Letterman's a Dead Man
If you're on Route 106 in southwestern Connecticut before nine in the morning or after ten o'clock at night, please be extra careful. Chances are good that you'll be tailgated -- and then passed with inches to spare--by a gap-toothed maniac in a turbo-charged red Dodge Stealth whose mind is hanging by the thinnest of threads. A ratings shift one way or the other might be enough to send him over the edge. If you value your life, you'll watch his TV show. Or, better yet, just stay off the road during those hours, because that's when David Letterman, Connecticut's most famous bedroom commuter, is either gearing up for--or winding down from--his job as America's best-paid clown. These days, Letterman has more than his usual assortment of neuroses to ponder as he drives to and from his land of milk and money in New Canaan. His adopted network, CBS, is on the rocks and up for sale, his show's ratings are slipping, his poor performance on the Academy Awards earlier this year is still causing negative ripples in the entertainment "industry," his hair line is receding, and, worst of all, he isn't all that funny anymore, even in the world that he dominates: late night comedy. Most of this was presaged by a surprisingly deft bit of reportage by Bill Carter, whose 1994 book, The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno and the Network Battle for the Night has recently been reprinted in paperback (Hyperion, $12.95). To those who believe that life isn't truly real until it reaches what Harlan Ellison calls "the glass teat," Carter's book offers a sobering glimpse behind the delusion that TV is an all-knowing mirror reflecting who we are and what we want. And, not surprisingly, Dave Letterman thinks the book is "bullshit" and boasts that he'll never read it. If Dave values his job, he should read it. Ostensibly about the vacuum created by the departure of Johnny Carson, America's foremost TV icon, The Late Shift goes it one better, as only a New York Times reporter has the time, skill and contacts to do. Carter compellingly and chronologically (step by sleazy step) details the behind-the-camera machinations that really dictate what we see on TV and, thus, what we want and, more indirectly, who we are. He starts his chronicle with Carson's surprising, but -- given the slimy circumstances -- dignified retirement in 1991, which leads to another, perhaps unintended conclusion one might draw from Late Shift: no one will ever replace Carson. Still, NBC gave it its worst shot, negotiating on the sly with Leno before Carson's body was cold, and not even dignifying Dave's 11 years on the network with a courtesy call beforehand. Everyone privy to inside poop knew Dave wanted the Tonight Show throne -- but only when, and if, it was vacated by his hero. Likewise, Carson made no bones about who he'd like to see fill his shoes: fellow Midwesterner Dave. Both, however, are repulsed by back-room deal making and the sorts of human insects brought out from under the rocks by same. But Leno, the lantern-jawed patron saint of safe comedy, is not averse to groveling in the topsoil. In fact, through his agent/surrogate mommy, the truly hideous Helen Kushnick, Leno pulled off some Machiavellian moves (read: kissing asses, stabbing backs) that in any other sphere would be considered evil but in the entertainment industry is the norm. Of course, once he got wind of these flatulent moves, our boy Dave -- who comes off in Carter's book as the most emotionally fragile man in show business -- was not long for NBC. To his credit, he agreed to honor the remaining three years on his contract, bite his tongue and move on. "I signed the contract, I'll live up to it," he said. But the more Dave thought about it, the more steamed he got. Eventually, he called for reinforcements, fighting fire with fire by hiring high-pressure negotiators who make Robert Shapiro look saintly. Once this sleaze patrol was in place, they soiled everyone in their path, including Letterman, Leno and, yes, even Connie Chung. One episode from Carter's book involving Chung warrants are run here, especially in light of her recent parting of ways with CBS Evening News. Chung, as every couch potato knows, was NBC's rising star when she was wooed away by CBS in 1990. Paired with Dan Rather on the evening news, she was also given her own show, Eye to Eye. On both, she quickly proved to be an embarrassment to TV journalism, and her on-air attempts to jump-start rapport with the poker-faced Rather were painful to sit through. You know the rest of the tale: Ugly charges of sexism, frantic attempts to wriggle out of contract obligations -- the usual pattern of celebrity behavior that none of the rest of us could get away with in a million years. But let's set the instant replay back to 1991, when Chung was in the CBS catbird seat and her new network was hot to steal the unhappy Letterman from their rival. Dave was "humiliated" by being passed over as Carson's replacement for the "human joke machine" Leno, who Carter reveals as an overgrown boy still playing with toys (seriously folks!). Chung, an old buddy of Dave's at NBC, volunteered to make a video that would convince him to come over to CBS. She did it in the form of a "joke" tape, offering to change the name of the GE building to the "Dave Building" (hey yo!), team with him for "CBS Evening News with Connie and Dave" (side-splitter!), give him a series called "Murder Dave Wrote" (ouch, Con, you're killing me!), on and on until the clincher. And I quote: "For one year, whenever Maury and I make love, I promise to say 'Dave! Oh Dave!'" To Letterman's credit, he was repulsed by Chung's tape and left the room a few minutes into it. Letterman, according to Carter, has been repulsed by the TV industry from the start, which was the key to his initial and instant appeal. A veteran of radio broadcasting and stand-up comedy, Dave goofs around with the cool medium while everyone else tries to manipulate it. He aggressively plays against his