In the last decade of the 20th century, there came upon the land the dread and terrible Late-Night Wars. Network was pitted against network, band against band, comic against comic. The wars aren’t over yet, but the probable victor has emerged from the unholy stench of battle: David Letterman, new lord of late night and heir apparent to the title of National Comedian.
Revenge is still the best revenge, and for Letterman, it has to be especially sweet. As host of Late Show with David Letterman, he is succeeding beyond the expectations of many industry savants in the time slot NBC refused to give him. And he’s doing it at CBS, which has never before been a player in late night. Since 1980, if not earlier, Letterman had been spoken of as the logical man to succeed Johnny Carson behind the *Tonight Show *desk. But in 1991, when Carson announced his plans to leave, NBC gave the gig to Jay Leno, the stand-up comic with the Buick jaw who grew to national popularity largely through his appearances on Letterman’s show.
Letterman won’t say bad things about Leno, and Leno won’t say bad things about Letterman, but a bitter rivalry had been set up. Dave’s dissatisfaction with NBC may have started much earlier, however. When General Electric took over NBC in 1986, Letterman strolled to GE headquarters–with a fruit basket and a camera crew–to make a gag welcome-wagon visit, only to be met in the lobby by a hired goon who, putting his hand over the camera lens, ordered him to leave. It was a seminal moment. Also quite funny.
When the time came to renegotiate his contract, Letterman was wooed by both ABC and Fox before jumping ship. But it was CBS Broadcast Group president Howard Stringer who waged the most elaborate courtship, replete with flowers, bonbons and a custom-made videotape starring Letterman pal Connie Chung. Stringer likened landing Letterman to CBS’s signing of Jack Benny 45 years ago.
CBS had lost millions on its disastrous deal with major-league baseball, and there was talk that a big-bucks Letterman grab could turn out to be another embarrassing fiasco. Letterman hired Hollywood monster-agent Michael Ovitz to engineer a deal that included a reported $14 million salary (a figure Letterman disputes), ownership of the program through Letterman’s Worldwide Pants company, the right to produce the show that follows Letterman’s and the lavish gift of the Ed Sullivan Theater, which CBS renovated at a cost in the neighborhood of $10 million. The network got some financial help from the city of New York, which had granted the theater landmark status and, as Letterman would say, ponied up some of the dough as part of a herculean effort to keep him from moving to Los Angeles.
Right out of the gate, Letterman looked like a hit. Even though only 70 percent of the CBS affiliates were carrying the show at 11:35 P.M. (compared with 99 percent of the NBC affiliates who were taking Leno), Letterman delivered a 6 rating to Leno’s 4. CBS executives had quietly said they would make money on the deal even if Letterman delivered only a 3.5.
“It’s a better show than I ever thought it would be,” exults Stringer, who has hailed Letterman as a genius.
Not only were the viewers tuning in, not only was the show getting more publicity than most of the new prime-time programs, but also, early in the run, CBS stock took a big jump, a rise that many people, not including Letterman, attribute to his show’s success. Beyond the ratings, the profits and all the other measurements of success in television, Letterman and Late Show instantly boasted one element that can’t be faked or manipulated: People talk about it the next day. They talk about Dave running out of the theater to buy tickets for “Miss Saigon” for the folks in the standby line who couldn’t get into his show; they talk about Debra Winger ripping off her dress to reveal her old Wonder Girl outfit from the Seventies; they talk about Al Gore bringing his own top-ten list with him for Letterman’s delectation; they talk about Paul Newman standing up in the audience on premiere night to ask, “Where the hell are the singing cats?”; they talk about Dave driving around New York in a rented Stealth and making crank calls from his new car phone.
They talk about Letterman the next day the way people used to discuss some outrageous shenanigan by Jack Paar, or some wickedly withering ad-lib by Johnny Carson. Letterman’s program isn’t just a talk show but a talked-about show, and that makes the crucial difference. The Late Show seems more scrubbed and polished and much less ragged than Late Night was, but it’s still the show on which something entertainingly unpredictable is most likely to happen.
Even at the age of 46 — ten years older than Carson was when he took over The Tonight Show — the lanky, pranky and sometimes cranky Letterman remains TV’s most reliable upstart, troublemaker and professional hooligan.
It was back in a high school speech class in Indianapolis that Letterman first dreamed of hosting a TV talk show. He had been something of a geeky kid–his dad, who died in 1974, was a florist; his mom was a church secretary–but he began to come into his own when he entered Ball State University in 1965 as a radio-TV major. He joined a fraternity, married his girlfriend and managed to work two summers as a replacement announcer on channel 13, the ABC affiliate in Indianapolis.
After graduation, channel 13 hired him full-time. He hosted a Saturday morning kids’ show and the late-night movie and served as news anchor. But it was his stint as a weatherman that gave viewers a glimpse of Letterman’s true talent. He once reported that the city was being pelted with hail “the size of canned hams” and enthusiastically congratulated a tropical storm when it was upgraded to hurricane status.
By May 1975, Letterman decided he was ready for big-time show business, and he and his wife moved to Los Angeles. The Comedy Store liked his stuff and made him a regular, with buddy Leno, and word got out that a new funnyman was in town. Jimmie “J. J.” Walker, Bob Hope and Paul Lynde all hired him to write jokes, and Mary Tyler Moore hired him as a cast member on her ill-fated variety show.
As his career took off, his marriage fizzled. He became romantically involved with comedy writer Merrill Markoe and found success as a Tonight Show guest–in fact, he was so successful that he quickly became a substitute host. NBC, realizing it had a talk-show talent on its hands, gave him a morning show. Both he and Markoe won Emmys for it, but no one was watching and the show was canceled. Still, NBC was not about to let him go–it paid him to sit around until a new show came along.
Late Night with David Letterman debuted on February 1, 1982, and from the beginning was a hit for NBC. Markoe, who had been a creative juggernaut behind the show, returned to Los Angeles in 1986, but Late Night continued to thrive. For 11 years it was the hippest hour on TV–so hip, in fact, that NBC feared the Tonight Show audience would find Letterman too hip and tune out. He proved NBC wrong when he moved to CBS.
To see how Letterman is dealing with the unusual success of his new show, Playboy sent Tom Shales, syndicated TV critic for The Washington Post, to the Ed Sullivan Theater to capture the elusive comedian. Shales reports:
“For our first interview session, I took a rickety elevator to the 12th floor of the Ed Sullivan Theater building and was ushered into Dave’s office, where I was met, if not exactly greeted, by the figure of Dave seated at his desk, wearing sweatpants, large Adidas sneakers and a Nigel Mansell T-shirt. He was glowering at me as if I had arrived to do proctoscopic surgery. After a few minutes of chat and of staff members’ running in and out of the room, I asked Dave if I’d gotten the right impression. ‘Yes, I was glowering at you,’ he said. 'I’ll just let you worry about it for a while. You just roll that around in your head for a bit, Tom.’
