One of the greatest comic voices and broadcasters of the last 50 years has decided to call it a day. David Letterman announced his retirement today. We had our first Playboy Interview with Dave in 1984, back before Leno and the late night wars, back before CBS, back before the scandals, back when he was the crown prince of late night. Enjoy the full story here and to read every article the magazine has ever published—from 1953 until today—visit the complete archive at iplayboy.com.
NBC's sixth floor at 30 Rockefeller Plaza is the birthplace of the modern television talk show. Steve Allen hosted "The Tonight Show" there for three years, followed by Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. In 1972, "The Tonight Show" went West, and a year and a half later, Tom Snyder moved in for an eight-year stint. Now Snyder is gone and a new breed of talk-show audience is filling studio 6A's 250 seats—with 4,000,000 more of the same new species watching at home. For the first time, the generation that was raised by television has its own network talk show, "Late Night with David Letterman."
According to the Nielsen people, an astonishing 60 percent of Letterman's viewers were born after World War Two, a demographic profile not even remotely approached by any previous talk show. And here they are now, dungareed and T-shirted, clapping hard and grinning with gleeful anticipation as Paul Shaffer's band explodes in an old R&B song and announcer Bill Wendell intones, "And now, a man who is frightened by the slightest change in air temperature, David Letterman." A door opens at the back of the stage and Letterman enters—followed by a cameraman holding a minicam directly over his shoulder. The three big floor cameras peel away toward the wings and Letterman, the minicam hugging his shoulder, strides forth. The audience is momentarily startled and everyone scrambles for a peek at one of the overhead monitors; but in a twinkling, this audience is in on the joke—Letterman is letting us see the show from his point of view. Laughter and cheers wash over the stage. This is the video generation; they get this kind of stuff. If Carson pulled a stunt like this, most of his viewers would probably think something was wrong. Letterman is playing to an audience that loves to see the world stood on its head—the way Mad magazine used to do when they were children. But now they're grown and crowding a TV studio to watch a man The Washington Post described as "lankish, prankish, boyish and goyish" stand where Allen and Paar and Carson and Snyder used to stand—except this guy is showing them what it's like to be there. He's taking the magic out of television, and they love it.
Since it went on the air in February 1982, "Late Night with David Letterman" has welcomed such guests as Sidney Miller, Doorman of the Year; a gentleman who flew to an altitude of 15,000 feet in a lawn chair and was almost killed by a Delta Air Lines jet; a worm farmer; a man who died and came back to life; and a woman who claimed to have gone shopping on Venus. The show's regular features include elevator races, viewer mail and stupid pet tricks. There have been such special features as an investigative report titled, "Alan Alda: A Man and His Chinese Food." When the show does have traditional celebrity guests, Letterman usually attempts to do something different with them. During an interview, Henry Winkler happened to mention that his 83-year-old father was in the lumber business. Letterman immediately produced a telephone and called Winkler's father to ask what he should do about the faded redwood siding on his Malibu home (Winkler's father recommended clear varnish). Comedian Robert Klein showed and hilariously narrated his bar mitzvah movies. Jet-set veteran Monique Van Vooren brought her 200 pairs of shoes, which went by on a conveyor belt while she provided anecdotes from her life—all related to the shoes she was wearing at the time.
Viewer reaction to this televised weirdness has not been a flash cult quickly followed by apathy but a firmly based and steadily rising Nielsen ground swell. Surveys have proved to network executives and sponsors alike that the baby-boom generation has at last found a talk-show host with a genuinely congenial sensibility. It is now also apparent that that man is not a performer who relies on shtick. He views the world—through the eyes of his generation—afresh every day. Three TV critics, while reflecting separately in print on Letterman, used the same phrase to describe him: "He wears well." And in television, durability can be an even more important asset than talent.
David Michael Letterman was born in Indianapolis on April 12, 1947. His father owned a small flower shop. His mother was a church secretary. He had two sisters. There were chronic but never quite overwhelming financial problems. Letterman was shy, extremely self-conscious about his appearance ("I looked like a duck"), played a lot of baseball, did poorly in school and hung out with a tight group of friends whose primary interests were sports, beer and making one another laugh. In a high school speech class, he settled upon what was to remain his lifelong dream—to host a TV talk show.
In 1965, Letterman entered Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, as a radio-TV major. He joined a fraternity, drank more beer, married his sweetheart and worked two summers as a replacement announcer on channel 13, the ABC affiliate in Indianapolis. After graduation, he landed a full-time job at channel 13. His duties included weatherman, Saturday-morning kiddie-show star, news anchor and late-night movie host. Experience and boredom accumulated, occasionally resulting in on-air pranks that gave Letterman an underground cult following—and eventually got him fired. Once, while doing the weather, he reported that the city was being pelted by "hailstones the size of canned hams." On another weather report, he announced that a tropical storm had just been upgraded to hurricane status, then congratulated the storm on its promotion.
