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David Letterman talks about his fight to get back on top

Burned in the ratings, Letterman puffs and huffs, eats caviar with a surprise guest, and answers all our questions

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It’s a cold, rainy November evening in Manhattan; local TV weathermen are having a fine time saying the word nor’easter over and over. And things are getting almost as stormy inside the control room of the Ed Sullivan Theater, where Late Show With David Letterman is about to be taped. Five minutes before show time, Late Show producer Robert Morton slides into the control booth: ”Okay, Dave does his opening remarks, then he goes to home base [his desk] and we cut to the Jumbotron…” Someone interrupts meekly, ”Um, the Jumbotron is dead” — apparently, the bad weather has knocked out Late Show‘s connection to the huge TV screen in Times Square that Letterman occasionally uses for jokey stunts.

”What?” grumbles Morton. ”Five minutes before we tape and I’m hearing for the first time we have no Jumbotron?” Trying to remain cool, ”Morty,” as Late Show viewers know him, the object of some of Letterman’s most withering on-air sarcasm, walks out to tell Dave the news, muttering ”Less than five minutes before the show. This is f—ing crazy.”

It is, in fact, a night of technical problems. Once the show is proceeding, Letterman is supposed to call the Pentagon to see how the federal government’s work stoppage is affecting national defense (that Ted Koppel, he’s got nothing on ol’ Dave). But Letterman can’t get the phone to work, so he starts yelling ”Get me an ax! An ax! I need an ax!” When a stagehand finally locates a small hatchet, Letterman chops the phone wire and tosses the decapitated telephone to an audience member.

After the show, when told that to this viewer, the phone destruction was highly amusing, Letterman says with mock sourness, ”Oh, you liked that, did you? Well, you weren’t the one sittin’ under those damn lights in a suit, watching calendar pages go by in your head, waiting for that ax to arrive.”

These are supposed to be rough days for Letterman, the 48-year-old suddenly former king of late-night TV. After his August 1993 debut on CBS, Late Show had dominated NBC’s Tonight Show With Jay Leno for almost two years, but since July Late Show has often finished behind Tonight (and ABC’s time-slot winner Nightline). Letterman is all too aware of how CBS’ prime-time plunge is dragging his show down and has taken to snorting derisively on air when referring to CBS as ”the Tiffany network.”

Yet if Letterman is feeling the heat from the ratings dive and the critical backlash against him since his roundly panned Oscars gig last March, he’s doing a pretty good job of hiding it today. Sitting in his big office (so under-decorated as to look like an abandoned warehouse) on an upper floor of the Ed Sullivan Theater, he’s tanned, wiry thin, and surprisingly upbeat, particularly for a man renowned for his black moods and interview anxiety. Dressed in sweats, a red T-shirt, and a baseball cap, he flicks on the radio, tunes to some squalling hard rock, and takes a good, long suck on a lit cigar that seems the size of a healthy zucchini.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So how are you feeling about the beatings Jay Leno has been giving you in the ratings?

DAVID LETTERMAN: This period we seem to be in now, where people are breathing down our necks, has actually been helpful, because we’re getting some perspective that maybe we’d lost track of. It’s like someone from the factory coming in and saying ”Boys, take the motor apart and examine each piece of it and see what’s wrong.” For one thing, maybe the show should be looser. Sometimes I wonder if we plan so much, it drains the fun out of it — ”Okay, here’s eight opening jokes, then here’s the camel costume, then we’ll have a fat naked guy run across the stage.” Less-manufactured fun might be an answer.

EW: On a recent show, you had Jerry Seinfeld stay on after his segments, and he joined in on the interview you did with David Duchovny. That was unusual, and there was a good interchange between the three of you.

DL: Yeah, that was something we were trying out and may do more often. If you get the right combination of guests, you can get sparks off that.

EW: What do you do, on the other hand, when you start interviewing someone and you start feeling you’re not in synch, that the interview is dying?

DL: Well, for example, the last time Sharon Stone was on, she and I were definitely not in synch. It was probably my fault. I’m the catalyst, I’m the reactor through which the audience interprets the show, so it’s up to me to be in control and give out the right vibe. Sometimes I fail at that. Sometimes not being in synch with a guest leads to good, edgy television, and sometimes it’s just, y’know, like pouring water in the toaster.

EW: Let’s deal with that Oscar-hosting business. Are you annoyed that you were passed over for Whoopi Goldberg next year?

DL: This is how dumb I am. People have been asking me if I feel snubbed, and that hadn’t occurred to me. It seems like a missed opportunity on [the Oscar producers’] part because my approach would have been, well, let’s go in there and see what else we can do to disturb people. That would really be something to watch.

EW: It must make you suicidal to think that you’re working for the network that just added Diagnosis Murder back to its schedule to try and save itself.

DL: [Smiling wryly] I’ve been cautioned to measure my remarks in that area.

EW: Who cautioned you?