"He never explained the glowering, but I didn’t take it personally. Even though he had agreed to do the interview, when the moment arrived, he probably had a sinking feeling and wished he could back out.
"At the end of the first session, Dave fixed his glower on my tape recorder and began shouting, 'For Christ’s sake, this whole thing has been tape-recorded! You are really sneaky! Dear God!’
"The only thing Dave seems not to like about his new office is that from one window, looking down Broadway, he has a clear view of a billboard of Jay Leno’s face and the words AMERICA IS STANDING UP FOR JAY. Did NBC put that there on purpose? Dave grumbled something unintelligible and looked away.
"His must be the least ostentatious star’s office in the world. The room has bare white walls, few pieces of furniture, a cheap-looking stereo and a large bottle of cologne on a cabinet behind the desk. Stacks of 20-dollar bills sit around, for some strange reason, and at one point, a young woman brought in a large bottle of hot sauce and a few plastic spoons. Nothing to eat it with, or on–just the bottle. 'I loves the hot sauce,’ Dave said by way of explanation.”
This office doesn’t seem much nicer than your old one.
I don’t know. Every day I come in here I think I’m the luckiest man alive. It’s a brand-new office. To me it’s huge. I look down on Broadway. You know, I used to have a paper route. I don’t know how this happened.
Have you thought of decorating it, or at least putting up a picture?
We may not be here that long.
Maybe you subscribe to a different ratings service. From what we see, you’ll be around for a while.
I still want to be able to get out. I don’t want to be encumbered by knickknacks.
Aren’t you starting to feel confident?
No. I’m starting to feel sleepy.
Do you at least feel you’ve hit your stride?
No. Not really. [Associate producer] Barbara Gaines has to take me to the theater every day for rehearsal and walk me back because I tend to get lost. I don’t feel that I have an actual schedule. Every day it’s, “OK, now what do we do?” It’s not like we learn much about how to do it from one day to the next. But that just may be me.
You obviously want to be number one in late night. Do you wish some of the other shows would just go away?
No. The more the better.
[Laughs] Yeah. I got so tired of being the new boy there for about two weeks. I was so happy when Chevy Chase came on. Let’s get more shows. I want more shows. Everybody should have one.
Should they all have a band and a monolog and should they all have—-
Yes. They should all be identical. That’s fine with me.
Old friendships aside, you do want to clobber The Tonight Show, don’t you?
Nothing would be more satisfying than to prevail. But at this point I think it’s too early to draw any conclusions, so we’re still running scared as fast as we can.
Do you feel comfortable talking about your competitors?
I’ll talk about them as best I can, anything you would like to talk about. It’s your gig.
OK. Have you watched them? Have you watched Leno?
I don’t see much of The Tonight Show.
Do you have any opinion about what you’ve seen of it?
I think Jay does a really nice job.
Is that what you’re going to say about everybody?
I haven’t really seen anybody. I’ve seen Arsenio Hall and I admire his enthusiasm and his energy. I look at it sometimes and think, Well, maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But I know I couldn’t do the kind of show he does.
How about Chevy Chase? His show didn’t last too long.
I didn’t see it. I saw 20 minutes of his first Friday-night show. I didn’t think it was as bad as people had led me to believe. It looked like a new show and it looked like they were finding their way. But it certainly wasn’t the nightmare that people seemed to think the first show was.
How do you like Conan O'Brien’s show?
I haven’t seen the show. I must admit that there is a little emotional bubble there for me. I don’t know that I’m quite prepared to tune in to NBC at 12:30 and see a new guy succeed or fail.
You don’t seem like the emotional type.
The truth is, that last month at NBC was awfully emotional for me. I can remember when Jay came on as a guest on our show early in May, before he was to take over The Tonight Show. And not because it was Jay, but it was difficult. Here was a guy who was taking a job I really had wanted badly. It was one of the hardest days of my professional life. I knew what I had to say and what I had to do, and I did it. I hope I did it well because I’d be embarrassed if I didn’t. But it was tough, you know, sitting there congratulating Jay on getting The Tonight Show and wishing him well. He deserved it–the congratulations and the good wishes. But, God, it was–maybe I’m too much of a ninny about it–it was difficult.
What about Conan’s visit on your old show?
It was the same to a lesser extent when Conan came on the show. I just felt, geez, I’ve been here for 11 years. Now here’s the guy who is going to be here. I guess maybe the structure of it made me more emotional than the subject did.
Do people on the staff, thinking you want to hear it, say, “Oh, Chevy bombed with his premiere. Oh, Conan was terrible the other night”?
Obviously, it’s what we’re doing for a living, so we talk. I think after the first night of Chevy, there was a lot of discussion about it being very strange, very peculiar. Then when Conan came on the air, the discussion here was mostly positive.
Did he ever write for you?
Oddly enough, he wanted to write for us, and I believe we turned him down. It was a mistake on my part, though it certainly hasn’t hurt him.
People complain that there are no women hosting these talk shows.
Well, good heavens, the most successful person in television is Oprah Winfrey.
They’re talking about late night.
Well, what about the vaunted Whoopi Goldberg?
Do you worry about competition from Rush Limbaugh?
I think, politics notwithstanding, this guy is very entertaining. I’ve listened to his radio show. He’s very calculated. He says and does things to create an impression, to get a reaction. I listen to him. I don’t agree with much of what he says, but I find the guy entertaining. I find him first and foremost a showman. His television show is just him sitting at a desk, telling you what he thinks. And for that to be entertaining for half an hour, whether you agree with him or not, is no small accomplishment.
Do you vote?
Yes, I do.
Do you vote all the time?
I usually limit it to election years. I’m tired of being turned away from the high school in an off year. “Can I vote today?” “No, Dave, come back in November.”
We think of you as a maverick, a kind of rebel, a guy who doesn’t take any shit. Does making $14 million a year make it harder to be a maverick?
Well, first of all, I’m not making $14 million a year. My salary comes out of a lump production fee that CBS pays us. To do the kind of show we want to do, far more money goes into getting this thing on the air every day than would allow me to take $14 million out of it. One of the problems–if it is a problem–is that we have people who have been with us for 12 years who have risen on the financial scale to such levels that we had to increase their compensation. Whereas, if we were starting from scratch, like Conan, everybody would expect to be paid far less money because they’re just beginning. For personnel alone, our payroll is much higher than even The Tonight Show’s. So, in no way am I taking home close to $14 million.
