was going to be seen sitting in the center of a circle of exploding dynamite, for fun. Also on the bill with me was the self-proclaimed king of kitchen-gadget home sales.
We saw a short veterinary film on dyspepsia in swine.
“Your work has gone largely unnoticed by the critics, then,” the videotape showed Letterman saying to the film’s director, a veterinarian from Arkansas who was panicked throughout the interview because, the electronic voice in my ear maintained, he didn’t know whether to be serious about his life’s work with Letterman, or not.
The executive coordinator of NBC Sports apparently fashioned perfect rings of high explosive in his basement workshop, took them into his backyard, and sat inside explosions; it was a hobby. David Letterman asked the NBC executive to please let him get this straight: that somebody who sat in the exact center of a perfect circle of dynamite would be completely safe, encased in a vacuum, a sort of storm’s eye — but that if so much as one stick of dynamite in the ring was defective, the explosion could, in theory, kill the executive?
“Kill?” Letterman kept repeating, looking over at Paul Shaffer laughing.
The Bolsheviks had used the circle ceremoniously to “execute” Russian noblemen they really wanted to spare, the executive said it was an ancient and time-honored illusion. I thought he looked quite distinguished, and decided that sense played no part in the hobbies of men. As I waited for my appearance, I imagined the coordinator in his Westchester backyard’s perfect center, unhurt but encased as waves of concussed dynamite whirled around him. I imagined something tornadic, colored pink — since the dynamite piled on-stage was pink.
But the real live explosion was gray. It was disappointingly quick, and sounded flat, though I laughed when Letterman pretended that they hadn’t gotten the explosion properly taped and that the executive coordinator of NBC Sports, who looked as though he’d been given a kind of cosmic slap, was going to have to do the whole thing over again. For a moment the coordinator thought Letterman was serious.
“See,” Ron had said as it became time for me to be made up, “there’s no way he can be serious, Edilyn. He’s a millionaire who wears wrestling sneakers.”
“One watches him,” my husband said, bent to check the fit of the cold pink plug in my ear, “and one envisions a whole nation, watching, nudging each other in the ribs.”
“Just get in there and nudge,” Ron said encouragingly. I looked at his mouth and head and cat. “Forget all the rules you’ve ever learned about appearing on talk shows. This kid’s turned it inside out. Those rules of television humor are what he makes the most fun of.” His eyes went a bit cold. “He’s making money ridiculing the exact things that have put him in a position to make money ridiculing things.”
“Well, there’s been a kind of parricidal mood toward rules in the industry for quite some time,” my husband said as we waited for the elevator’s ascent. “He sure as hell didn’t invent it.” Ron lit his cigarette for him, smiling sympathetically. We both knew what Rudy was talking about. The Xanax was beginning to take effect, and I felt good. I felt psyched up to appear.
“You could say it’s like what happened over at ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Ron said. “It’s the exact same phenomena. The cheap sets that are supposed to look even cheaper than they are. The home-movie mugging for the cameras, the backyard props like Monkey-Cam or Thrill-Cam or coneheads of low-grade mâché. ‘Late Night,’ ‘SNL’ — they’re anti-shows.”
We were at the back of the large silent elevator. It seemed not to be moving. It semed like a room unto itself. Rudy had pressed 6. Both my ears were crackling. Ron was speaking slowly, as if I couldn’t possibly understand.
“But even if something’s an anti-show, if it’s a hit, it’s a show.” Ron said. He got his cat to lift its head, and scratched its throat.
“So just imagine the strain the son of a bitch is under,” my husband muttered.
Ron smiled coolly, not looking at Rudy.
My husband’s brand of cigarette is a foreign sort that lets everyone know that something is on fire. The thing hissed and popped and gushed as he inhaled, looking steadily at his old superior. Ron looked a tme.
“Remember how ‘SNL’ had those great parodies of commercials right after the show’s opening, Edilyn? Such great parodies that it always took you a while to realize they were parodies and not commercials? And how the anti-commercials were a hit? So then what happened?” Ron asked me. I said nothing. Ron liked to ask questions and then answer them. We arrived on Letterman’s floor. Rudy and I got out behind him.