DL: Well, a week or so ago I was makin’ fun of that night’s prime-time schedule — it was two hours of prime-time figure skating. And I got a call from [CBS entertainment president] Les Moonves saying ”Y’know, figure skating didn’t do too badly for us, Dave.” I said, ”Great, I’ll see you at the Ice Capades, Les.” We can’t do anything about prime time, we can’t do anything about the network, but what we can do is try and show people that on any given night, we still do a pretty good show. We’re still very competitive. We want to win. I have a feeling things will correct themselves…in the not-too-distant future.

EW: Have you spoken to Leno recently?

DL: I haven’t talked to Jay since the last time he was on our show [on NBC], right before he was going to take over The Tonight Show.

EW: Some have said that Leno got a lot of ratings mileage out of his jokes about the O.J. Simpson trial with the Dancing Itos and stuff like that, but you always seemed to hold back a little on that subject.

DL: I never knew where the access was where you could have fun with it, what you could exploit [for comedy] and yet disconnect from the fact that at the core of this was a grisly double homicide. To Jay’s credit, he found a way to have fun with many, many aspects of this. Maybe the difference was that being 3,000 miles away, we were the distant relatives coming to the funeral, and we weren’t quite sure what the mood was.

EW: And now you’re doing a lot of material about what you’ve been calling O.J.’s ”search for the real killers.”

DL: Well, now, with his behavior since the trial ended, the corridor for humor has widened. I still think, and have felt all along, there’s a chance the man’s innocent.

EW: And when do you think this subject will play itself out as joke fodder?

DL: I don’t know. But our theory of comedy with any subject is, you get a really good idea, and keep doin’ it and keep doin’ it and keep doin’ it until everybody is sick of it — and then you do it for about six more weeks.

At this point, Letterman’s executive assistant, Laurie Diamond, walks in with a large silver platter of caviar. ”What’s this?” asks a startled Letterman, who’s sipping black coffee. ”Mike Ovitz is on his way up,” Diamond explains. Seconds later, Ovitz — former head of talent agency CAA, now president of Disney, future head of Capital Cities/ABC, and seemingly two thirds of the entertainment industry — walks into the room, followed by Morton and Late Show head writer Rob Burnett, who could pass for Wallace Shawn’s less-neurotic little brother. Ovitz is wearing a black suit so soft and gleaming, it looks like pressed caviar itself.

MICHAEL OVITZ: Oh, you’re doing an interview. I’ll come back.

DL: C’mon, stick around and scare somebody. Put the fear of God into someone. Tell us about some really mean story and then say it’s off the record.

MO: You don’t mind if I sit down?

DL: [Pointing to the caviar] C’mon, siddown and put your face in there.

Ovitz smiles and, after shaking hands, reaches over in one smooth move and turns off the interviewer’s tape recorder. Letterman is delighted by this. ”Oh! Very cool!” he exclaims. Ovitz sits down and spoons caviar onto a toast round.

MO: You know, Dave, when I visited Jay, he had a much bigger plate of caviar for me.

EW: That’s because he gave you the Dancing Caviar.

DL: Hey, pretty good.

Diamond reenters, this time to say that Bonnie Hunt is on the phone from Los Angeles. Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, oversees The Bonnie Hunt Show, recently placed on hiatus by CBS. Letterman walks across the room to take the call.

MO: Tell Bonnie I send my regards.

DL: Mike Ovitz is here, Bonnie. He says he sends his regards, but he looks as if he has a couple of drinks in him, so I don’t know how sincere he is.

Ovitz clearly enjoys Letterman’s razzing, and later, when he leaves, Letterman notes his own fondness for the man who negotiated his release from NBC and move to CBS.

DL: I like just the idea of this guy — that all this influence and power and ideas are concentrated in one man. And in my experience, he’s a pretty decent guy, and one of the few people in my life who actually do what they say they’re going to do. Anyway, he’s got an important job now — he’s gotta go around the country making sure the right kid gets in the Mickey Mouse suit, the right one gets in the Goofy costume, that kind of thing.

EW: Are you still with CAA?

DL: Yes. I’ve found an agent there that I like and trust, Lee Gabler. Mike and I are just friends.

EW: Well, might you be talking to him about moving over to ABC?

DL: We’re thinking about everything, but that wasn’t what that visit was all about. He happened to find himself in town, and he likes to come up and let us embarrass him. It started out one holiday when my sister sent these krautballs she makes, and we put ’em out for Ovitz and he didn’t care for them, so each time we try and give him better food, and now it’s escalated to where it’s gotta be caviar. It’s basically a joke that only about three of us know about or enjoy.

The next night, Letterman’s Late Show guests are Elton John and Martin Mull. After the taping, the host is back in his office, music blaring, cigar ablaze.

EW: So how’d you think this one went?

DL: Not good, not good, not good. It wasn’t even me or the guests; it was more like the audience was resisting us. They didn’t even seem thrilled to be seeing Elton John, for God’s sake.

EW: How far ahead are you planning stuff? Like, are you already thinking about the presidential election?