More than $10 million?
It’s none of your business. [Laughs]
But for a while it was everybody’s business. First it was $16 million, then $14 million. Did you fume every time you read that?
No, I didn’t fume. Clearly, I’m not worth that kind of money, and I’m not making that kind of money, and the kind of money I’m making, I’m not worth, either. I can remember Bobby Bonilla’s first year with the Mets, when one of the headlines on the back of the Post or the Daily News was Forty million, or Fifty Million, whatever it was, for this? And there was a picture of Bobby Bonilla striking out, and I thought, Oh, boy, here we go. I don’t know where the figure came from. I think CBS was interested in demonstrating that “We’re showing our importance and our belief in this project and backing it up with dollar figures.” My greatest fear was that somebody would say, 'Jesus–CBS just pissed away a lot of money.“ I am overpaid, but it’s not $14 million.
At the end of your first week on the air, CBS stock shot up. Is the rise traceable to the show’s success?
It had nothing to do with it. But it was one of the funniest, silliest, dumbest things I’ve experienced in my life. And we had nothing to do with it.
Someone said that CBS chairman Laurence Tisch might have made in three days more than you made all year, just on that stock rise.
There will come a day of balancing.
Has Tisch been over here?
A week before we went on the air I got a call from [CBS president] Howard Stringer, and he said, "I have to ask you a question. Say no if you want to. I’ll understand.” He said, “Larry Tisch would like to be in the audience the first night.” And I swallowed very hard and said, “You know, not one of us up here believes our first night will be our best show. The last thing I need to do when a crane tips over and kills a guy onstage is to look out and see Larry Tisch in the third row.” I said, “No offense, but no, thank you.” And he said, “Ok, not a problem.” So I thought that was as good as it gets.
At the old place we had a very small audience and they would just load them up. Ed from Sales would bring in 18 people from Duluth, and because they didn’t want to be there, they would just look at me like, “Who are you?” It was tough. So we have kind of a prohibition on VIP tickets. There are none. And it’s worked out well. Even with the size house we have now, which is about 400, you don’t want a batch of Larry Tisch’s friends in there who are just waiting for cocktails. I’ve always felt that the ultimate responsibility is to produce the very best show we can do from 5:30 to 6:30, and if the audience is loaded up with stiffs, it’s not going to be a very good show.
Stiffs would be?
Larry Tisch’s buddies waiting for cocktails.
You’re talking about your boss, the man who was there at your welcoming press conference, beaming with happiness and joy.
Yeah. Beaming, I think, would be against his will. I think someone told him to beam.
Don’t you think these guys want you to rib them and pick on them the way you picked on General Electric?
Sure. It’s just like GE. Like I said for years: There’s nothing we can say or do that will hurt them in any fashion. Imagined or real. It just can’t be done. And the same is true with CBS. [GE Chairman] Jack Welch came in at some NBC anniversary party and actually said to me, “Keep calling us pinheads,” and he was laughing wildly.
Doesn’t that dismay you somewhat?
Yeah, it does. But it’s all posing. None of it’s real. It’s just like, “GE is so cheap and their light bulbs suck.” So what? Their stock is going to drop? I don’t think so.
But it had symbolism. You were really mad at them and that translated into—-
Yeah, but in the beginning I wasn’t mad at them. And even before GE took over NBC, we were making fun of executives. We had a guy who was a unit manager pretending to be [former NBC chief] Grant Tinker. There is no more gracious, lovely man on the planet than Grant Tinker. And we had this guy playing a halfwitted, bumbling stooge, pretending to be him. We had nothing against Grant Tinker. So it’s a mechanism you fall into.
The show is more formal now, isn’t it?
There’s a formality to it that we didn’t have in the past, yes.
We don’t see stagehands as much, and a great deal has been made about the fact that you’re wearing a coat that matches your pants. When did you come to this decision to wear suits like a grown-up?
We felt like everybody was driving us nuts, saying, “Well, what are you going to do? It’s 11:30, not 12:30.” We didn’t pay much attention to it, but the truth of it was, I didn’t really know. We did know that CBS spent a lot of money on the show. It was going to be 11:30. We were going to have a larger audience. We had to at least make it look like they were getting their money’s worth from it.
Also, from a practical side, I got so tired of, “Do these pants go with this jacket? Does this tie?” And now you pretty much know the jacket and pants are going to go together. That’s kind of a given. So it limited the decision-making ordeal.
Let’s talk about Johnny Carson. We’ve always wanted to ask you a specific question about that Rolling Stone cover of you and Johnny—-
Yes. I’m much taller than Carson. They had him on a box, goddamn it. And now I can say that. Now that he’s off the public airwaves the truth comes out. He was on a box.
You were always so respectful of him and praised him a great deal and held him up as an icon, sort of an unreachable goal. Now it could be argued that you are the new Johnny.
You’re puffing and—-
Seriously, there’s an argument to be made that you’ve inherited Johnny’s mantle. This must be somewhat satisfying to you.
It’s ludicrous. In my wildest dreams I would like to think that I could do that, but I know that I’m not going to do that. I know I can’t do that.
There’s never going to be another Walter Cronkite. Who is Walter Cronkite today? Peter Jennings? Tom Brokaw? Dan Rather? They’re all good, you know. But you won’t find Walter Cronkite. And the same is true of Carson. I don’t think you can underestimate that the guy did this for 30 years. It’s inconceivable. So if I were drunk–if I still drank–and I were full of vodka someplace, yeah, I might allow myself that fantasy. But it’s just not going to happen. If we can stay on for a reasonable period of time and have modest success, that’s fine with me. I’ll be more than happy with that.
There was a time when I was a kid when all I wanted to be was Johnny Carson. But now that I’ve been doing it, I know every shortcoming I have that he never had. And this is not false modesty. I’m realistic. I used to be on his show. I saw how he did it. I watched what he did. I saw the reaction the audience had to him. This guy could get a bigger laugh by raising an eyebrow than I could get telling eight jokes.
Do you ever wish you had moved the show to Los Angeles rather than stay in New York?
No. When I went out to L.A. to look at the studios, I thought they were beautiful. They’re huge and brand-new and there are two of them that are identical and massive, and we could have walked in then and just done a show. But then you leave the studio and there’s Fairfax and there’s Beverly or Third or whatever the intersection is and it just looks like–it doesn’t look bad but, compared to the ambience we have here. … It would have been depressing to me knowing that every day at 5:30 we were one of five talk shows in production. It was also a huge decision for me to go to CBS. I just thought, OK, that’s my one giant decision for the Nineties. I’m not making another giant decision.
Is there anything you miss about the old place?
