Paul,” said David Letterman to his perpetually bemused bandleader, Paul Shaffer, one night recently, ”I consider it a successful show if, afterward, I can say to myself, ‘I made ’em laugh, I made ’em cry, but most of all, I made ’em think.”’ Letterman delivered this personal manifesto with a grave deadpan, and few members of the studio audience for Late Night With David Letterman broke out in laughter. But me, I was just about on the floor. Letterman was mouthing the sort of show-biz gush that another host — oh, say, Arsenio Hall — might recite with utmost seriousness. Letterman, however, conveyed nonchalant sarcasm. Laugh, cry, think — Who cares? seems to be the prevailing Late Night attitude these days. And it’s an attitude that makes for good TV — the spectacle of a very funny man signaling to his audience that he’s at the very least restless and maybe even miserable.
A couple nights later, during the post-monologue, pre-first-guest segment that Letterman frequently uses to muse about life and his tenuous role in it, he remarked to no one in particular, firmly deadpan, ”We had a Dutch research team do a study recently, and they found that no one has more fun on their TV talk show than we do every night.”
This, I’m convinced, is Letterman’s way of acknowledging that, on many nights, he’s having anything but fun — that he knows that we know that Late Night has become a wearying burden for him. Letterman has been in the talk-show version of denial ever since Jay Leno took over The Tonight Show from Letterman’s mentor, Johnny Carson. Carson had always seemed to be playing father figure to Letterman’s eternally rowdy college student; it was as if Letterman felt free to goof around aimlessly, gloriously, on his own show because he was confident that someday he’d take over Dad’s business. When Carson handed Tonight to Leno, it was as if father had cut son out of the will.
The result? A certain moroseness and rumors that Dave might soon be running away from home. NBC president Bob Wright recently told the trade magazine Inside Media that ”if (Letterman) really is unhappy, then I’m unhappy.” Oh no, two of you gloomy Guses moping around the halls of NBC? ”So this is a problem,” says Wright, ”and it isn’t a problem that goes away easily.”
Wright sounds as if he’d be positively relieved if Letterman would pack up his sad-clown makeup and move over to ABC, or to syndication, or to the first colony on Mars — just so long as he doesn’t have to see an unhappy Dave roaming the halls anymore! But this would be a serious mistake for NBC, because despite Dave’s dolor, there’s still no talk show funnier or more exciting than Late Night.
It’s true that many of Letterman’s most reliable bits now seem to bore him; he frequently rushes through his nightly top 10 list, reading the punch lines without expression. But when Letterman gets a guest he likes — Michael Keaton and Tom Hanks are good recent examples — the conversation becomes free-floating, loose, guys sitting around shooting the bull. Neither Keaton nor Hanks went out of his way to plug the product he was there to promote — Batman Returns and A League of Their Own, respectively; they seemed happy just to sit back and crack a few jokes with the host, whose crinkly eyes momentarily regained their sparkle.
Letterman’s mood swings are also making for many good, nasty swipes at NBC. He has been merciless in ridiculing the network’s expensive, extensive Olympics coverage. For instance, Late Night was interrupted not long ago for a fake news bulletin in which a ”newscaster” reported breathlessly, ”There appears to be someone in Michigan who has actually signed up for NBC’s Olympic pay-per-view TripleCast.”
One of Letterman’s most enjoyable, unpredictable regular guests, Sandra Bernhard, told an interviewer recently, ”Right now, of all the people with talk shows, (Letterman) is the most solid. He is most true to himself. He doesn’t try to please the audience.” That last quality is at once the source of Letterman’s great comic strength and his worst career liability. Surely NBC felt the Tonight franchise had to be given to a guy who would be willing to court that show’s middle-of-the-road yet diverse audience — a task at which Leno is now struggling honorably, if awkwardly.
I used to think it would be disastrous if Letterman defected to a network where he’d finally be cosseted as the gap-toothed genius he is: A happy Dave is frequently an unfunny Dave. But after watching him do a steady slow burn night after night — hearing him fantasize with guest Warren Zevon about joining Zevon’s band and playing seedy nightclubs for the rest of his days — wishing him his freedom seems the least we can do. Dave, we hardly know ye, but that’s the way we — and ye — like it. A