“What happened,” he said over his shoulder, “is that the sponsors started putting commercials on ‘SNL’ that were almost like the parodies of the commercials, so that it took you a while to realize that these were even real commercials in the first place. So the sponsors were suddenly guaranteed huge audiences that watched their commercials very, very closely — hoping, of course, that they’d be parodies.” Secretaries and interns rose to attention as Ron passed with us; his cat yawned and stretched in his arms.
“But,” Ron laughed, still not looking at my husband, “But instead, the sponsors had turned the anti-commercials’ joke around on ‘SNL’ and were using it, using the joke to manipulate the very same audience that parodies had made fun of them for manipulating in the first place.”
Studio 6-A’s stage doors were at the end of a carpeted hall, next to a huge poster that showed David Letterman taking a picture of whoever was taking his picture for the poster.
“So really being a certain way or not isn’t a question that can come up, on shows like this,” Rudy said, tapping an ash, not looking at Ron.
“Were those great days or what?” Ron whispered into the ear of the cat he nuzzled.
The locked studio doors muffled the sounds of much merriment. Ron entered a code on a lit panel by the Letterman poster. He and Rudy were going back upstairs to watch from Ron’s office, where the wall of monitors would afford them several views of me at once.
“You’ll just have to act, is all,” my husband said, brushing the hair back from my ear. He touched my cheek. “You’re a talented and multifaceted actress.”
And Ron, manipulating the cat’s white paw in a pretend goodbye, said, “And she is an actress, Rudolph. With you helping her we’ll help you turn this thing just the right way.”
“And she appreciates it, sir. More than she knows right now.”
“So I’m to be a sort of anti-guest?” I said.
“Terribly nice to see you,” is what David Letterman said to me. I had followed my introduction on-stage; the sweatered attendant conducted me by the elbow and peeled neatly away as I hit the lights.
“Terribly, nay, grotesquely nice to see you,” Letterman said.
“He’s scanning for pretensions,” crackled my ear. “Pockets of naïve self-importance. Something to stick a pin in. Anything.”
“Yas,” I drawled to David Letterman. I yawned, touching my ear absently.
Close up, he looked depressingly young. At most thirty-five. He congratulated me on the series’ renewal, the Emmy nomination, and said my network had handled my unexpected pregnancy well on the show’s third year, arranging to have me seen only behind waist-high visual impediments for thirteen straight episodes.
“That was fun,” I said sarcastically. I laughed drily.
“Big, big fun,” Letterman said, and the audience laughed.
“Oh Jesus God let him see you’re being sarcastic and dry,” my husband said.
Paul Shaffer did a go-figure with his hands in response to something Letterman asked him.
David Letterman had a tiny label affixed to his cheek (he did have freckles); the label said MAKEUP. This was left over from an earlier joke, during his long monologue, when Letterman had returned from a commercial air-break with absolutely everything about him labeled. The sputtering fountain between us and the footlights was overhung with a crudely lettered arrow: DANCING WATERS.
“So then Edilyn any truth to the rumors linking that crazy thing over at you husband’s network and the sort of secondary rumors… .” He looked from his index card to Paul Shaffer. “Gee you know Paul it says ‘secondary rumors’ here; is it OK to go ahead and call them secondary rumors? What does that mean, anyway, Paul: ‘secondary rumors’?”
“We in the band believe it could mean any of … really any of hundreds of things, Dave,” Shaffer said smiling. I smiled. People laughed.
The voice of Ron came over the air in my ear: “Say no.” I imagined a wall of angles of me, the wound in Ron’s head and the transmitting thing at the wound, my husband seated with this legs crossed and his arm out along the back of wherever he was.
“… secondary or not, about you and Tito’s fine, fine program perhaps, ah, leaving commercial television altogether at the end of next season and maybe moving over to that other, unnamed, un-commercial network?”
I cleared my throat. “Absolutely every rumor about my husband is true.” The audience laughed.
Letterman said, “Ha ha.” The audience laughed even harder.
“As for me,” I smoothed my skirt in that way prim women do, “I know next to nothing, David, about the production or business sides of the show. I am a woman who acts.”
“And, you know, wouldn’t that look terrific emblazoned on the T-shirts of women everywhere?” Letterman asked, fingering his tiepin’s label.