There are a handful of people we worked with and got very close to. I thought I would miss the physical place, because there is no greater complex in New York City than Rockefeller Center. Man, it’s just a killer. It’s beautiful. It’s exciting. But I don’t miss it. Early on I fell in love with this place [the Ed Sullivan Theater]. It’s just great. There’s no part of the theater, nice or cruddy, that isn’t kind of satisfying. The first time I saw that marquee–I’d been avoiding the marquee because I thought, ehh, just Broadway and my stupid name there. Then this past Friday I drove by at night and thought, Oh, my God. This is a wonder. It’s just like–I can’t believe how lucky I am and how lucky we are. It’s stunning to me. And the theater is just beautiful.
How much do you think they spent on it?
Oh, this set them back–I heard somebody say the whole thing, top to bottom, cost about $85,000.
Gosh. Do you think you’re worth that much?
No. I don’t. [Laughs] Absolutely not.
Do you feel haunted by the ghost of Ed Sullivan?
No. I think in the beginning we felt a responsibility to address the history of the building and Ed himself. And as we get farther down the line each day, I think there will still be more said about it. But it’s not a specter that looms.
Do you think Ed would be proud?
No. Ed wouldn’t want any part of my ass.
Did you watch Ed when you were a kid?
Yeah. Sunday nights. Every Sunday night at my house we’d have dinner early, and my father would usually make soup that we wished Mom had made. You know, it was that kind of soup. “Oh, thanks, Dad.” And then we finished dinner and watched The Ed Sullivan Show. Whether we wanted to or not. Whether we enjoyed it or not. That was my first lesson in show business. I don’t think anybody in the house particularly enjoyed it. We just watched it. Maybe that’s the purpose of television. You just turn it on and watch it whether you want to or not.
Don’t you think people get a lot of pleasure from your program?
You always say things like that: It’s only television, it’s pro wrestling, that sort of stuff.
Well, it is.
But you take it very seriously
I take it way too seriously, yet I think I recognize what we’re talking about. You want to get something to light up on that screen and–I don’t know. I wish I didn’t take it quite so seriously.
Are you hard to work for?
Yeah. I’m a terror. I have–what do you call them?–psychotic mood swings. Psychotic temper tantrums. I’m nefariously moody. I’m a tyrant. I’m incorrigible.
Your staff seem rather happy.
Those are all actors brought in for your benefit.
Let’s get serious for a minute. You do have a personality that’s somewhat persnickety—-
Please. Get out of here.
Stop it! Based on what? Show me the documents.
There was that Spy piece that claimed you’re constantly sending back sandwiches. And then a friend of ours saw a taping of the show and said you were constantly sending back cups of coffee. Is this a personality trait?
Have you ever sent back a sandwich?
Actually, no. We’re intimidated by—-
I knew that the answer would be no.
We never met a sandwich we didn’t like.
First of all, I don’t recall the episode about the sandwich. As for the coffee, anything that happens between 5:30 and 6:30 is important because that’s how we get the show. The audience has to be good, I have to be good, the guests have to be good. And if the coffee–if it’s poison, yeah, I might ask for a different cup. But, Jesus, in the course of doing your job, you know what you want, you know what you need, and if you’re going to be criticized for asking for those things, you might just as well hide under the house.
Is it perfectly normal behavior?
For me it’s normal behavior. I could see that others certainly could criticize me endlessly, and they are free to. But I know what it takes for me to get through this day and to get through this show. Everything I do is designed to help me do the best job I can between 5:30 and 6:30. That silly article in Spy made it seem kind of snotty that I have to go swimming every night. I have to swim every night because I busted my neck twice in car accidents. So you’re going to criticize me because I’m trying to give myself a physical advantage over this injury. That’s cool. And the truth of it is, the Spy thing didn’t really upset me because I just thought: So what?
Were you a basket case being off television during the summer before the new show started?
CBS had me on every two seconds anyway. I felt like, This is the best ever. I don’t have to go to work, and I’m on television around-the-clock. It was great. There came a point when I realized we were strangling on this. We were being strangled by this bullshit. I couldn’t go anywhere. There were people in my yard. We went to the All-Star game. I couldn’t get out of the goddamned box to go down to see the game. There were these sweaty people leaning on me. And I was like, How did this happen? It was CBS and their around-the-clock promo campaign. I mean, God bless them. But after a while it was choking.
And the other side of that, of course, is resentment. But I must say that during all of that, people were really gracious. Everybody would say the same thing to me: “Hey, Dave. Good luck with your new job.” I mean, they couldn’t have been more supportive. And I felt: That’s nice. These people must have known they were being manipulated to some extent by these promos. But they seemed genuine when they talked to me.
Didn’t you and your staff write those promos?
Yeah. We did write them. We all wanted an aggressive campaign because we knew we had to afford ourselves every advantage. I don’t think any of us thought it would be just knocking you out. Day and night.
You also don’t particularly like doing interviews or having promotional pictures taken or—-
I hate having my picture taken because I have a pretty good idea of what I look like and I know it’s not pleasant. I’m very self-conscious about that.
You’ve never been overly cooperative about publicity, have you?
At the beginning of the old show, I would do anything that anybody asked me to do because I felt every day is the best compromise you can make. I learned a long time ago, if you don’t do everything you can to help your lot in life and it fails, you’ll just suffer endless regrets.
But didn’t you even go out and visit some CBS affiliates and sweet-talk them into carrying your show?
Yeah. Well, I didn’t sweet-talk them. We just showed up. And they were all gracious but said, “I’m sorry, we have an eight-year contract with Studs, so there’s not much we can do. But nice to see you and here’s a cap and a pen. And by the way, enjoy your flight out of St. Louis.” It was fun. It was an interesting experience. I think largely futile. But interesting.
Since you quit NBC, the National Enquirer and Inside Edition have been talking to people from your past and digging up old tapes of you doing the weather. Does that bother you?
I’m aware of it, but I haven’t seen any of it. I’ll tell you what bothers me. It’s when people come to my house on the weekends and wait in ambush for my girlfriend when she goes out for her run. And follow her with a camera and pester her. That bothers me. It doesn’t need to be that way.
But this has happened to many other people who have—-
But it shouldn’t happen to anyone. I understand it if you’re going out to Spago and they’re hanging around at the doors and they want a picture. That I understand. Or at airports. Or even if they want to come to my office and bother me and take pictures here. I understand that, too. But I’m not looking for this. So don’t pull your van up in front of my house on the weekends and lie about why you’re there.
You have other unwanted visitors. What about Margaret Ray, the woman who keeps breaking into your house?
