Fledgling David Letterman Show Star Worried Failure: “Because I Can’t Act”
Letterman, with an endearing space between his two front teeth and a square high forehead, brought out Frankenstein jokes
The Washington Star, July 24, 1982: NEW YORK — I can’t act,” says comedian David Letterman, explaining why, if “The David Letterman Show” doesn’t make it, he won’t try to land his own sit-com.
He’s wrong about that.
From 10 to 11:30 a.m., airing live from NBC’s 10th floor studio in the RCA building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Letterman has been acting his head off. Smiling, tossing off witticisms, getting down on all fours during the “stupid pet trick” segment of NBC’s “The David Letterman Show” so a dog named Polly can jump over him, laughing good-naturedly as Polly lights briefly on his back during her clumsy, lopsided leap.
On the floor are two half eaten cheesecakes left over from a “trick” performed by a husky and a doberman. “I could go for some cheesecake,” Letterman says, at eye-level with the revolting remains.
Letterman is disguised in his New York TV talk show host clothes: a dark suit and a discreet tie, the formality bringing into sharp focus his gangly 6-foot-2 frame, the endearing space between his two front teeth and the square, high forehead that has caused more than one wag to compare his looks to Frankenstein’s.
An hour later, behind his desk in one of NBC’s smaller, more utilitarian offices where the only luxury item is an electric pencil sharpener, Letterman is no longer acting. Or laughing. His 90-minute show’s been on a month now, and already NBC president Fred Silverman is cutting it to an hour (on Aug. 4). The ratings have been low and are not improving
Wearing faded jeans and a selection from his ratty collection of University of California at Santa Barbara T-shirts (He’s a graduate of Ball State University in Indiana and loves the conceit), Letterman is flicking sharpened pencils at the cork ceiling where they invariably stick, giving the office the appearance of a torture chamber. He is gazing morosely at a reporter, a photographer and an NBC publicity man who has crammed himself in, presumably to be of help even before the first question is asked. In addition to his other duties, Letterman is now signing paychecks and attending to production problems. The whole staff is being reorganized. His director left. And the show’s first producer, Bob Stewart, quit a week after the program began.
“Personnel problems put us in the hole physically and emotionally.” Letterman says, depressed and looking vulnerable from behind a pair of glasses.
The critics, most of whom find Letterman a funny fellow, have made mincemeat of the show, which is erratically paced, offers some thunderously unfunny comedians of Letterman’s choosing and long, often lugubrious interviews on subjects even network documentarians would consider too serious.
This particular morning, he’s been talking to a survivalist on what Letterman calls “the lighthearted topic of the end of the world.” The survivalist has holed up in Oregon and predicts imminent disaster for the rest of us.
“I’m just trying to get by minute by minute, “Letterman tells the survivalist.
Like much of what Letterman says both on and off the air, it’s the truth.
Letterman, who was touted as Johnny Carson’s heir apparent and gained national recognition through guest and guest host appearances on “The Tonight Show.” was given his own daytime show by Fred Silverman, who told him to go ahead and experiment,” and promised him 26 weeks in which to find a format. “Twenty-six weeks, we’ve got,” Letterman says, repeatedly, doggedly. “They told me we got 26 weeks.”
The whole show, he says, was Fred Silverman’s idea. “He told me in the beginning not to worry about ratings.”
But since it began, “The David Letterman Show” has been flailing. Unlike Westinghouse’s syndicated “The John Davidson Show,” which premiered a week after Letterman and has always known exactly where it was going, “The David Letterman Show” is still trying to find its identity. Davidson’s is a sleek, jazzed-up version of the old talk show, presenting a steady stream of top television celebrities on a beautiful set. Safe, sexy, a natural.
“The David Letterman Show” is an often bizarre blend of the untried and true. Audiences are thrown off base by its schizophrenic, scattershot approach. Droll newsman Edwin Newman, arriving on the set for news breaks, is often applauded, even after informing viewers of the most awful events.
Letterman’s own humor is deceptive because of his elegantly casual delivery; he is a subtle, sensitive comedian, but his brilliance is diluted by the rest of his show. Still, Letterman’s daffy brainstorms are frequently disarming. On his first show, he sent a man in the studio out for coffee, explaining to the rest of the audience, “There is a hot buffet, and closer to 11, the bar opens.”
“It’s a risk when you get out there and start playing around,” Letterman says. But these are the risks that work best. He honed his trade at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, where comedians have to prepare for every eventuality — the perfect requisite for a performer in live television.
“It’s silly to duplicate any existing service,” says Letterman, explaining why celebrities have been outlawed as interviewees and performers.
“They told us we have an audience of elderly housewives,” Letterman says, sourly. Maybe he’s “idealistic,” he says, but he prefers to think of his audience as people, people who would be interested in a show that’s “funny and interesting — our guidelines.”
Under the heading of “funny” he places Edie McClurg, one of the show’s resident comedians who plays, among other characters, the ditzy Mrs. Mary Mindenhall, a housewife who offers silly but useful household hints. Frowning, Letterman denies that housewives might take offense at what could be a put-on at their expense.
Mrs. Mary Mindenhall gets fan letters, he says. “Housewives think she’s funny. They send in their own hints.” But Letterman admits that the tendency to put on viewers and studio audiences has been “a legitimate problem. In the beginning, it was tough to tell who was who.”
It’s not all that tough, really. The comedians are not subtle; indeed, they fail from a lack of restraint and talent. Like the characters on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” they cross the fine line between satire and affront. That line simply can’t be crossed in the daytime, with viewers used to Phil Donahue’s sincerity and Dinah Shore’s empathy.
“Oh, yes, we really stepped off the edge,” Letterman agrees. But he insists that there must be a place for the “alternative” talk show. “Sooner or later you’ve got to rotate the crops.”
Letterman looks plaintive. “We’re trying as hard as we can,” he says. He has no plans for copping out, for drawing back into the safety of “The John Davidson Show” format.
“I would rather go down swinging with my show,” he says, “than do his show.”
Talking a Show To Death: David Letterman at Full Flail
…from Judy’s Notebook:
When I interviewed David Letterman in 1982, his NBC “Late Night with David Letterman” show was only months old and still wobbling along. He was so uncertain of its future — and his — that he let out his worries in an interview he must have known would go out in a newspaper all over Washington and beyond.
Thirty three years later, in 2015, he moved on from his “Late Show With David Letterman”, on CBS. He surfaced again three years later on a Netflix interview series, “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman.” Wearing a white Santa Claus beard with bushy eyebrows to match, he welcomed his first interviewee, former President Barack Obama.
It has been reported that Letterman makes a million dollars an episode.