David Letterman at best, can be described as an “anti-talk show host”. For more than 30 years on the late night TV talk show circuit, Letterman’s two talk shows broke all the conventions that are usually associated with a late night talk show, took the elements of what “Tonight Show” hosts Steve Allen, Jack Paar and Johnny Carson respectively brought to the show – elements that influenced Letterman – and created a show that he tailored to his ironic, unconventional style of humour. The end result was a show that had a growing cult following, thanks to segments like “Stupid Pet Tricks”, the “Top 10 List” and “Viewer Mail”, and making stars out of the most ordinary and unlikely people, such as book publicist Meg Parsont, hack actor Larry “Bud” Melman and even Dave’s mom.
As New York Times critic Jason Zinoman writes in his probing biography Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night: “Late Night appealed to the same voyeuristic pleasures that would soon be exploited by the reality show genre. It had its own contrived narrative that its fans followed closely, and after a decade of peeling back the artifice of his show, Letterman invited you to see him as the protagonist of his own drama. … You might say that Late Night with David Letterman became what happened when one talk show host stopped being polite and started getting real.”
Zinoman traces the life and career of David Letterman with a great deal of thoroughness, as he speaks with many of his former writers, producers and staffers to get a portrait of an individual who carved out a brilliant career on television because he constantly went for the unconventional and proved to be a breath of fresh air as a result, yet off the air, he was a walking bundle of insecurity, self doubt and self loathing.
From his abortive morning talk show on NBC during the summer of 1980 (which I watched and marveled at during his very short run on the network’s daytime line-up), to the growing pains of “Late Night”, to superstardom on “The Late Show”, the book deals with the evolution of an unconventional, one of a kind TV personality who wanted to be like Johnny Carson without exactly being Carson.
If there is one unsung hero who is to be heralded in this book as to being the one who molded David Letterman into the cult figure that he is regarded as today, and that is Merrill Markoe. The talented comedy writer and author – who was also Letterman’s longtime girlfriend throughout the 1980s – helped to create the regular segments that made “Late Night with David Letterman” such a popular show with viewers who wanted a break from the conventional format that “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” regularly offered (and earned Letterman a number of Emmy Awards).
Basically, those early, revolutionary years on NBC helped to cement Letterman’s reputation as a late night talk show giant. However, as a result of his bitter battle with Jay Leno over who would succeed Carson as “Tonight Show” host, not to mention the influx of younger hosts like Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien, Letterman’s feelings of self loathing grew even deeper, as he began to rely on his writing staff on a diminishing basis (which resulted in many of those writers defecting to the writing staffs of hit TV sitcoms or competing talk shows), preferring more celebrity interviews or his increasing abilities as a storyteller. By the time his show went off the air in 2015, Letterman became more introverted, eschewed rehearsals and basically sleepwalked through the motions as host. Even the work atmosphere at the production office was toxic, with his remaining writers and staffers subjected to lengthy post-mortem meetings following show tapings, in which Letterman just rambled on for hours with lengthy monologues about his life and insecurities.
These days, Letterman is more or less living a comfortable, hermit-like existence with his wife and son, and is unrecognizable with the large, philosopher-style beard he has grown since his departure from the airwaves (although he has recently broke his silence, with his limited engagement as guest co-host on Turner Classic Movies’ (TCM) weekly program “The Essentials”).
Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night is an absorbing study of a rather enigmatic TV personality who became an iconic figure because he set new, revolutionary standards of how the late night TV talk show should be done … yet he hated every minute of it!