"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 14 March 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Feel-Bad TV



As network TV limps toward

irrelevance, one man is riding

the corpse all the way down.

David Letterman lost his

naiveté nearly three

decades ago as a local

broadcaster — so doctors

weren't the only ones checking

in on Letterman's progress when

he returned to television last

month. Audiences wondered if

this career milestone meant a

softer Late Night lion in

winter, bringing the 52-year-old

entertainer some elusive

personal satisfaction. Or if

Letterman simply felt he was

performing the stupidest human

trick of all.


Has Dave drawn reassurance from

the outpouring of regard his

heart bypass surgery created?

Maybe even a willingness finally

to share at least a glimmer of

real emotion from tangible

evidence he'd attained the

fixture status that Johnny

Carson enjoyed? (After his

surgery the Clintons sent

flowers , and Al Gore phoned his

regards.) Following a bypass

joke on a Top Ten List,

Letterman told the audience

"Finally I got something to talk

about." After years of faking a

dab at his eyes, Letterman got

choked up as he introduced his

doctors, and announced to the

audience that "It was five weeks

ago that these men and women

here saved my life."


It's a sad paradox. After

slogging through 18 years in

network television, with its

randomness, cut-throat

competition, and bureaucracy,

Letterman has taken television's

impersonality to its naturally

surreal extreme. Asked about his

social life, Letterman stammered

to Larry King, "What's to know?"

Why does he avoid parties? "I

don't know. I don't want to do

that." Does he even have a life

outside the show? Letterman told

Playboy work occupies him from

8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

("Because of the schedule, my

life is the weekend."). But like

the Sigma Chi pledge who drew

the short straw, Letterman trots

his neurotic self before

national audiences nightly, 260

hours a year, year after year

— and then exasperates

viewers with his omnipresent




In the late night wars, he's the

nihlistic vortex, offering

audiences the dark fascination

of a pay-per-view event in which

one man beats up on himself.

Where Howard Stern draws great

reservoirs of self-pity from

such familiar gags as frustrated

lust and regular-guy

disgruntlement, Dave's misery

has deeper roots and seemingly

resists all treatment. "I have

— what do you call them?

— psychotic mood swings," he

told Playboy. Letterman's on-air

hectoring of the staff only

confirms a viewer's worst

suspicions that Cher was right,

and encourages the squeamish to

switch over to Jay. But if it's

a train wreck in very slow

motion — say, eighteen

years? — there's at least a

volatility to every show.

Audiences sense the possibility

that the final spectacular

meltdown is always imminent,

that this comedian will

self-destruct in five seconds.


Or is he confronting a delayed

mid-life crisis, haunted by

missed opportunities? Even with

millions of viewers, Letterman

told Playboy the truth about the

impact of his countless jabs at

General Electric. "There's

nothing we can say or do that

will hurt them in any

fashion..." Instead, in one

monologue Letterman joked that

as his career flashed before his

eyes, "I'm telling you

something. It was mostly awkward




But there is a legacy, and it

began somewhere after that first

top ten list in 1985 — "Top

Ten Things That Almost Rhyme

With Peas." ("Number Nine:

rice.") After a career which

included over 30,000 equally

irrelevant list entries,

Letterman can take pride in, if

nothing else, successfully

provoking Bryant Gumbel to

remark: "If I'd had the

opportunity to go after him

physically, I would have." In

deconstructive cabals across the

country, Letterman's attained a

kind of folk hero status for his

unwavering resistance to an

encroaching entertainment state

in which the Today show is only

the first wave. Viewers gabble

excitedly about Letterman's

historic guerilla pounces on

celebrities — Farrah, Madonna,

Crispin Glover, Mr. T....

Even Richard Simmons

once walked off his show. "When

I think about television and

show business, it grinds my

stomach," Letterman once

remarked. "I want to say to

people, 'Don't you understand

this is bullshit, driven by

egos, and that's all it is?'" He

once summarized it eloquently

for a German magazine. "We

entertain people using a medium

which I don't like too much."

Brilliant as The Larry Sanders

Show was, you always had the

sense that Dave's real-time

psychodrama offered purer grades

of spite and evil.


And in an even greater paradox,

this destructive impulse to pull

on the loose threads of glamour

has brought Dave real power.

During hardball negotations with

rival networks, cultural

figureheads like Ted Koppel, Tom

Brokaw, and Charles Kuralt were

brought in for support, and CBS

even videotaped Connie Chung

promising "For one year,

whenever Maury and I make love,

I promise to say 'Dave! Oh




In his private moments, is there

some lost spark he's hoping to

re-capture? Countless

entertainment hacks have seized

on stories about Letterman's

love of a high school speech

class. But there was also dark

streak. A dateless Letterman and

his pals would throw eggs at

girls' houses. "I spent three

years riding around in a 1938

Chevy with four other guys who

couldn't get dates, drinking

beer and eating cold pizza,"

Letterman once remembered. Now

he celebrates his birthday being

serenaded by Kathie Lee and

flashed by Drew Barrymore. ("I

can't thank you enough for

that," he told Barrymore

humbly.) Dave's mother bakes a

cherry pie in Indiana -- then

FedExes it to New York. But at

least once a year he returns to

Indiana, visiting the Steak 'n'

Shake for cheeseburgers and

fries. He's like a midwestern

Faulkner grotesque, with the

coveted mansion replaced by

Johnny Carson's desk ("I didn't

see much of my father," he told

one interviewer, "because he was

at work all day, working very

hard.") The meaningless sound

and fury is now the shuffle of

network executives — and the

prattle of celebrities he




Letterman's return scored the

show its highest ratings since

1995, higher than the

appearances by Hillary Clinton

and Al Gore ("We're going to

take his kidney out next

season," Late Show's executive

producer joked to the Washington

Post). The audience was thrilled

that Dave was back, catching the

tossed pencil, and harping on

doctor-prescribed decaffeinated

coffee ("There is no bigger

waste of time than this

stuff."). But he was back to his

old nasty self by the end of the

week, bitching about misfiring

gags. If anything, Letterman's

heart surgery has impaired his

ability to hold back the

nastiness. "It's just made you

feistier than ever," Candace

Bergen quipped.


Ultimately nothing had changed

after all. Dave's already

orchestrated a skit in which the

building across the street

displayed a sign that read

"Enough about the damn heart.

Nobody wants to hear about it."

Maybe viewers, considering a

world without David Letterman,

decided what it was that they'd

be missing. They wouldn't be

able to watch David Letterman

kicking himself around anymore.



courtesy of Destiny
picturesTerry Colon