role as talk show host. At times, in fact, he seems to be parodying himself parodying a talk show host. This worked beautifully in an age of excess like the 1980s, but in a comic era defined by the kinder, gentler irony of folks like Seinfeld, Tim Allen and Leno, Dave is beginning to look a little ragged around the edges. Perhaps the lingering bitterness of his last years at NBC has permanently infected his stage personae, or maybe -- like any other TV "personality" -- the medium itself will eventually kill him with familiarity. Of course, the slow fade of CBS ratings on all fronts hasn't helped matters. In short, the change of networks, time slots and decade shave taken their toll on Letterman. He's no longer America's favorite clown, and the melon-headed Leno is slowly gaining on him, as is Nightline in the wake of Oklahoma City. (And yet, in the two years since he left NBC, he has not lost a single week in the ratings to Leno). His slow fade is a mystery to some insiders, given the demise of Arsenio Hall (inexplicable in itself, as rabid as his cross-racial fans were). On camera, Dave can be openly hostile now and is often detached from "guests." He's renowned for being the worst interviewer in boob tube history, so when his gags aren't clicking it can be deadly business. Perhaps his "self-destruction" is best summed up by a recent letter to Esquire: "In recent years, his work has struck me as more malicious and mean-spirited than original and funny. I long for the days when he would say things that no one else on TV would think of saying." A close scrutiny of several Letterman shows in the wake of Connie Chung's dismissal seems to corroborate this view. Dave seems as disgusted with CBS as he once was with NBC (a souring that actually began, Carter reports, long before the Leno feud, when the notoriously cheap General Electric took control of NBC in 1986). He got off some obligatory shots at his network (e.g., "CBS now stands for 'Connie's Been Sacked'"), but they seemed uninspired, as if he realizes Larry Tisch's corporate Titanic is sinking fast with him aboard. Propping him up one night were two regulars, Marv Albert and Billy Crystal (do these guys sublet space on talk show sofas, or what?). Normally buddies like Billy and Marv make Dave laugh and behave like a hyena, to everyone's delight. But this time the airwaves were filled with stale and shameless plugs for Crystal's latest film, as well as an interminable anecdote about Princess Di that was insulting beyond words (and led to the inevitable joke about the popcorn box on the lap trick). Ugh. Another night found Letterman rescued by Ringo Starr, whose reminiscences about playing the Ed Sullivan Theater (which CBS rebuilt for Dave) with the Beatles 31 years ago would have been priceless had he been allowed to finish a sentence. (And, by the way, Ringo looks terrific! Why do American rock stars age so much more disgracefully than Brits?) Things got so bad after Ringo left that Dave began a joke about the Menendez brothers that remained unfinished, as he turned to band leader Paul Shaffer and asked, "Have we sunk this low?," to which Shaffer matter of factly replied, "Yes." Dave was briefly revived by Hartford's own Amy Brenerman, an actress from NYPD Blue who related an odd anecdote about a recent screen test she had for a Woody Allen film. Without being shown a script or even introduced to the Woodmeister, she found herself in bed with the famed lecher, er, director. Her only instructions were to crawl on him and kiss him. When she faltered at this thespian task, Woody whined, "You're not supposed to stop. I play a doctor who can't keep his hands off his patients. "She never got a call back. "Were you nude?" Dave asked presciently. "Not completely," she said, without batting an eye, "I still had my panties on." Hey yo! The crowd roared its approval rating. Unfortunately, that was about the extent of the interview with our beloved Amy because Dave had to get the musical guest on, one of those interchangeable country rock clones, Clint Travis or Randy Yoakum, who played while the credits rolled. And, with that, the sun seemed to set on another late night TV star whose career in the glass teat has been sucked dry. Will Dave join the roster: Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Dick Cavett, Joey Bishop, Joan Rivers, Whoopi Goldberg, Arsenio Hall, Dennis Miller, Chevy Chase? Still, he's Dave. And Dave is Everydude/dudette. At his best, he still acts the way you or I would act if we were caught in a daily vice grip of corporate sleaze and grotesquely misshapen egos. It would be funny enough if this were our opening monologue but because -- as Late Shift makes clear--it's Real Life, it is, frankly, sad. Carter's book is food for a few more grim thoughts, as well. Like, for example, how does anything of substance find its way into the brainpans of most Americans? How does the written word, the entire print medium, stand a chance against such an opiate as TV? Not to mention the siphoning off of the borderline intelligent and curious who are being sucked into the black hole of cyberspace? (This, indeed, may be what's happening to Dave's fans). Are future generations being bred to stare at boxes all their lives? Do people have actual experiences anymore? Etc. Anyone possessed of even modest sensitivity in the world of journalism knows the anxiety of this continual downslide. And as the price of newsprint goes up while cost of electricity remains stable (at the expense of the environment, of course), the chances for reinvigorating human discourse grows more dim. So what does this have to do with Letterman, Leno and Chung, you ask? Nothing. And the sobering message of Carter's book--which is much better written than the subject deserves--is that David Letterman doesn't have much to do with David Letterman either. Ditto Jay and Connie. As the minister of information Joe Goebbels proved beyond any reasonable doubt, if you don't have a voice or a face, you don't really exist, do you?