“And was it ever a crazy thing over at his network, Dave, from what I heard,” said Reese, the NBC Sports coordinator, on my other side, in another of these chairs that seemed somehow disemboweled. Around Reese’s distinguished eyes were two little raccoon-rings of soot, from his hobby’s explosion. He looked to Letterman. “A power struggle in public TV?”
“Kind of like a … a bloody coup taking place in the League of Women Voters, wouldn’t you say, Edilyn?”
“Riot squads and water-cannon moving in on faculty tea.”
Letterman and Reese and Shaffer and I were falling about the place. The audience was laughing.
“Polysyllables must just be flying,” I said.
“Really … really grammatically correct back-stabbing going on all over… .”
We all tried to pull ourselves together as my husband gave me some direction.
“The point is I’m afraid I just don’t know,” I said, as Letterman and Shaffer were still laughing and exchanging looks. “In fact,” I said, “I’m not even all aware or talented or multifaceted an actress.”
David Letterman was inviting the audience, whom he again called ladies and gentleman (which I liked) to imagine I AM A WOMAN WHO ACTS emblazoned on a shirt.
“That’s why I’m doing those commercials you’re seeing all the time now,” I said lightly, yawning.
“Well, and now hey, I wanted to ask you about that Edilyn,” Letterman said. “The problem, ah, is that” — he rubbed his chin — “I’ll need to ask you what they’re commercials for without anyone of course mentioning the fine … fine and may I say delicious?”
“Delicious product by name.” He smiled. “Since that would be a commercial itself right there.”
I nodded, smiled. My earplug was silent. I looked around the stage innocently, pretending to stretch, whistling a very famous jingle’s first twelve-note bar.
Letterman and the audience laughed. Paul Shaffer laughed. My husband’s electric voice crackled approvingly. I could also hear Ron laughing in the background; his laugh did sound deadpan.
“I think that probably gives us a good clear picture, yes,” Letterman grinned. He threw his index card at a pretend window behind us. There was an obviously false sound of breaking glass.
The man seemed utterly friendly.
My husband transmitted something I couldn’t make out because Letterman had put his hands behind his head with its helmet of hair and was saying “So then I guess why, is the thing, Edilyn. I mean we know about the dollars, the big, big dollars over there in, ah, prime time. They scribble vague hints, allusions, really, is all, they’re such big dollars, about prime-time salaries in the washrooms here at NBC. They’re amounts that get discussed only in low tones. Here you are,” he said, “you’ve had, what, three quality television series? Countless guest-appearances on other programs … ?”
“A hundred and eight,” I said.
He looked aggrieved at the camera a moment as the audience laughed. “… Virtually countless guest-credits,” he said. “You’ve got a critically acclaimed police drama that’s been on now, what, three years? four years? You’ve got this …” he looked at an index card “…talented daughter who’s done several fine films and who’s currently in a series, you’ve got a husband who’s a mover and shaker, basically a legend in comedy development… .”
“Remember ‘Laugh-In’?” said the NBC Sports coordinator. “‘Flip Wilson’? ‘The Smothers’? Remember ‘Saturday Night Live’ back when it was good, for a few years there?” He was shaking his head in admiration.
Letterman released his own head. “So series, daughter’s series, Emmy nomination, husband’s virtually countless movings and shakings and former series, one of the best marriages in the industry if not the Northern, ah, Hemisphere …” He counted these assets off on his hands. His hands were utterly average. “You’re loaded, sweetie,” he said. “If I may.” He smiled and played with his coffee mug. I smiled back.
“So then Edilyn a nation is wondering what’s the deal with going off and doing these … wiener commercials,” he asked in a kind of near-whine that he immediately exaggerated into a whine.
Rudy’s small voice came: “See how he exaggerated the whine the minute he saw how—?”
“Because I’m not a great actress, David,” I said.
Letterman looked stricken. For a moment in the angled white lights I looked at him and he looked stricken for me. I was positive I was dealing with a basically sincere man.
“Those things you listed,” I said, “are assets, is all they are.” I looked at him. “They’re my assets, David, they’re not me. I’m an actress in commercial television. Why not act in television commercials?”
“Be honest,” Rudy hissed, his voice slight and metallic as a low-quality phone. Letterman was pretending to sip coffee from an empty mug.
“Let’s be honest,” I said. The audience was quiet. “I just had a very traumatic birthday, and I’ve been shedding illusions right and left. You’re now looking at a woman with no illusions, David.”
