This story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
If you were to synthesize all that has happened in recent years in the late-night arena into one epic inside-TV version of Game of Thrones — in this case, Game of Desk Chairs— the central figure, the comic hero, would be a man whose reign has stretched over three decades, two networks and countless moments of original, memorable comedy as well as personal, unusually intimate on-air revelations.
David Letterman, who will end his 33-year run May 20, has been a compelling, complex presence in American culture since two familiar Jimmys were in braces and another was in the White House. “Letterman is, by any standard, a landmark performer,” says Howard Stringer, the executive who brought the comic to CBS in 1993 and put him up in a landmark building on Broadway.
In the fashion of landmarks, something truly groundbreaking took place when Letterman got his hands on the traditional talk-show format in 1982. He spun it on its head, removed the sheen of showbiz slickness Johnny Carson had perfected and in its place inserted irony, parody and a touch of anarchy. Interviews could be fractious (Cher called him an asshole); comedy could be based in “found humor” (Dave going through strangers’ vacation pictures at a Fotomat); visuals could be deliberately unhinged (the famed Monkey-Cam).
“With Johnny, you watched because you were being allowed into the sophisticated world of show business, which was polished, elegant and cool,” says Rob Burnett, Letterman’s longtime producer. “With Dave, it was a brilliantly funny clubhouse.”
Letterman did not deserve all the credit. “Merrill Markoe, Steve O’Donnell and some others had a big hand in it,” says Burnett, referencing the two original head writers — and, in the case of Markoe, Letterman’s decadelong life partner. But Letterman’s sensibility was the dominant force. He pushed writers and producers for new ideas, often to the point of exhaustion and exasperation. Markoe described to me how she would present idea after idea that Dave rejected and then would live in fear of his failing with the one bit he had agreed to try — only to see him slay audiences night after night.
Drew Barrymore after flashing Letterman — it was Dave’s birthday — during an infamous 1995 taping of CBS’ Late Show.
I have seen thousands of David Letterman shows, beginning with his awkward weeks as host of a morning program on NBC. That summer, 1980, a friend was confined to a hospital bed and miserable. I recommended she tune in to this odd new host at 10 a.m. She was instantly enthralled — and feeling better. A year later, when Dave was between NBC shows, I saw him doing stand-up at The Comedy Store in L.A. He electrified the crowd.
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