There are nothing but misconceptions about this woman. This woman has, in my assessment, been failed by the judicial system, failed by the state psychiatric system–if in fact there is one–failed by her family and failed by her friends. She is a woman who spends her days in deep confusion. She is a woman who knows few moments of lucidity or reality. She is a troubled woman who suffers great free-floating anxiety and is better when she’s medicated, but not much. I am frustrated because this last time, when I came home and found a note saying, “I’m camped out on your tennis court,” I disregarded it, thinking it was an old note. Later I got to thinking that maybe she was there, and about midnight I called the New Canaan police. They came down there and we found she had been camped on my court for three days and doing her laundry in the swimming pool. At that point, the police advised me to invoke the stalker law, and I said, “It doesn’t apply. This woman is no more to me than a nuisance; she’s not a threat.” I contacted my attorney and said, “If the state’s not going to help her, if the prison system’s not going to help her, if hospitalization is not going to help her, let’s explore something we can do personally to help her.” Those efforts have now, for whatever reason, fallen apart as well. And I’m just befuddled and perplexed. Not because she’s doing anything to me, but this woman needs so much help and so much attention and has not received anything.
Have you had conversations with her?
No. She has written me a letter a day for the past six years. Sometimes three and four letters a day. And you can see, when she’s on medication she makes sense. She’s an intelligent woman; she just happens to be insane. When she goes off the medication, you get reams of scrawl–literally, scrawl. I feel bad about it, but I don’t feel threatened by it–it’s no more to me than if the neighbor’s cat hopped the fence.
There was the time you found her in the house and you gave her 15 minutes to get away before you called the cops.
Two different episodes. One time I found her on the tennis court and I called the police and she said, “I hope you didn’t call the police,” and I felt pangs of guilt and said, “Margaret, I did call the police. You better get out of here.” And she fled and they picked her up on the road. The other time was a Sunday night about one A.M. My girlfriend and I had just gone to bed, and I sat up because I thought I smelled smoke from the fireplace. As I sat up to sniff the air, my girlfriend said, “Oh, my God, she’s there,” and at the end of the hallway, silhouetted, was Margaret. She was 30 feet from us. I picked up the phone and called the police, and she ran from the house screaming.
Can’t you make your house more secure?
After the first time she broke in, I called a security company. It created more problems than solutions. Police have been in my home, in my bedroom, at four in the morning, more than my mother has been in my home. A leaf drops on the property or a squirrel crawls into the garage, and the alarm goes off. This last time, I was out of the country for a week and the security system was on and Margaret hopped over the fence and was camped out on my tennis court. The pool guy said Margaret was bumming cigarettes off of him. He said, “Shall we clean the pool?” and she said, “No, Dave and I will clean it later.” I once had a contractor at my house running errands for the woman. It’s silly, but I’m telling you, the victim here is this woman.
I get a little worked up about it because nobody understands what has gone on. I’m not sure I understand it, and I know I’ve made it worse by joking about it. But it’s one of those things that for some reason–like Johnny Carson being married eight times–became an automatic joke. You knew you were going to get a laugh because a lot of people knew about it. I guess I abused the situation by making light of it, but I feel I still have that right because I didn’t force her to break into my house, you know? It’s a gray area and perhaps I shouldn’t joke about it, but I have.
You haven’t told too many Margaret Ray jokes lately. You seem to have switched your attention to more harmless subjects, such as Beavis and Butt-Head.
I kind of got red-hot over Beavis and Butt-Head during the summer. Every time I turned on MTV, there were Beavis and Butt-Head. And I found that so satisfying because the show is so consistent. Even the really ugly stuff is satisfying because of the purity of it. It’s right there. They don’t fail you for a second. It’s always at that level. And it makes me howl.
I know a lot of it is vulgar and repellent, but I can’t help myself. It just makes me–these guys are the purest form of idiots we’ve been able to isolate. And there’s something very satisfying about that. They’re just full-ahead, flat-out dumb guys. That’s all they’ll ever be. And when you see something that true to itself, it can be compelling.
Some people think Beavis and Butt-Head are a bit too real.
Yeah, part of the satisfaction is that they represent a significant portion of America.
Do they watch your show?
I hope. [Laughs]
You often speak highly of Ted Koppel. Do you watch Nightline?
I think it’s one of the best shows on television.
You don’t want to kick his ass? You’re on opposite him.
Oh, yeah. He’s going down.
Can you actually turn on the TV set when you’re on and not be curious about yourself?
So you can watch Nightline?
Yeah. Because, good or bad, I’ve lived through it once. If the show goes OK, that’s fine. If the show sucks, or if I suck, then I want to watch it and watch it and watch it to see where I suck, to see what I can do differently the next night. But either way, once I leave here, I don’t want to see it again.
What makes a show suck?
I do. It’s the truth. If a show sucks, it’s me.
What might you have done?
Mishandled it. Butchered it. Not been prepared. Not asked the right questions. Not thought of something funny to say. Flubbed a joke. Missed a cue. Run a segment too long. It’s all me. These people work hard every day assembling the elements of the show, and then it rests completely in my hands.
For years you and your former girlfriend, writer Merrill Markoe, never said anything bad about each other. But that seems to have ended. She was quoted recently as saying she wouldn’t even talk about working on another late-night show. “I have no interest in helping any other white man in a suit do an inventive show,” she said.
That doesn’t seem bad to me. You’ll never get me to say anything bad about Merrill. She’s the funniest person I’ve ever met. And she’s so smart it’s scary. I mean, she’d walk into a room and you could feel a hum coming out of her brain. She had some of the best pure ideas for TV that I’ve ever seen. I have nothing but good things to say about Merrill, and she can say anything she wants about me and it won’t trouble me.
Of course, we did tons of research for this and—-
Yeah. Made the shit up on the train.
Once, you said, “If either Merrill or I get married, it will probably be to each other.”
Yeah. It would have been. But we were working on that show and then went home, and instead of having a life, we were still working on the show. I know I drove her nuts because I’m–what was the word you used? Persnickety? And so every day at work was a fistfight. Every night at home was a fistfight. Figuratively speaking.
How did it end?
She was just fed up because she wanted to put some of the energy that she was putting into me and my life and my show and my career–she wanted to do the same for herself. So there came a time when she said, “I just can’t.” She never wanted to move to New York. She did all of that for me. She said, “I have to go back to California,” and when she went back to California, that’s when things ended. I mean, they didn’t actually end until a couple of years later, but that was the beginning of it.
Are you any closer to being married than you were five years ago?
I can’t answer that question.
You can’t answer it?
I can’t answer that question.
I just can’t answer the question. Move on.
For all we know, you’re about to announce that you’re engaged.
I don’t want to get into that.
So you don’t like the subject of marriage?