Letterman seemed to perk up at this. He cleared his throat. My earplug hissed a direction never to use the word “illusions.”
“That’s sort of a funny coincidental thing,” Letterman was saying speculatively. “I’m an illusion with no women; say do you … detect a sort of parallel, there, Paul?”
I laughed with the audience as Paul Shaffer did a go-figure from the bandstand.
“Doom,” my husband transmitted from the office of a man whose subordinates fished without hooks and sat in exploding circles. I patted at the hair over my ear.
I said, “I’m forty, David. I turned forty just last week. I’m at the point now where I think I have to know what I am.” I looked at him. “I have four kids. Do you know of many working commercial-television actresses with four kids?”
“There are actresses who have four kids,” Letterman said. “Didn’t we have a lovely and talented young lady with four kids on, recently, Paul?”
“Name ten actresses with four kids,” Shaffer challenged.
Letterman did a pretend double-take at him. “Ten?”
“Meredith Baxter Birney?” Reese said.
“Meredith Baxter Birney,” Letterman nodded. “And Loretta Swit has four kids doesn’t she Paul?”
“I think Meredith Baxter Birney actually has five kids, in fact, Dave,” said Paul Shaffer, leaning over his little organ’s microphone. His large bald spot had a label on it that said BALD SPOT.
“I guess the point, gentleman” — I interrupted them, smiling — “Is that I’ve got kids who’re already bigger stars than I. I’ve appeared in two feature films, total, in my whole career. Now that I’m forty, I’m realizing that with two films, but three pretty long series, my mark on this planet is probably not going to be made in features. David, I’m a television actress.”
“You’re a woman who acts in television.” Letterman corrected, smiling.
“And now a woman in television commercials, too.” I shrugged as if I just couldn’t see what the big deal was.
Paul Shaffer, still leaning over his organ, played a small but very sweet happy-birthday tune for me.
Letterman had put another card between his teeth. “So what I think we’re hearing you saying, then, is that you didn’t think the wiener-commercial thing would hurt your career, is the explanation.”
“Oh no, God, no, not at all,” I laughed. “I didn’t mean that at all. I mean this is my career right? Isn’t that what we were just talking about?”
Letterman rubbed his chin. He looked at the Sports coordinator. “So then fears such as … say maybe something like compromising your integrity, some, ah, art factor: not a factor in this decision, is what you’re saying.”
Ron was asking Rudy to let him have the remote transmitter a moment.
“But there were art factors,” I said. “Ever try to emote with meat, David?” I looked around. “Any of you? To dispense mustard like you mean it?”
Letterman looked uncomfortable. The audience made odd occasional sounds: they couldn’t tell whether to laugh. Ron was beginning to transmit to me in a very calm tone.
“To still look famished on the fifteenth frank?” I said as Letterman smiled and sipped at his mug. I shrugged. “Art all over the place in those commercials, David.”
I barely heard Ron’s little voice warning me to be aware of the danger of appearing at all defensive. For Letterman appeared suddenly diffident, reluctant about something. He looked stage-left, then at his index card, then at me. “It’s just Edilyn I guess a cynic, such as maybe Paul over there” — Shaffer laughed — “Might be tempted to ask you … I mean,” he said, “with all those assets we just listed together, with you being quote unquote, ah, loaded … and now this is just something someone like Paul gets curious about, certainly not our business,” he felt uncomfortably at his collar; “this question then with all due respect of how any amount of money, even vast amounts, could get a talented, if not great then certainly we’d both agree acclaimed, and above all loaded actress … to emote with meat.”
Either Ron or Rudy whispered Oh my God.
“To be famished for that umpteenth frank she’s putting all that … mustard on,” Letterman said, his head tilted, looking me in what I distinctly remember as the right eye. “And this is something we’ll certainly understand if you don’t want to go into, I mean … am I right Paul?”
He did look uncomfortable. As if he’d been put up to this last-minute. I was looking at him as if he were completely mad. Now that he’d gotten his silly question out I felt as if he and I had been having almost separate conversations since my appearance’s start. I genuinely yawned.
“Just be honest,” Ron was saying.
“Go ahead and tell him about the back taxes,” Rudy whispered.