After leaving channel 13 in 1974, Letterman remained in Indianapolis for another year as a radio talk-show host. By May 1975, he felt he was ready to grab for the brass ring. He and his wife packed their belongings into their battered red pickup truck and headed for L.A. Letterman had overcome his stage fright sufficiently to audition at The Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard. On that fateful night, his career edged into Hollywood's fast lane. Although he was an unpolished stage performer (and obviously a nervous wreck), the unusual bent of Letterman's humor was immediately apparent to the club's owners, and they installed him in The Comedy Store's regular rotation.
Within days, Jimmie "J.J." Walker began paying Letterman $150 per week to write jokes for his stand-up act. During his stint at The Comedy Store, other comedians, including Bob Hope and Paul Lynde, also hired him to write material for them. TV appearances and top club dates materialized quickly. So did a sad but civilized divorce.
In 1978, Letterman landed a job on Mary Tyler Moore's ill-fated variety hour "Mary." Although the show failed and his experience on it was not entirely pleasant ("They kept dressing me up in weird costumes and, worse, they made me dance"), two crucial, long-term benefits did accrue to him: He made a fan of the show's producer, Grant Tinker, and he deepened his recent relationship with one of the writers, Merrill Markoe.
Then came a very strong first appearance on "The Tonight Show." Carson spontaneously decided to invite him up for a desk spot, and that's when Letterman, whom many critics consider the best reactive comedian, or "comeback artist," in the business today, really had a chance to shine. By early 1979, when Carson was thinking of leaving "The Tonight Show," Hollywood insiders placed Letterman, still a virtual unknown, among the handful of leading contenders for the throne. And then came something called "The David Letterman Show": 90 minutes of live talk and entertainment at ten o'clock every weekday morning. Although both Letterman and head writer Markoe won Emmys, the ratings were disastrous and the show was canceled as soon as alternate programing could be developed.
A period of deep depression followed (as distinct from the shallow depression that Letterman's friends claim is his normal emotional state). He justifiably felt that he'd had his shot at fulfilling his childhood fantasy and blown it. Then a "holding contract" arrived in the mail: Fred Silverman was offering him what has been variously reported as between $625,000 and $1,000,000 a year just to sit at home and wait for the network to come up with another show for him. The cloud was lifted. Late in 1981, Tom Snyder's "Tomorrow" show was canceled, and although Silverman had by then departed, the new boss at NBC was another Letterman fan, Grant Tinker. So "Late Night" was launched. The show was a critical, ratings and demographic success from the outset.
Today, as "Late Night" goes through its third year and Letterman's baby-boom following has demonstrated what appears to be a long-term commitment to him, NBC executives are no longer panic-stricken about the day Carson eventually calls it a career. Even Carson has been feeling the loss of leverage. One evening, after a lackluster monolog and a boring first guest, he sighed, peered resignedly into the camera and said, "Why don't I just go on home and we can bring in Letterman now?" The audience cheered wildly and the show went well from there. But the point was not lost amid the laughter. An heir apparent to America's talk-show throne has finally emerged; and in this land of show-business royalty, that is the U.S. equivalent of the birth of a prince. So we felt the time had come to send veteran Playboy interviewer Sam Merrill out for an extended chat with Letterman about his life and times in the talk-show wars. Merrill reports:
"David Letterman quickly agreed to do the 'Interview,' then proceeded to delay the first session for six months. During that time, the message would periodically be passed to me that 'David really wants to do the "Playboy Interview"; he's just a little nervous.' Letterman's nervous condition probably would have persisted to this day had deadlines not required me to notify him that if we didn't begin on a certain day a couple of months away, the 'Interview' was off. I was his last appointment on the afternoon of that day.
"Letterman's office at the RCA building in New York's Rockefeller Center looks, as one reporter put it, 'like he got the key yesterday.' Not that the place lacks human touches. There was a pair of pants on the sofa; various items of baseball equipment and memorabilia were strewn about; there were several pieces of New York kitsch; and there was Bob, one of Letterman's beloved dogs.
"We spoke for an hour that day, and he was as easy, gracious and forthcoming an 'Interview' subject as one could hope for. In fact, I was getting over a cold at the time and Letterman went out of his way to carry the conversation. It was difficult to imagine his fearing the interview process. But, as one friend put it, 'David fears everything.'