Oh, I’ll get married again. You see, the thing is, I was married for ten years. So I know the good parts of it and I know the bad parts. If it were up to me, I’d have children out of wedlock. But I know that’s not the best way to approach it.
Well, let’s see who’s waiting downstairs. Now, don’t print that, goddamn it! I would like to have children. I wish I had grown kids now.
Yeah. It would be great. It would be terrific, and then you wouldn’t have to ask me this question.
Do you go out with women who are on the show?
Ever? Is it a rule?
It’s not a rule. It’s just that nobody wants to go out with me.
Bonnie Hunt was a guest on your show recently, and you two seemed to get along great. You also served as executive producer on her sitcom, The Building.
Bonnie’s the best. She reminds me of Merrill in many ways. The element of Bonnie that Merrill did not have–not that Merrill was lacking–is that Bonnie’s a really good actress. And she’s very smart and very funny. And she does it so effortlessly. I think she’s the best. There are great things ahead for her. I think she’s just too talented not to prevail.
Why didn’t The Building succeed?
It started off pretty well. It was so different. Then, after you watch the show, you forget just how different it is. And then you see it again and say, “Geez, this really is different.” It has a completely different feel. Maybe it was just the difference in the presentation that people didn’t respond to.
It still could have succeeded. I don’t know if it ever would have been a massive success, but I think, had they stuck with it–but everybody says that about every show. It’s just that when it was funny, it was really funny.
Will you be doing other things in prime time? Isn’t this building full of people who are developing new shows?
You mean will we try to produce something? Yes, I hope so. We’ve had so many really good people who have come to work with us and then gone on to produce other shows. It’s always been a great frustration that we didn’t have the mechanism in place to work with them and help them. Although it hasn’t happened yet, we keep hoping that it will. It would be nice to not have this be our only focus.
Do you ever want to do a sitcom?
No. There are so many Daves on CBS. There’s Dave’s World, and then there’s Big Wave Dave, and then there’s me.
Somebody once said that being on television is life times ten–everything is magnified and amplified. Is that what it’s like for you?
I don’t know if the equation is exactly right, but just this afternoon we were talking about how quickly the time has gone for us. We have all experienced the same phenomenon, which is, an hour after you’ve done the show you’re talking to somebody on the phone and they say, “Who was on tonight?” For the life of you, you can’t remember. It will come to you eventually, but it’s not right there. We had the vice president here. Nobody ever meets the vice president. A tiny percentage of people will meet the vice president. One day, you meet the vice president, and another day it’s Glenn Close, and nobody ever meets Glenn Close, either. And it’s just boom, boom, boom. And we kind of take it for granted to the point that after it’s over, who was it? Oh, yeah, Al Gore. Al Gore was on the show.
Did Gore’s people write his top-ten list, or did your people write it?
It was a combination. They wrote one and they said if we had suggestions, fine. So we hammered out the top-ten accord.
Not to keep bringing up Johnny, but he used to say, or it was said of him, that he was really alive only for that one hour a day when he was on TV.
Well, I can understand that.
Is it the same for you?
I don’t know. It’s certainly the most exciting hour of the day, and it’s the only hour of the day I really care about. And if it goes well, you can’t wait to do it again because it dumps so much adrenaline into your system. If it’s going well, it just lifts you. If it’s not going well, it sinks you. It’s exhilarating. It’s my favorite hour of the day.
Better than sex? It lasts longer than sex.
Well, speak for yourself. Is it better than sex? I’d say it’s certainly comparable. I think if it goes well, the afterglow sustains you more than sex.
Do you have a life? It’s sometimes said that you don’t.
Oh, stop it. All right, ask me about my life. I have a life. But I’ll tell you something. I’m in my car at 8:30 A.M. going to work, and I get home by 10:30 P.M. And then I have dinner, so I finally go to sleep at 1:30 and then I get up at 8:00. Get in the car at 8:30. Because of the schedule, my life is the weekend.
You’re never in People magazine at parties.
All my life I’ve never gone to parties. I used to drink heavily. I think I had a drinking problem because I was so uncomfortable unless I was dead drunk. You’re comfortable until you wake up the next morning and think, Oh, Jesus. What did I say?
I don’t get it. You’re in show business. That means you have to go out publicly and make a fool of yourself. Now I can make a fool of myself on TV. So I like staying at home. I have things at the house I like to do. People say, “You’re not a real celebrity. You don’t go to parties.” So what? Who would want to go to a party? I’ve been invited to the White House and haven’t gone.
You’re not totally antisocial. You’ve called Tom Snyder on his show.
Yeah. On his old radio show mostly. I once called his TV show to wish him a happy birthday. I just think he’s solid. Even when he’s being a bonehead, which Tom can be, he’s endlessly entertaining. When we took over his show, I was worried silly that there would be a huge backlash of people who loved Tom Snyder, wondering, Well, what the hell is this son of a bitch doing on?
And I think there must have been some of that. But it made me sad that he was gone. I’m glad he’s back on television, but I wish he were back on network television. He deserves to be a bigger player. He’s a huge guy with a huge ego and he’s hugely entertaining. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be on network TV.
You mentioned drinking. Did you ever smoke marijuana?
I did for a very short period. It lasted only about six months.
Yeah. I remember one night I smoked down a big joint and then went downstairs and ate two pints of Häagen-Dazs ice cream and then went back to bed. An hour later I woke up and thought my heart had stopped. And the next day I went to a cardiologist and he said, “Well, no, it didn’t stop. Everything’s fine.”
And that was the end of my pot experiences. I was awakened by a startling thump in my chest. I didn’t mention that I had consumed two pints of Häagen-Dazs ice cream. I just said, “I think my heart stopped last night.”
What were you like in high school?
I think there’s something wrong if high school is the greatest experience of your life. It wasn’t for me. 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. That was every Friday and Saturday night.
That’s how we spent our weekends. You desperately wanted girls, but you knew you weren’t going to get them. And even if you got one, you knew you weren’t going to be able to do anything with her.
No girlfriends? No dates?
Oh, I had dates. I had girlfriends in high school. I fell in love with Susie Frakes when I was in grade school. Lovely girl. She got over me in about a month and it took me four years to get over her.
I was lucky enough, my junior year, to date an exchange student from England. That was a real eye-opener. It was culturally exciting, because it was when the Beatles were coming to this country. And there I was, all of a sudden, with somebody who had lived in England. And then there was a handful of, you know, the occasional dates.
Do you want to talk about your sexual history?
Well, no, I don’t. What is wrong with you?
We have to get some sex into this. Do you want to talk about the first time?
No, no, I don’t.
The second time? No one ever talks about the second time.