“Look,” I said, smiling, “I think one of us hasn’t been making themselves clear, here. So may I just be honest?”
Letterman was looking stage-left as if appealing to someone. I was sure he felt he’d gone too far, and his discomfort had quieted the audience like a death.
I smiled until my silence got his attention. I leaned toward him conspiratorially. After an uncertain pause he leaned over his desk toward me. I looked slowly from side to side. In a stage whisper I said “I did the wiener commercials for nothing.”
I worked my eyebrows up and down.
Letterman’s jaw dropped.
“For nothing,” I said, “but art, fun, a few cases of hot dogs, and the feeling of a craft well plied.”
“Oh, now, come now, really,” Letterman said, leaning back and grabbing his head. He pretended to appeal to the studio audience: “Ladies and gentlemen …”
“A feeling I’m sure we all know well here.” I smiled with my eyes closed. “In fact, I called them. I volunteered. Almost begged. You should have seen it. You should have been there. Not a pretty sight.”
“What a kid,” Paul Shaffer tossed in, pretending to wipe at an eye under his glasses. Letterman threw his index card at him, and the Sound man in his red sweater hit another pane of glass with his hammer. I heard Ron telling Rudy this was inspired. Letterman seemed now suddenly to be having the time of his life. He smiled; he said had had; his eyes came utterly alive; he looked like a very large toy. Everyone seemed to be having a ball. I touched my ear and heard my husband thanking Ron.
We talked and laughed for one or two minutes more about art and self-acceptance being inestimably more important than assets. The interview ended in a sort of explosion of good will. David Letterman made confetti out of a few of his body’s labels. I was frankly sorry it was over. Letterman smiled warmly at me as we went to commercial.
It was then that I felt sure in my heart all the angst and conference, Rudy’s own fear, had been without point. Because, when we cut to that commercial message, David Letterman was still the same way. The director, in his cardigan, sawed at his throat with a finger, a cleverly photographed bumper filled all 6-A’s monitors, the band got funky under Shaffer’s direction, and the camera’s lights went dark. Letterman’s shoulders sagged; he leaned tiredly across his obviously cheap desk and mopped at his forehead with a ratty-looking tissue from his yachting jacket’s pocket. He smiled from the depths of himself and said it was really grotesquely nice having me on, that the audience was certainly getting the very most for its entertainment dollar tonight, that he hoped for her sake my daughter Lynnette had even one half the stage presence I had, and that if he’d known what a thoroughly engaging guest I’d be, he himself would have moved molehills to have me on long before this.
“He really said that,” I told my husband later in the NBC car. “He said ‘grotesquely nice,’ ‘entertainment dollar,’ and that I was an engaging guest. And no one was listening.”
Ron had gotten a driver and gone ahead to pick up Charmian and would meet us at the River Café, where the four of us try to go whenever Rudy and I are able to get into town. I looked at our own driver, up ahead, through the panel; his hat was off, his hair was close-clipped, his whole head as still as a photo.
My husband in the back seat with me held my hand in his hands. His necktie and handkerchief were square and flush. I could almost smell his relief. He was terribly relieved when I saw him after the taping. Letterman had explained to the audience that I needed to be on my way, and I’d been escorted off as he introduced the self-proclaimed king of kitchen-gadget home sales, who wore an Elks pin.
“Of course he really said that,” my husband said. “It’s just the sort of thing he’d say.”
“Exactly,” I maintained, looking at what his hands held.
We were driven south.
“But that doesn’t mean he’s really that way,” he said, looking at me very directly. Then he too looked at our hands. Our three rings were next to each other. I felt a love for him, and moved closer on the soft leather seat, my face hot and sore. My empty ear did feel a bit violated.
“Any more than you’re really the way you were when we were handling him better than I’ve ever seen him handled,” he said. He looked at me admiringly. “You’re a talented and multifaceted actress,” he said. “You took direction. You kept your head and did us both credit and survived an appearance on an anti-show.” He smiled. “You did good work.”
I moved away from my husband just enough to look at his very clean face. “I wasn’t acting, with David Letterman,” I told him. And I was sincere. “It was more you and Ron that I had to … handle.” Rudy’s smile remained. “I would’ve taken Ron’s earplug out altogether, agreement or not, if Charmian hadn’t had me wear my hair down. It would have hurt the man’s feelings. And I knew the minute I sat across that silly desk from him I wasn’t going to need any direction. He wasn’t savage.” I said. “He was fun, Rudy. I had fun.”