"During the next three weeks, we met constantly at Letterman's Malibu home. He had nothing else to do. I'd spoiled his vacation by giving him my cold."
Playboy: Why has it taken the better part of six months for us to sit down together?
Letterman: I've been afraid to get started. But I didn't want to say no, either. So I just sort of.…
Playboy: Jacked us around?
Playboy: What were you afraid of?
Letterman: Appearing foolish. When I started doing The Tonight Show, I went from being somebody who had never had his name in print except in the phonebook to somebody who was being interviewed all the time. And it was great fun. I mean, to a recently anonymous nobody, that's a fantasy come true. But after a few months of it, I got tired of talking about myself. And then, one day, I was watching Entertainment Tonight, which often shows celebrities in their kitchens or woodshops, talking about what number file they use, then putting the finishing touches on an end table, and I thought, Jeez, these people are being silly. And if I think they're being silly, other people must think I'm being silly. And there's just no point in a grown man's going out of his way to be silly. So I pretty much stopped doing interviews. Also, it was mentioned to me that this Playboy thing was going to run a little longer than your average interview—like 15 hours! And I thought, Good Lord, I can't do that. I have to finish my table.
Playboy: Whether or not you give interviews, there's no getting away from the fact that having a network television show makes you a national celebrity. Has that changed the texture of your daily life?
Letterman: No, but privately I think that I'm not really somebody who has a network television show. Celebrities are other people—Johnny Carson and Sylvester Stallone. I'm just a kid trying to make a living is the way I feel. Here I am, waiting for the fat kid to put unleaded gas in my car, and I'm asking him if I can do it, because he's having trouble resetting the pump, and I think, I'm not really that person on television. It always surprises me that what I do in New York between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. will show up later that night in Albuquerque and Seattle. It's like tossing a rock into a pond and watching the ripples cross the water. I don't like to think about it—it's a little more responsibility than a guy would want.
Playboy: Is that responsibility something you think about while doing the show?
Letterman: At first, I feel nervous and forget the responsibility. There's so much excitement at the start of the show that if things go well, the excitement builds exponentially. I actually become happy—an all-too-rare occurrence in my life. But if something goes wrong early in the show, the nervousness returns. It's tough for me to put aside an early problem. I get depressed and lose energy. I feel, This is the only thing we have to do all day and already I've stepped on my own…whatever.
Playboy: You get anxious fairly easily, don't you?
Letterman: I'd describe myself as probably having more apprehensions than the average person—or the average medium-sized American community.
Playboy: It's amazing that you decided to become a performer.
Letterman: What I always wanted to do was be on the radio or on TV. I never wanted to appear in front of actual people.
Playboy: So you always saw yourself as an "electronic performer"?
Letterman: As a kid, I loved the image of Arthur Godfrey doing his radio-TV simulcasts, sitting behind a microphone wearing headphones—just talking. That was my fantasy: being able to communicate with folks without the unspeakable trauma of having them right there in the same room, scrutinizing me. Even later, when I did local radio and TV in Indianapolis, the thought of appearing live anywhere was just out of the question. People would say, "Hey, Dave, the Kiwanis Club wants you to come over and kiss their children," and I'd say, "No, I can't do that."
Playboy: You do it now, though you've already mentioned how nervous you get on your own show. How is that nervousness manifested?
Letterman: I used to drink an unbelievable quantity of coffee, thinking it would calm me down, but that just made me more nervous, so I had to quit.
Playboy: Do your knees knock? Do you grind your teeth?
Letterman: No, nothing that obvious. And now I don't even chew my nails off. So all the damage is internal.
Playboy: When Johnny Carson gets nervous at the start of his show, he says, his tongue turns white.
Letterman: No, that's network policy. They have a guy back there who chalks your tongue just before you go out so you don't mispronounce words.
Playboy: When does the nervousness—or let's call it excitement—really take hold?
Letterman: About half an hour before air time—five p.m. That's when I become hyper. I put everything else out of my mind and just let that nervous energy surge through my body. I start talking faster and louder. My confidence comes up. It's actually a great feeling. Then I go out and do a little warm-up for the audience—just in case they're all from Portugal and don't speak a word of English, I want to be the first to know.
Playboy: Are you aware that you're the only talk-show host who does his own warm-up?