DL: We have an idea that may come to pass. There are these two guys who work in the store down here, Sirajul and Mujibur, very nice guys from Bangladesh. We thought it might be nice to send them out to do candidate profiles — y’know, get to know Richard Lugar or Phil Gramm or whoever. So far our attempts to put that together have been thwarted.

EW: Thwarted on what end? What, Sirajul and Mujibur don’t want to do it?

DL: No, no, they’re packed, they’re ready to go at a moment’s notice. So far [the candidates’] people are not sure whether we’d be a good move. But we’ll do something like that: maybe take my mom out and let her spend a day with a candidate, see what she gets out of him.

EW: Speaking of your mother, she seems to have a book contract now, to write a cookbook?

DL: You know how this happened? She was at the Olympics for us, and when she comes back, everyone wants her — the World Wrestling Federation wants her to referee a match, that kind of thing. It just got to be silly. So I said, ”Okay, we’ll listen to any offer — it’s just got to be for a million dollars.”

EW: Did you pick this figure arbitrarily?

DL: I just thought it would be discouraging and they’d leave us alone. But then we get a call from this publisher [Pocket Books] who wanted to do it, and — by the way, this is off the record, I don’t want people to know how much…

EW: It [$1 million] was printed in Publishers Weekly last week.

DL: It was? Oh, gawd. Anyway, I’m worried now that it’s somehow going to turn into a cookbook about me.

EW: Are you still living with the same woman [Worldwide Pants staffer Regina Lasko]?

DL: Yes, yes, yes. Although we might want to call the house and see how that’s going. There seems lately to be a discussion going that — well, somebody wants to get married. Every now and then, somebody would like to be married.

EW: And the somebody isn’t you?

DL: No, it doesn’t seem to be me. See, I was married for, like, 10 years [to Michelle Cook], and then [ex-Late Night writer] Merrill Markoe and I lived together for seven or eight years, and this is now the third relationship I’ve had as an adult. I’m not sure why I’m resisting the notion of getting married, except that I’m haunted by the fact that I was married once and if I get married again, and if that don’t go, then all of a sudden I’ve been married twice. And nobody wants to end up their life alone, so that would mean three, four, five — I just don’t know about the whole process.

EW: There’s been a rumor that you’re already married, and you just haven’t announced it to the public yet.

DL: [Laughs hard] Yeah, okay. That’ll make my weekend a little better. ”So you see, we’re already married, honey. We just haven’t announced it yet.”

EW: Have you ever been in therapy?

DL: Hey, don’t think I don’t see a pattern in these questions, pal. Yes, years and years ago, I went to see a behavioral psychologist, and it was great. I thoroughly believe in it, because you vent everything that’s troubling you, and it feels great. You can tell by the way the [psychologist] looks at you whether he thinks you’re nuts, and if he’s not lookin’ at you too squirrelly, you think, ”Man, guess I’m not as bad off as I thought.” The second time you go, you don’t have as much to say, and you lose a little steam. The third time, I found myself making up stuff, to at the very least entertain the person. That’s when I realized, maybe this is not for me.

EW: Ever take Prozac?

DL: No. I haven’t felt that depressed, but I’ve known people who have. What little I know about pharmacology, [with] deep, suicidal depression, if it’s just a matter of balancing the chemicals in your brain, then [a drug like Prozac] is probably a valuable tool. But I guess there can be some side effects for some people.

EW: I think it can make you impotent.

DL: Can make you what?!

EW: Impotent.

DL: Oh, jeez, well, we don’t need any more trouble along those lines.

EW: You mentioned the woman who’s broken into your house in a recent Top Ten list — she come around lately?

DL: No. But I had a woman come to the house a couple of months ago who wanted me to put her in touch with Oliver Stone. And then I got a letter from her asking if she could move into my basement, because that was the only place she could be safe from the radio waves. The first time it makes you laugh, but the more you’re involved with it, you realize there’s nothing funny about it.

EW: Still looming ahead of you is that HBO movie, The Late Shift, about the talk-show wars.

DL: I’ve seen a clip reel, and it’s just bizarre. The guy [John Michael Higgins] who’s playing me — and I’m sure he’s a fine actor — but his interpretation seems to be that I’m, well, a circus chimp. He looks like he’s insane, like he’s a budding psychopath. And afterward I thought, Well, maybe this is how I strike people as being.

EW: Was this shown to you out of respect, for your opinion?

DL: Are you kidding? No, somebody just sneaked it out to us, so we could all gather round and see it for our amusement. Which wasn’t much, by the way.

EW: Let’s wrap up with updates on a couple of widely reported recent items about you: You’re not thinking about retiring before your contract is up about five years from now, and you’re not moving the show to L.A., right?

DL: The retirement thing — I was just speculating on a decision I might well make a few years from now. And while we’re not moving now, and maybe not for the near future, I think eventually it would make sense to move out there. For a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that I’m 48 years old and I need as much comfort and ease in my life anywhere I can grab it, and life is easier out there. We’ll do it in five years — you know, after I’ve retired. [Laughs]

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