When “Late Night with David Letterman” came on the air at 12:30am in 1982, I became such a fan that I was willing to put up with the early morning grogginess that came with staying up so late. The show came on after Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show”, something that I had little use for at the time since it was so predictable. I ha no idea at the time that Letterman’s deepest desire was to become the next Johnny Carson and host the same kind of show.
In 1982 I was three years out of the SWP, working for a consulting company called Automated Concepts that was run by an EST devotee named Fred Harris, and working with Peter Camejo on the North Star Network. I watched almost no television at all except for the Letterman show and football games. Most of the time I listened to WBAI, which was probably at one of its high points artistically and politically. Although it is hard to believe, the Letterman show was just as edgy in its own terms as a few clips from the early period should illustrate. They reflect a distinctly “downtown” vibe that was in its way the TV counterpart of the thriving punk rock, performance art, and underground Super-8 movie scene.
Brother Theodore (his last name was Gottlieb) was not just a comic genius; he was a genius period who led an extraordinary life as this Wiki entry should indicate. Can you imagine someone like that being featured on Jimmy Kimmel (not that I have ever watched that show.)
Gottlieb was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Düsseldorf, in the Rhine Province, where his father was a magazine publisher. He attended the University of Cologne. At age 32, under Nazi rule, he was imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp until he signed over his family’s fortune for one Reichsmark. After being deported for chess hustling from Switzerland he went to Austria where Albert Einstein, a family friend and alleged lover of his mother, helped him escape to the United States.
He worked as a janitor at Stanford University, where he demonstrated his prowess at chess by beating 30 professors simultaneously, and later became a dockworker in San Francisco. He played a bit part in Orson Welles’s 1946 movie The Stranger.
Chris Elliot was the son of Bob Elliot of the radio show “Bob and Ray” fame who certainly inherited his dad’s sense of absurdist comedy. He was a regular on the Letterman show for a number of years and always pushed the envelope. To give you an idea of the affinity that Letterman had with WBAI, long-time early morning show host Larry Josephson curated the Bob and Ray shows for an acclaimed CD reissue.
No commentary is necessary
Sandra Bernhard was a lesbian standup comedian who was by the far the best at making Letterman squirm even though he knew that this was essential for the show’s success.
What can I say? Harvey was my favorite guest on the Letterman show if for no other reason that he expressed exactly what I would have said if I had been on the show myself. Years later when I hooked up with Harvey to do a comic book about my life, I was more excited to be working with him than to be a guest on the Letterman show.
When Letterman moved to the 11:30 slot in 1992, I was happy to be able to watch my favorite show and still get a good night’s sleep. But within a year or so, I realized that it was a different show. It did not happen all at once but it no longer became a place for Brother Theodore but more for some idiot actor or actress to talk about their next film. On top of that, the shtick that remained like the “Top Ten List” grew stale.
What had happened?
I got the answer in Bill Carter’s 1994 book “The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night”. Carter explained in convincing detail that Letterman harbored a desire from an early age to be the next Johnny Carson instead of David Letterman. The 11:30 slot allowed him to drop the edgy guests who would have either bored or annoyed the people who expected the standard late night fare.
In August 2001 I posted some comments about Letterman to Marxmail that never made it to my Columbia University website (this was long before I began blogging or when blogs existed for that matter). This is the appropriate time to post them again.
Early in February, top CBS television president Les Moonves and six other top entertainment executives spent several days in Cuba with the approval of the U.S. government. The visit was capped by lunch with Fidel Castro. When news of the trip became public, Late Night host David Letterman began making fun of his boss relentlessly. Among the many rightwing jokes revolved around the “differences” between Moonves and Castro: “On one hand, you have a ruthless dictator surrounded by ‘yes’ men. And on the other, you have Castro.”
Another Late Night show pushed the envelope even further with a sketch titled “Lunch With Fidel.” And one of the entries on a recent Top 10 List was, “Last week, at Castro’s Grammy party, he let me beat a political prisoner.”
This follows a controversy surrounding the guest appearance of radical folk singer Ani DiFranco. Producers canceled her scheduled appearance tonight after the folk singer refused to substitute a more “upbeat” song for one about racism. DiFranco’s manager, Scot Fisher, told The Washington Post that the singer planned to perform “Subdivision” in the show’s final segment. The song begins, “White people are so scared of black people, they bulldoze out to the country.”
One can understand why Letterman would object to such a performance. Mostly what his shtick is about nowadays is projecting an out-of-towner’s fear and loathing of non-white New Yorkers to his dwindling audience. To preserve market share, Letterman makes sure to include at least one racist jibe each night about smelly foreign cab drivers or other aspects of its polyglot culture. The aging Letterman, who lives in Connecticut, is reverting more and more to his nativist Indiana roots. The state was home to the most powerful Ku Klux Klan chapter in the north throughout the 1920s. As the camera pans out to his sycophantic audience each night, you are hard-pressed to find anybody who is neither white, nor overweight for that matter. In his shift to the bland (and now racist) tastes of heartland America, he has attracted the audience he deserves: Corn-fed out-of-towners wearing fanny-packs, knuckle-head frat boys and visiting servicemen.
Letterman is a truly sad story. In the 1980s he was the inventive host of an NBC show that came on after Johnny Carson. Since this time-slot was traditionally (and still is) geared to a more adventurous programming, his bad boy creativity could find full expression. When he wasn’t interviewing quirky writers such as Hunter Thompson, he was skewering the pretensions of show business phonies like Cher. The rest of the show consisted of “found humor” like throwing watermelons off a 12 story building or “stupid pet tricks”.
When he made a bid for Carson’s time-slot after his retirement, NBC executives opted for Jay Leno instead whose conventional humor would satisfy the least common denominator and sell more beer and laxatives in the process. The jilted Letterman took a job with CBS in the same time-slot as Leno and vied for the same audience.
This meant changing his format. Instead of a Hunter Thompson, you would end up with some vapid B-movie actor promoting his or her next film. The conversation would inevitably revolve around how married life was treating them or what they did on their vacation. In other words, the same idle chatter that his audience has over dinner in their split-level homes in East Jesus, Nebraska. Nothing like making overweight white people feel at home. Meanwhile the “found humor” became ever more formulaic, following the same tendency found on Saturday Night Live. If an audience laughs at a sight gag, this becomes an invitation to repeat it every week until it becomes as irritating as a garden rake being dragged across a blackboard.
I suppose that Letterman’s turn to the right was inevitable. If you pander to middle-class fears and loathing about the NYC Casbah, you will naturally find yourself catering to the hysterical tics that define US foreign policy. Poor Letterman, he aspired to be the next Johnny Carson. Instead he has become the next Bob Hope.