Letterman: To be precise, our announcer, Bill Wendell, does a longer warm-up before me; but, yes, I know the other guys don't show their face to the studio audience until the tape is rolling. But I like to know where the audience is. Are they up? Down? Are they mostly tourists? People from out of town are generally a bit more sedate than New Yorkers. That warm-up is really more for me than for the audience. It's like batting practice. And then, as I'm walking away from the audience, I have a clear, preconceived notion of how the show will go. I think, This is going to be a long fucking night. And then, suddenly, the band is playing and I'm walking back out and we just go.
Playboy: We're currently sitting in your New York office, and on your desk you have not one but two brass Empire State Buildings—one is a bank, the other is a thermometer. There's a dog bone but, of course, Bob, the dog, is here nibbling my shoelace as we speak. There is a Big Apple salt-and-pepper set next to your telephone. Are you a collector of kitsch?
Letterman: No. Beloved members of my staff have given me those things knowing that I would be irritated by them.
Playboy: Are you actually a gentleman of impeccable taste?
Letterman: I wouldn't go that far.
Playboy: When you furnish a home, do people mistake it for Cary Grant's house?
Letterman: I have a house in California that Merrill and I have been living in for five years, and if it were fixed up just a little bit nicer, when people walked in they would say, "Oh, I get it: You rented all this stuff." Actually, Merrill and I did take a decorator there once, and we told her, "We don't know what we're doing, but we want the place to be comfortable and unpretentious and not too expensive." And she looked around and said, "Sure, this will be great. I'll do all the shopping and bring you samples and pull the whole thing together for $30,000." So I strangled her and buried her next to the hot tub.
Playboy: Assuming your show continues to be a hit for many years, will you eventually attempt to take it back to California?
Letterman: Yes, California is my home now. And when the show is finally canceled—as all shows finally are, except The Jeffersons—I'll sell the Connecticut house. Connecticut is beautiful, but I've lived in the California house long enough to have a real fondness for it.
Playboy: But you're not fond enough to furnish it.
Letterman: No, not quite that fond.
Playboy: Is your childhood in Indiana a happy memory?
Letterman: Yeah. I think it was probably right on the money for lower-middle-class, mid-American family life, which is really a very pleasant and balanced way to grow up. Both of my grandfathers were miners turned farmers. My mother's father was a very funny man—a real smartass but irresistible. He'd have me sneak up on the watermelons because that was the only way you could pick them. So there would be this man in his 60s and me, a little kid, tiptoeing together through the watermelon patch, and we'd finally grab one and run like hell. My father was always joking around; and if she had a couple of beers, even my mom would get a little loopy. And my younger sister is very witty, too.
Playboy: Was it a showbiz kind of funny family?
Letterman: Oh, my Lord, no. [laughs] If you hypnotized my mother and extracted from her every fantasy she has ever even mildly entertained in her entire life, not one of them would be to go backstage at Caesars Palace and greet Sammy Davis Jr. We weren't a paint-the-barn-and-put-on-musicals family. We just had fun.
Playboy: Your father was a florist.
Letterman: My dad, who passed away ten years ago, had a flower shop. When I was about ten or 11, business became a problem, and from then on, there was a lot of financial tension around the house. My mother had to work in the shop every day, then go home and take care of the kids. But we still got to do stuff and had clothes and took trips. There was just a sense of tightness.
Playboy: You mentioned earlier that despite your anxieties and insecurities, you always wanted to be some kind of "electronic communicator."
Letterman: What I'm doing right now represents the fulfillment of the only serious dream I've ever had. I knew I would be doing this from early on.
Playboy: Being a talk-show host is a curiously specific childhood dream. How did you arrive at it?
Letterman: At first, it was just a vague vision of me on television with a few friends, drinking a warm eight-pack of beer and chatting about the week's events. The vision didn't assume any greater clarity for several years. There were too many distractions. I fought with my parents and my grades stank and it was all just a miasma. Then I happened to sign up for a speech class in high school, because I had heard it was an easy C. And that's where the dream really took shape.
Playboy: Were you a clown in high school?
Letterman: No, most of the class clowns in my high school are doing time now.
Playboy: Did you perform in high school?
Letterman: Never; that would have been too nerve-racking. And I felt I looked so awful. I was much too shy to perform. I was looking through my high school yearbook recently. We all looked like guys who'd be hanging around with John Hinckley. I mean, basically, everybody in high school looks like a duck.
Playboy: So with your dream of electronic stardom glistening before you, off you went to major in radio and television at…Ball State University. Why not Indiana University at Bloomington, or Northwestern? Those schools have top-notch communications departments.
Letterman: I wanted to go to IU, and all my friends were going there, but they'd take me only on academic probation. I'd have had to maintain a C average my freshman year, and I figured, There's no way in hell I can do that. So I applied to Ball State, where, as the joke goes, I was admitted with honors.