The second time hasn’t happened yet.
Do people assume you had a provincial upbringing?
Yeah. It used to drive me nuts. Merrill’s mother used to try to goad me. She was from New York and she would say to me, “Now, Indianapolis, it’s not a very big town, is it?” One question would lead to another, and by the end of the conversation she would be claiming that I hated Jews. She would have a couple of martinis and go to work on me. I’d say, “No, there’s a sizable Jewish population in the city. I used to go to bar mitzvahs, my friends were Jewish, my classmates were Jewish,” on and on. What she wanted to hear was that we were hanging black people and there were tumbleweeds blowing across Main Street.
What there wasn’t in Indianapolis when I was there was any kind of Asian population. So when I moved to California it was interesting to be around a substantial number of Asian people.
But, of course, you love all people regardless.
I’m a people person. And you know it.
You grew up with a father who’s been described as volcanic. Did he have a big temper?
No, no. I wouldn’t say volcanic. I wouldn’t say combustive or combustible or whatever term applies. He had a big personality. He was loud and liked to goof off and say funny things and silly things and do things to provoke you and get under your skin. He was a big character, and like I’ve come to say lately, when he walked through the room, the lamps would rattle. He had a lot of energy and he had a lot of ideas and a lot of drive, and he wanted to do things. My mother, by comparison, is the opposite. She couldn’t be more taciturn. Very, very quiet. You want to take her pulse every few minutes. But it was a good combination. He was the circus. He was the show. He was the energy. He was the battery to which all the cables were hooked.
Did your dad live to see your success?
I think that he knew he raised a successful person. I was 27 when he died. And even if I had never gotten a TV show, I think he would have thought I was a success.
What were you doing at the age of 27?
I was working at a television station in Indianapolis as a weatherman. His death was horrible for me. Just horrible. It was awful.
Does your mother understand what you do and how successful you are? Does she watch your show?
I don’t know if she watches it. We don’t talk about show business. I don’t like talking about it because, you know, it’s from her that I get this very low threshold of embarrassment. So I find it all embarrassing.
Do you have a low boredom threshold, too? Are you easily bored?
I’m sorry–I wasn’t paying attention. No, I don’t think so. I am fascinated by all manner of minutiae and trivia.
Can we tell when you’re bored on the show?
Well, if you can, I’ve made a terrible mistake. It means I’ve lost control of myself if I appear bored. But I tell you, I see this in my mother: She is the least demonstrative person I’ve ever been around. I feel like if you can notice that with her, by virtue of genetics you’re going to notice that with me. Her countenance will reveal no interest, no stimuli, no response, nothing. Then you ask her about it and she gets angry because, of course, she is paying rapt attention and is following the conversation.
Is this a Midwestern trait?
Stoicism? I think it has more to do with heredity than geography.
Apparently, one of your hobbies is collecting speeding tickets. What’s the fastest you’ve ever gone in a car?
150 miles an hour.
In what car?
In a Porsche Carrera Cabriolet. Convertible. Put that in.
Was it your car?
No. It was a rental car. It was on the autobahn.
Did anyone pass you at 150?
Yes. A family of five in a Mercedes-Benz sedan.
Yeah. And I can document this. I can get my girlfriend on the phone and she’ll verify it. I was on the autobahn. We had been in Europe for the Belgian Grand Prix and were driving back to Frankfurt, and I was in the fast lane. I had this incredible car. In Europe, it’s the real deal because they’re not de-tuned for emissions. So I was going along at about 120, and a guy with four other people in a steel-gray Mercedes sedan comes up behind me and flashes the lights. I said, Jesus, 120 seems plenty fast to me. This is not kilometers per hour. This is miles per hour.
So I think, well, all right, I’ll nudge it up to 130. Get up to 130. He’s still there. The lights flash again. I finally squeeze it up to 150. I’m in a convertible, they’re not airtight. It’s like being in an old biplane. I’m screaming along at 150 miles an hour, and the guy drops out of the fast lane and goes around me, and there’s just smoke on the horizon. At that point I pulled off, went to a rest stop and just sat there. We didn’t say a thing for a few minutes. And it was–I was just trembling.
How long did you go 150?
Maybe 30 seconds. I felt like, You can’t pass me at 150. Can you? No, you–oh, shit! He did. And that was it. That was my brush with machismo. It was a horrible experience.
What’s the fastest you’ve ever gone in this country?
I think once they clocked me at 60.
They clocked you at 78 just the other day.
Everyone knows that.
But those things are not accurate, and a lot of that stuff doesn’t hold up in court. But I think the fastest I’ve gone in the United States is maybe like 60, 61, once.
How many cars do you have?
I have some cars. I don’t–honestly, I don’t know the number.
You have so many cars you don’t know how many?
It’s a little embarrassing. I grew up in Indianapolis. I love auto racing. I love cars. I’ve been lucky enough to have a small but important collection of German, British and Italian cars.
Do you use a radar detector?
No. Not at all. Not at all. I lost my license about six years ago for speeding, and since then I’ve tried to be more prudent about it. More vigilant.
Didn’t your first meeting with Paul Newman happen at an auto race?
Years ago at a race in Phoenix, the wife of a friend was nice enough to introduce me to Paul Newman. He was cordial and genuine and gracious and it was great fun. We chatted for about 20 minutes, and after that I would see him at every race I would attend. And I was thinking, Oh, well, I’ve met Paul Newman. I can say hello to him any time I want. So I would try to. But without the catalyst of a third party or a mutual friend, it meant nothing to Paul. I could be this far from him and I’d say, “Paul, Paul!” He had this radar deflection screen up, and the harder I tried to get his attention at these functions, the funnier it got. I can remember a race at the Meadowlands. Paul rolls up on a motor scooter, outside a motor home, a hospitality suite. Joanne Woodward comes out and gets on the back of the motor scooter.
I’m at a table under the tent at the hospitality suite. I can put my hand on Paul Newman’s shoulder. I look over and I’m screaming, “Paul! Paul, it’s me! Dave!” Joanne gets on the motor scooter, they drive off. I could have been in China. I would actually take friends to these races and I would say, “Watch this.” I remember one time I was walking down the pit lane somewhere. Paul Newman was coming, and I was like this:
“Paul! Paul! Paul!”
It was just hilarious, and it made me laugh. I had a date at the Indianapolis 500 one year. I was going up into the timing and scoring tower, and I saw Paul Newman coming down.
Same damn thing. We brushed elbows in the stairwell. And it was like he’d been struck mute and deaf. I was so tickled by this dynamic. The last time it happened was a year ago, a year ago this past week at a race in Ohio. I get on the elevator. My girlfriend gets on the elevator. And in comes Paul Newman, and he’s pressing us all up against the elevator wall, because it’s very crowded. “Paul, Paul. Hi, it’s me, Dave. Paul? Paul?” Nothing.