He lit a long Gauloise, smiling. “Did it just for fun?” he asked wryly. He pretended almost to nudge my ribs. A high-rent district that I had remembered as a low-rent district went by on both sides of us.
And I’ll say that I felt something dark in my heart when my husband almost nudged me there. I felt that it was a sorry business indeed when my own spouse couldn’t tell I was being serious. And I told him so.
“I was just the way I am,” I maintained.
And I saw in Rudy’s face what my face must have betrayed when I hadn’t a clue about what he and Ron or even David had been talking about. And I felt the same queer near-panic I imagine now he must have felt all week. We both listened as something sweetly baroque filtered through the limousine intercom’s grille.
“It’s like my birthday,” I said, holding my second husband’s hand in mine. “We agreed, on my birthday. I’m forty, and have both grown and tiny children, and a husband who is dear to me, and I’m a television actress who’s agreed to represent a brand of wiener. We drank wine to that, Rudy. We held the facts out and looked, together. We agreed just last week about the way I am. What other way is there for me to be, now?”
My husband disengaged his hand and felt at the panel’s grille. The Spanish driver’s hatless head was cocked. A part of his neck was without pigment, I saw. The lighter area was circular; it spiraled into his dark hair and was lost to me.
“He leaned across right up to me, Rudy. I could see every little part of his face. He was freckled. I could see little pinheads of sweat, from the lights. A tiny mole, near that label. His eyes were the same denim color Jamie and Lynnette’s eyes get in the summer. I looked at him. I saw him.”
“But we told you, Edilyn,” my husband said, reaching into his jacket pocket. “What put him there, here and now, for you to see, is that he can’t be seen. That’s what the whole thing’s about, now. That no one is really the way they have to be seen.”
I looked at him. “You really think that’s true.”
His cigarette crackled. “Doesn’t matter what I think. That’s what the show is about. They make it true. By watching him.”
“You believe that,” I said.
“I believe what I see,” he said, putting his cigarette down to manipulate the bottle’s cap. The thing’s typed label read TAKE SEVERAL, OFTEN. “If it wasn’t true, could he use it the way he does … ?”
“That strikes me as really naïve.”
“… The way we used to?” he said.
Certain pills are literally bitter. When I’d finished my drink from the back seat’s bar, I still tasted the Xanax on the back of my tongue. The adrenaline’s ebb had left me very tired. We broke out of the tall buildings near the water. I watched the Manhattan Bridge pass. The late sun came into view. It hung to our right, red. We both looked at the water as we were driven past. The sheet of its surface was wound-colored under the March sunset.
I swallowed. “So you believe no one’s really the way we see them?”
I got no response. Rudy’s eyes were on the window.
“Ron doesn’t really have a mouth, I noticed today. It’s more like a gash in his head.” I paused. “You needn’t defer to him in our personal lives just because of your decisions in business, Rudy.” I smiled. “We’re loaded, sweetie.”
My husband laughed without smiling. He looked at the last of the sun-colored water as we approached the Brooklyn Bridge’s system of angled shadow.
“Because if no one is really the way we see them,” I said, “that would include me. And you.”
Rudy admired the sunset out loud. He said it looked explosive, hanging, all round, just slightly over the water. Reflected and doubled in that bit of river. But he’d been looking only at the water. I’d watched him.
“Oh, my,” is what David Letterman said when Reese the coordinator’s distinguished but raccoon-ringed face had resolved out of a perfect ring of exploded explosives. Months later, after I’d come through something by being in its center, survived in the stillness created by great disturbance from which I, as cause, perfectly circled, was exempt, I’d be struck all over again by what a real and simply right thing it was for a person in such a place to say.
And I have remembered and worked hard to show that, if nothing else at all, I am a woman who speaks her mind. It is the way I have to see myself, to live.
And so I did ask my husband, as we were driven in our complimentary limousine to join Ron and Charmian and maybe Lindsay for drinks and dinner across the river at NBC’s expense, just what way he thought he and I really were, then, did he think.
Which turned out to be the mistake.
Reprinted from Girl With Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace. Copyright © 1989 by David Foster Wallace. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.