Playboy: Your college years were 1965 through 1969, the anti-Vietnam war protest era. Were you involved in the radical politics of that time?
Letterman: Ball State was pretty much isolated from all of that. I'm not sure why, since Kent State was not far off or too different. And I was not what you would call politicized. While other campuses were staging major demonstrations, our biggest worry was "How are we gonna get beer for the big dance?" I was hardly aware of the Vietnam war until a friend of mine flunked out and was drafted and [snaps fingers] was dead like that. One day, here's a guy setting fire to the housemother's panty hose, and the next day, he's gone. That got my attention.
Playboy: Did you dodge the draft?
Letterman: No. After graduation, I assumed I would go to Vietnam. My close friends were going, and I felt I was no different from them. But in the lottery, my birth date was drawn 346th, so I was free. Even then, I almost enlisted. The feeling of "Well, this is my country and war is war, after all," was surprisingly strong in many parts of middle America. And there was also that personal thing tugging at me: "Doug went; why shouldn't I?"
Playboy: How do you feel about it now?
Letterman: What I feel very bad about is that when those guys came back, I didn't have an inkling of the kind of ordeal they had gone through. As a friend and neighbor, I wasn't functioning in a sensitive way. I treated them as if they'd been in Milwaukee for two years: "Great to see you. How you doing? Let's get a beer." And that was the extent of the debriefing. I didn't have a clue about what that war had done to them emotionally, psychologically. I.… Well, many Americans, though that's no excuse, were so insensitive to those returning Vietnam veterans. It was a crime.
Playboy: You've mentioned beer at least half a dozen times already. We assume there's a reason for that.
Letterman: In college, my friends and I pretty much structured our week around obtaining beer for the weekend. We loved almost every aspect of drinking beer, particularly the fact that we could, physically, get away with it. One of the remarkable things about being 19 is that you can break open a case of warm beer at midnight and still be wide-eyed and alert for your eight-a.m. class. And that gave me the false impression that my life would always be like that. I drank a lot of beer over an almost 20-year period—and I loved it. But now I've quit. No alcohol, no drugs, no coffee.
Playboy: Were you heavily into drugs?
Letterman: Only grass. I went through one period when I smoked a surprising, a really breath-taking, amount of grass almost every night.
Playboy: When was that?
Letterman: During the failed morning show, and it was only about a two-month period. I just got to the point where I'd be stoned and I'd wish I wasn't. So I quit. Since then, I've used marijuana very sporadically, hardly at all.
Playboy: So pot was self-limiting for you, but beer wasn't.
Letterman: That's right. I remember being surprised when I got out of college that the real world was unlike the fraternity house in one very important way: The people I was working with weren't drinking as much beer as I was. So I'd find the two or three guys who still were and they would be my friends. And we had plenty of fun being young adults loose on the town. We'd just go out every night after work and drink.
Playboy: How much did you drink?
Letterman: I never drank during the day, but six beers before dinner was common. Merrill and I went through a two-year period where we attempted to sample every beer in the entire world. She was bringing home beer from Korea, South America, Germany, Japan, Scotland, Italy, New Zealand. And I loved it. There is hardly any aspect of beer drinking that I don't love.
Playboy: You look back over your beer-drinking years with such fondness—what made you stop? Are you an alcoholic?
Letterman: I thought alcoholism was certainly a potential problem. But the thing that made me stop was the show. I had to feel I was doing everything in my power to make it a success. Otherwise, I'd have to answer to myself for the rest of my life for being a failure. I knew that if I woke up hung over, I couldn't do the best possible job on the show, so I had to quit. Also, I'd consumed a lot of beer for a lot of years, and I thought, That's enough. I've had my fun and I'm glad I quit. But I do look back on it with a great deal of relish.
Playboy: You describe yourself during those years of local television and recreational beer drinking as a "young adult loose on the town," but, in fact, you were married throughout that period.
Letterman: I got married in my senior year of college and remained married for seven years. And my wife and I suffered every emotional ailment a young couple could.
Playboy: Then you moved to L.A., became a hit and got a divorce.
Letterman: Our marriage would have come apart regardless of geography or career pursuits. And you've got your chronology backward. Ours was not a case of a wife's struggling to put her husband through medical school, after which he gets a position at a fine hospital and dumps her. Nor was it a case of my getting a taste of the fast life in show business and saying, "To hell with this old broad." When we divorced, my career was practically nonexistent. Our basic problem was that we'd just gotten married too young.
