Letterman, David (1947—)

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Letterman, David (1947—)

From 1980 onwards, television talk show host David Letterman has entertained viewers with his wry observational humor, zany antics, and refusal to kowtow to celebrities on his late night program. First aired on NBC, The David Letterman Show evolved into Late Night with David Letterman from 1982 to 1993, then moved to CBS and became The Late Show with David Letterman. Throughout the changes, Letterman maintained his reputation as one of the most innovative personalities on television, bringing to the well-rehearsed business a playful spontaneity. His uncanny ability for ad-libbing, as well as his propensity for undertaking creative stunts, has kept the show perennially fresh. What makes the show truly a leader, though, is its postmodern approach to the medium, characterized chiefly by Letterman's talent for zoning in on commonly accepted but nevertheless ridiculous aspects of society and culture (such as the concept of canned ham), and for targeting cultural icons. Though many are disturbed by his notorious penchant for condescension and put-downs during celebrity interviews, Letterman is recognized as a dynamic host due to his insistence that guests work for their spot on his stage.

David Letterman was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on April 12,1947. His father, Joseph, was a florist, and his mother, Dorothy, served as a church secretary. Letterman, who has one older and one younger sister, has described his upbringing as typical lower middle-class. He played Little League baseball, ran track in high school, held a paper route, and bagged groceries at a local supermarket in his teens. A rambunctious youth who made mediocre grades, Letterman was nevertheless ambitious. From an early age he aspired to become a broadcaster, despite his parents' wishes that he pursue a more practical profession. He adored television—perhaps because his parents kept a tight control over their children's viewing—enjoyed The Arthur Godfrey Show and idolized talk show host Johnny Carson.

After high school, Letterman attended Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, which is known for its outstanding communications program. While still in college, he found a summer job as a replacement announcer at a local television station and eventually became an announcer and weekend weatherman at the ABC-TV affiliate in Indianapolis. There, he began trying out some of his humor on the air, and realized that he wanted to become a comedy writer. After graduating from Ball State in 1969, the station where he had worked summers hired him full-time to announce the weather and host an occasional children's program or late-night movie. Here, he continued cultivating his quirky sense of humor, describing hail the size of canned hams and reporting on weather conditions in fictional locales. He went on to host a radio talk show at the Indianapolis station WNTS, but quickly tired of nitwit callers and took a full-time job as host of Clover Power, a show about children's agriculture projects, which he later admitted centered on poking fun at the young guests. He also began sending unsolicited scripts to the Mary Tyler Moore show on a regular basis, hoping that someone would discover his talents. Finally, his wife, Michelle Cook (they divorced in 1977), insisted they move to Los Angeles so that he could devote himself fully to pursuing his chosen career.

In 1975 Letterman arrived in Los Angeles and began performing in stand-up comedy clubs in order to get his name noticed. He cites Tonight Show host Jay Leno, then also a club circuit regular, as being one of his greatest influences at the time. Letterman became popular in the clubs and eventually landed a job as a comedy writer. In 1978, The Tonight Show invited Letterman to appear, a major step in any entertainer's career. At the end of his routine, Johnny Carson invited him to sit and chat with other guests—an honor seldom bestowed on a first-time performer. After just three more appearances, Letterman began filling in for Carson, acting as guest host on over 20 occasions during 1979. Observers mused that Letterman could be in the running to take over as permanent host when Carson retired, a possibility that had been one of Letterman's lifelong dreams.

Meanwhile, NBC signed Letterman to a contract in 1980 and gave him a daytime talk show, The David Letterman Show, which proved the prototype for his later format. The show, intended to cover subjects like household tips and cooking demonstrations, was not a ratings hit and was soon canceled. In their remaining time on the air, Letterman and Merrill Markoe, who was his female companion for ten years and provided much of his material, began developing the irreverent humor that would become his trademark. At one point, a herd of sheep was let loose in the studio; sometimes the host took a camera and strolled around the city looking for funny sights, on one occasion visiting a number of establishments that all displayed signs boasting that they had the world's best coffee. During this time, Letterman introduced Stupid Pet Tricks, featuring average people and their performing animals. Critics loved the novel format, and the doomed series quickly built a small but loyal audience, eventually leading the network to offer him the late-night time slot of 12:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.