Now, concurrent to this I would see his partner, Carl Hass, at these races. Carl smokes cigars. He was always very nice to me. I’d be introduced to him and he would always give me a cigar and then I’d mail him a box of cigars. The last time I mailed him a box of cigars, I said, “I don’t care how long it takes, but before I die, could you have Paul Newman, just once, once more, say hi to me?”
Two days later the phone rings. It’s Paul Newman. I’m talking to Paul Newman. So he said, “I didn’t know you liked auto racing.” And I said, “Paul, you and I met six years ago in Phoenix. Ever since then, I’ve been screaming at you whenever I see you.” He was unfazed by it. But again, on the phone, he was as gracious and polite as always.
His cameo on your first show was memorable.
First of all, when Paul Newman stands up, he looks like a multimillion-dollar movie star. The second he stands up–boom! And then people didn’t know if it was a joke, and then they didn’t know if he was really there. You can see it on the tape–this recognition and pleasure sweeps through the audience in waves. It was a great moment. His one line, “Where the hell are the singing cats?” completely steals the show, and then he walks out.
He couldn’t have been more charming. I mean, it was just great.
Did you personally ask him to come on?
I’d sent him a letter, but I make no pretense about it. It was Paul’s friendship with Michael Ovitz that got him on the show.
Mike Ovitz is your agent. He’s the most powerful agent in the business. Some people think he’s a scary guy.
You’ll never get me–if I live to be a thousand–to say anything bad about Michael Ovitz.
My experience with Michael Ovitz has been 100 percent solid, exciting, positive. I find the guy endlessly entertaining. I had several different agents when I was in California. I’ve never seen anybody do what he does. He doesn’t say things that he doesn’t do.
You mean, promises made to you? Or just things generally?
Just things generally. Promises. He says, “Here’s how this is going to work out. I think this is what is going to be happening.” And 98 percent of it has been on the money. It’s amazing. I can remember my last real agent before Ovitz. She came to my office in New York City, and I was having trouble finding an apartment. She said, “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to get you an apartment in this town.” And I never heard from her again. Not that she just forgot about the apartment. I never heard from her again, period. I thought, I guess the plane to California must have crashed. I guess she’s dead. That’s why I had given up on agents. But Ovitz is a goddamn freight train. You have to be careful what you tell him you want, because he’ll get it for you. I mean, if it weren’t for Michael Ovitz, we wouldn’t be here.
So far, we’ve enjoyed a few hours of secondhand smoke coming from your general area. Haven’t people tried to get you to quit smoking cigars?
I should quit. I’m smoking them like chewing gum. God help me, I love cigars.
You quit for a while, didn’t you?
Yeah. I quit several times. And eventually I’ll quit again. But I have too many things in my head now to be worrying about giving up cigars. The other thing is, if I could stop smoking (concluded on page 249)David Letterman(continued from page 80) cigars, I would probably gain back all my weight, and I’m fighting that daily. It’s very difficult.
You’ve been criticized for picking on fat people.
Well, I don’t know why a fat person gets fat, but I know from my own efforts that weight loss is the single hardest personal undertaking I’ve ever endured.
Even Willard Scott is losing weight.
Good for him. Good for Willard. But I found in my experience that I’m always hungry. I try not to eat so much during the week–then on the weekends, once I start, I guess you’d better call the paramedics. Because you’ll find me face down on the kitchen floor.
Women in our office have said, “Dave’s too skinny.” Have you ever heard that?
Oh, yeah. That’s their problem. When I came to New York in 1980 I weighed 173 pounds. My sophomore year in college I weighed 153. So I am, by nature, skinny. I’m not a large-framed person. Then, when I got on the scales a year ago and I was like 205, I was stunned. Because I’d never paid any attention to it. I just thought I had a high metabolic rate. I thought I could eat as much as I wanted, any time. Apparently, somewhere in my late 30s all that changed. I could still eat all I wanted, but then I’d end up weighing 210 pounds. And I just thought, Good God, I can’t be walking around weighing 210.
Do you ever wonder what you would have done if your ratings hadn’t been good the first week? How would you have tinkered with the show?
We would have done something, because there was too much at stake to ignore it. I was pretty certain that the first night would be Ok, because CBS had stuffed those promos down everybody’s throat. And two weeks before we went on the air we were in Chinatown videotaping a piece to do on the show, and elderly Chinese people were coming up to me, saying, [Chinese accent] “You go to channel two.” And I said, “How do you know that?” “Oh, channel two. Channel two.”
So the first night I felt Ok. I thought we could get through the first night. And I fully expected the bottom to drop out on the second night. I really did. I was driven more by a sense of obligation than by a desire to get in there and do the best we could. I just thought, OK. There’s a lot of money and I have to have a job and here it is. We’ll do the best we can. Then, when the ratings didn’t go down, it became like a whole new universe. It was like, Oh, my God! You mean we actually have a chance of success here? And that has kind of been the mood since. The prevailing mood here has been: Let’s get in the harness and plow.
You still get standing ovations every night.
Oh, we’re all sick of the standing ovations. But you know what it is? The standing ovation the first night was Ok, that made some sense. But as I said the first night, all I really did was take the summer off. Then it hit me that these people were standing because: Oh, Dave has a job. Then, of course, anybody watching the show sees the standing ovation and thinks it must be written on the sign. They have to have a standing ovation. Tonight they didn’t stand and I thought, Thank goodness. And then all of a sudden they were standing again. It was sort of like it had slipped their minds. “Oh, yeah. Stand up. All right.” But it couldn’t be more embarrassing. They’re very sweet. The audiences have been great, but I think it’s Pavlovian more than anything.
Do you worry when things are going too well? Do you think a safe is going to fall on your head?
Absolutely. I think any reasonable person would. Don’t you?
But doesn’t that keep you from enjoying your success?
Then what’s the point of having it?
I suffer from anhedonia.
Why struggle to get it if you can’t enjoy it once you have it?
Well, I think the exercise is the struggle. If life isn’t hard, you’re doing something wrong. Don’t you think? And I’ll sleep when I’m dead. [Laughs]
Anything else before we turn off the tape recorder?
Please don’t make me look like a dweeb in this. I can tell from your line of questioning and your tone that you’re making me out to be a total fucking dweeb. You’re not exactly dealing with a chimp here.
You’re being ridiculous.
Because if you do, I’ll come down there and kill you. And you know I can do it. I can get on the goddamn train and be down in two and a half hours.
All right–we’ll print that.