Playboy: Anyway, after six years as a local broadcaster in Indiana, you made the big move to Hollywood in 1975 in the further pursuit of your childhood dream.
Letterman: I told everyone, including myself, that I was going out there to become a TV scriptwriter. I thought that would be my best entry point into the business. But the thing you discover is that you can write all the scripts you want when you're living in Indianapolis. People aren't going to meet you at the L.A. city line saying, "Can we see those scripts? We're dying to get scripts from people who live in Indianapolis." It just doesn't work that way. I'd take my scripts around and they'd toss them into a warehouse, and every Thursday the guy with the fork lift would go by, pick up all the scripts and bury them near the river. I knew that if scriptwriting didn't get me moving in the direction I wanted to go, the next step was stand-up comedy. So, eventually, I got up the courage and went over to The Comedy Store for an audition.
Playboy: Was that the first time you'd done stand-up comedy?
Letterman: The first time. I found it very painful to get up in front of those people. And I wasn't exactly a big hit, either. But I achieved a real sense of self-confidence from that first attempt. I remember thinking, Jeez, I've come 2,500 miles and gotten onstage in this dimly lit bar in front of these mutants and I'm telling jokes. This is a real step for me. And it was.
Playboy: And you were hired.
Letterman: I began performing four or five nights a week. Then Jimmie Walker hired me to write jokes for him. I mean, who better to capsulize the American black experience than a white guy from Indiana? But Jimmie was very, very nice. And very shrewd about his career, I thought. He realized that he'd be able to sustain himself in show business long after Good Times was gone through his stand-up act, so he hired punks out of the Midwest to keep building his material. Jimmie was paying me $150 a week just to write 15 jokes. That money kept me going and was also a tremendous confidence builder. I'll always be grateful to Jimmie for that early support. And I'll always respect the way he thought about his career in the long view.
Playboy: While performing at The Comedy Store, you were discovered and signed by the prestigious management firm of Rollins, Joffe, Morra and Brezner.
Letterman: That's right, though I have recently been talking with Colonel Tom Parker, so there may be a management shift in my future.
Playboy: Seriously, to be just one of literally hundreds of aspiring comics working out at the Improv and Comedy Store and then suddenly be signed by a heavy-duty agency must have been an incredible ego boost for an insecure guy. Some people were seeing something very special in you.
Letterman: It meant a great deal, of course, and then I began really working. I wrote for a couple of TV shows. I did a summer show with the Starland Vocal Band—of course, at that time, nobody realized they'd go on to such unbelievable success. I appeared on The Liar's Club as a "celebrity," which was a source of amusement. And then the Rollins, Joffe people got me a major job as a regular on Mary, the short-lived Mary Tyler Moore variety hour. After that, they got me a deal to do a syndicated afternoon talk show called—are you ready for this?—Leave It to Dave.
Playboy: Leave It to Dave?
Letterman: It was a disaster. I wanted to do a goofy kind of off-the-wall, innovative show, the show I've always wanted to do, the show I'm doing now. But the affiliates wanted an "afternoon show." The whole project was just a disaster from word one.
Playboy: Meanwhile, throughout that Comedy Store period, you were a single guy—really for the first time in your life—presumably on the make in Hollywood. What was that like?
Letterman: At first, I was like a kid in a candy shop. And I'm glad I went through that experience or I'd probably still be wondering what it's like to be afloat in a sea of Hollywood dollies.
Letterman: It was not fun and I was not very good at it. I find it hard enough to manage my own life, let alone trying to live up to what is expected of a single show-business guy in Hollywood. For me, that whole experience produced more anxieties than pleasures—not that there weren't pleasures.
Playboy: So, even in bed, all you could think about was what other people expected of you.
Letterman: Well, maybe. But I think of it as a life experience that my wife and I missed because we got married in college. I experienced it later—which I needed to do—and I didn't like it.
Playboy: When did you meet Merrill?
Letterman: We met at The Comedy Store in 1977. Merrill was hanging around, buying drinks for comics, and.… No, no. What am I saying? She was doing standup and we met and began dating. Then, coincidentally, she got a job writing for Mary and I was a regular in the cast. We've worked together ever since, until now. Last year, Merrill left Late Night, where she had been head writer, to go back to free-lancing.
Playboy: So there was a lot of activity in your career after Rollins, Joffe signed you, but you didn't emerge as a public figure until November 1978, when you made your first Tonight Show appearance. How did that come about?