Late Night with David Letterman first aired on February 1, 1982, broadcasting from the NBC studios in New York City. In addition to the variety-show antics from the daytime show, Letterman added elements of a more traditional talk show format, including an opening monologue, chit-chat with his bandleader, Paul Schaffer, and interviews with celebrity guests. However, the show maintained a rough-around-the-edges atmosphere, setting it apart from the slick, showbiz image of other programs. None of the spots escaped the host's offbeat approach, which teemed with a sense of wonderment at much of what the rest of society takes for granted, from the ubiquitous canned ham to a duo of recent immigrants selling New York souvenirs out of their Manhattan shop. Indeed, it became a Letterman trademark to draw regular people onto the program, putting them in the spotlight for a few seconds or even presenting them as recurring "characters." One such was Meg Parsont, a good-natured woman whose office at Simon & Schuster was across from his own. One night Letterman phoned the surprised publishing employee from the program, and enjoyed talking to her so much that he made her a recurring feature. But perhaps one of the show's funniest, most well-known, and most enduring segments is the Top Ten list, a popular routine that takes a topic, "the top ten nicknames cabbies give passengers" for example, and provides silly punch lines.

Letterman, who appears never to have lost a youthful enthusiasm and sense of excitement, often creates onscreen situations more or less just to see what will happen. Some of his signature events included donning a suit made of Velcro and flying off a trampoline toward a Velcro wall, wearing a suit covered in Alka-Seltzer tablets and diving into a tank of water, and covering himself with tortilla chips and immersing himself in yogurt dip. Other sight gags included inserting various objects like a can of pork and beans into a powerful hydraulic press. He has often brought the show's behind-the-scenes crew in front of the camera: he had stage manager Biff Henderson drive "The Golf Cart of Death" through pyramids of everyday objects, including a tower of plastic champagne glasses, and his obvious glee shone through during the numerous slow-motion replays he ordered throughout the night's broadcast. Audiences caught his infectious sense of fun and sent the show to the top of its ratings slot within a few years of its debut.

However, not everyone was enamored of Letterman's mischievous ways. To his detractors, some of his more lunatic antics are puerile and unfunny, and he appeared ill at ease hosting the 1995 Oscar ceremony where, in the opinion of many, his particular humor was out of synch with the occasion. More seriously, he quickly developed a reputation as a difficult host. Prone to openly insulting his top-name guests, he has insisted he is not mean-spirited and his wisecracks often slip out spontaneously and without malice aforethought, but many stars have taken great offense and have refused to appear on the program. Others, however, appreciate that he can equally be self-deprecating, and take his barbs in stride.

Rather than sidestepping tough questions and gushing over a person's accomplishments, Letterman has often put people on the spot. He once opened an interview with boxing promoter Don King by asking about his outrageous hairstyle, and he questioned the world's smartest woman, Marilyn Vos Savant, about why she was not doing something "important" with her life. He also scored a ratings coup when he got actor Hugh Grant to appear on the show after he was arrested for his much-publicized tryst with a prostitute. In addition, he has managed to get celebrities to reveal a down-to-earth side unusual on competing programs that tend to emphasize glamour. Letterman goaded Teri Garr, for example, into taking a shower during the program, and filmed Mariel Hemingway cleaning fish. Though many guests were good sports, others were known to leave the program in tears. Some, such as Cher, would agree to appear, but then go on the offensive, which made matters worse and could inspire months of subsequent on-air ribbing from the slighted host.

Despite his stormy relationship with certain celebrities, Letter-man's iconoclastic style was a hit with viewers appreciative of his ironic take on the television genre and the commercialism of contemporary society. His talent for taking ordinary cultural elements and pointing out their inherently funny nature was a refreshing change from prefabricated formula jokes, and brought him a heap of Emmy nominations and awards. Much to his dismay, Letterman's goal of taking over The Tonight Show was quashed when it was announced in 1992 that the position would go to comedian Jay Leno. Soon, rival network CBS enticed Letterman with a generous salary. After some insider dealings, NBC finally offered Letterman the coveted position, but with a number of stipulations and with a less attractive pay package than CBS had offered. Letterman ended up leaving NBC in 1993 and starting up The Late Show with David Letterman as a head-to-head competitor against Jay Leno and The Tonight Show in the 11:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time slot. In spite of legal haggling with NBC over "intellectual property," the program carried over its same goofy personality and most of the old stalwart gags, such as the Top Ten list and the pet tricks, and was still going strong at the end of the 1990s.

—Geri Speace

Further Reading:

Brownfield, Paul. "The Joke's on Who?" Los Angeles Times. February 8, 1998, Calendar 4.

Carter, Bill. The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno and the Network Battle for the Night. New York, Hyperion Books, 1994.

Latham, Caroline. The David Letterman Story. New York, F.Watts, 1987.

Lennon, Rosemarie. David Letterman: On Stage and Off. New York, Windsor Publishing Corp., 1994.

Zehme, Bill. "Letterman Lets His Guard Down." Esquire. December1994, 96.

Zoglin, Richard. "He's No Johnny Carson." Time. February 6,1989, 66.

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