Letterman: The people at The Tonight Show are very good at dealing with young comedians. They treat the Improv and The Comedy Store as a farm system. They want nothing more than to break another Freddie Prinze, and they keep track of everybody. In 1977, they came to me and said, "You're not ready." I said, "OK, that's fine." I was just thrilled they'd been watching me. And the last thing you want to do is go on and not be ready. So I kept working and building my act, and the next year, they called for me. I went back three times, and after the third time, they invited me to guest host. At the time, I saw that as a huge mistake on their part, but now I recognize it as an incredible bit of cosmic synchronization.
Playboy: That was one of the periods when everybody was asking who would replace Johnny. And there you were, a rawboned, Midwestern "Carson type."
Letterman: Oh, sure, I benefited from that enormously. I mean, there are guys at The Comedy Store now with whom I started in 1975 who are funnier than I am and are on unemployment. So I know full well what the David Letterman story could have been, and without going into too many of the gory details, let's just say it would not have included you sitting here today interviewing me for Playboy.
Playboy: Given whatever performing gifts you feel you have but no luck, where do you think you'd be today?
Letterman: I'd like to say back in Indianapolis with a steady job at a local station, but that's not what usually happens. Unfortunately, people generally tend to stay too long at The Comedy Store and the Improv. They keep thinking, Maybe next week, Merv Griffin will come in and put me on Dance Fever. So they stay and stagnate and eventually come to be looked upon by the talent scouts as somehow tarnished. You know, who wants a guy who's been in junior high school for eight years? Those clubs are a stepping stone. They're not a career.
Playboy: Do you sometimes feel a little guilty about having leapfrogged over your Comedy Store friends?
Letterman: Not guilty, but I do feel an extra responsibility to help friends who deserve a break. But being able to do that is a mixed blessing. We've made the mistake of helping people who weren't ready, and it made them look bad and us look bad. So, lately, I've taken my personal feelings and old friendships out of the process.
Playboy: Did that cause some people to accuse you of turning your back on them?
Letterman: I've alienated as many old friends as I've helped and, yes, sure, when our people go to comedy clubs today, we get badmouthed. But what can I do? My first concern is that we do a nice show. My second concern is that the guests benefit from their appearance. We don't want people going on who will not do well. But how do you tell an old friend that you just don't think he or she is funny? So, when I go to a comedy club today, I'm aware that a certain number of people are saying, "Oh, here comes that asshole Letterman. I can't get on his show, the son of a bitch."
Playboy: Do any young comics you do approach ever say, "No, don't have me on; I'm not ready yet"?
Letterman: I've heard that a few times, and those are people I'll always keep an eye on, because they have some sense of how a solid career should be built. And sense is not a quality most comedians are noted for, self included.
Playboy: You're also not noted for enjoying your own performances, even when doing well. And that is unusual for a comic.
Letterman: Night clubs scare me. They're dark and they stink and they're dangerous and everybody's drunk. The only good thing about night clubs is that a comfortable living can be made in them. I've always felt much more at home with the electronic trappings of broadcasting, where the studios are well lighted and the people are pleasant—and some of them are not drunk. But even on television, I'm not one of those comedians who'll stay on as long as you let them. Give Robin Williams five hours and he'll do five hours. Give me 20 minutes and I'll say, "Will you settle for 15?"
Playboy: Let's talk a little about your morning show, the one that flopped so spectacularly in the ratings. After the disaster of Leave It to Dave, why did you go back to daytime TV?
Letterman: Well, at that time, I just wanted to do any show. I loved the idea that it would be live and, unlike Leave It to Dave, this time, everyone agreed in advance that we'd be going for a silly, inventive, off-the-wall comedy show.
Playboy: But was it ever explained to you that your audience would consist almost entirely of middle-aged housewives?
Letterman: Not until we were in over our heads. Anyway, that wouldn't have deterred me. Our approach was to do the show we wanted and let the audience find us.
Playboy: What was the first danger sign?
Letterman: The producer quit three days before we went on the air. Merrill had to function as both head writer and producer until we could find someone else. She did a great job of holding things together; but through naivete and inexperience, we made plenty of mistakes. After only a month, the show had been canceled in five markets, including Boston, Detroit and San Francisco. And after that, it was dominoes tumbling. Eventually, we hired Barry Sand to produce and Merrill went back to writing and the show really began to come together. The ratings in the remaining markets were improving, too. But it was too late. The network had to restore those affiliates, and the only way to do that was to cancel our show.
Playboy: While your morning show was still on the air, it was best known for having already failed. That must have caused a hell of a morale problem.
Letterman: It was odd. Every day, while we were struggling to put the show together, there'd be a story in the paper foretelling our doom. It eventually got to be fun. We created a kind of bunker mentality, trying to do as many unusual things as possible before the end came. But in reality, I thought I'd never be able to do a show again.
Playboy: We heard you once had a fire on the set and, the show being what it was, the fire became the show.
Letterman: Yeah, we were having a 40th anniversary party for a couple and—
Playboy: That was your show? An anniversary party for a strange couple?
Letterman: By the end, we were doing all kinds of wacky things. And this party was great. The couple had invited all their friends, and it was catered and decorated. A band was playing. People were dancing. And while the couple were cutting the cake, we were dropping tulip petals on the entire aggregation. But we also had these giant sparklers going, and the sparklers began to ignite the flower petals. So, all of a sudden, everybody was standing around in these little pockets of flame. And then a stagehand came out with a fire extinguisher and that just made the fire spread. Plus, the studio audience suddenly thought they were about to become charred remains and all of this was going out over the air. In the end, of course, no one was hurt. But phrases like "ill-fated" were constantly being used to describe the morning show, and I don't think that's ever a good sign.
Playboy: When the show was canceled, did your relationship with Merrill suffer?
Letterman: It produced a lot of tension between us, yeah.
Playboy: When did it begin to break?
Letterman: After a couple of months—and it was nothing specific. We just got used to the sudden inactivity and frustration, and even though I thought I probably would never get another shot on TV, I eventually started saying to myself, "So what?" and went on with my life. But then, incredibly, NBC came to me with a new contract.
Playboy: Did you get a raise?
Letterman: No; but, of course, that is the way things seem to work in television, isn't it? You keep getting bigger and bigger money each time something fails.
Playboy: From the moment that new contract arrived, you must have felt in your heart of hearts that what you really wanted was Tom Snyder's slot.
Letterman: Yes, that's true. Everyone seemed to feel that my morning show would have fared much better later on. And I knew I didn't want the 11:30 job—too much pressure. So the Tomorrow-show time slot was definitely what I wanted. But it just didn't make sense to me that NBC would part company with Snyder. I always found him very entertaining. And I'm surprised that to date he has not resurfaced in a similar format, but he will.
Playboy: But Snyder was forced out to make way for you. And Late Night was a tremendous hit from the start.
Letterman: Well, we knew what we wanted to do and whom we wanted to do it with. We brought Barry Sand back as producer—he'd been producing SCTV in the meantime—and Merrill as head writer and Hal Gurnee, a wonderful and extremely creative guy who, incidentally, used to be Jack Paar's director, to direct. We hired a small staff of bright, funny, sensitive people who never want to go to the Polo Lounge for Perrier. In fact, the staff is so wonderful and we've all become so close that I can truly say I never feel the need to get away from the show and be with my friends. I'm always with friends. It's almost like being with family.
Playboy: The first Late Night, with Bill Murray as your guest, established an anything-can-happen-here attitude that you have hung on to. Was that the attitude you wanted to establish or did it just happen?
Letterman: I want viewers to feel that anything can happen on our show. When there's real jeopardy, that's when the fun begins. But that first show might have been just a touch too unstructured.
Playboy: Because of Murray?
Letterman: Yeah. [laughs, tries to answer but laughs again] When we asked Bill to be on our first show, he said he'd like to do something different: Could he come up to the office and talk with the writers and see what they could come up with together? I said, "Great." So he arrived one afternoon when Merrill and I were out shooting a remote and brought six half-gallon bottles of whatever tequila was on sale, and he and the entire staff proceeded to get shit-faced all afternoon. When I got back, the place was a shambles; everyone was dangerously drunk; all the lamps were hidden, because Bill had convinced them that the fluorescent lights were draining their vitamin E; nothing had been written; and the only explanation I could get out of anyone was "Bill was here." And when we did go on the air, Bill didn't want to do any of the things we had finally gotten around to preparing. Instead, he had a sudden urge to sing "Let's Get Physical" and do aerobics. So he did. And it was very funny.
Playboy: You say you loved the fact that your afternoon show was live, but Late Night is taped. Why?
Letterman: That's done only for logistics and not because we or the network have any interest in censoring the show or doing retakes. Late Night is a live show on video tape. You've got to keep the tape rolling no matter what; otherwise, you lose that element of jeopardy I mentioned before. And once that's gone, you may as well bring in props and sets and dancers and start doing The Barbara Mandrell Show. For example, we were supposed to have Levon Helm on and he was late. We could have stopped the tape and waited for him, but, instead, I brought out segment producer Gerard Mulligan and said, "Well, Gerard, if Levon had been here tonight, what would he have talked about?" And we did a whole interview that way. Then Gerard mentioned that Levon's manager was backstage, and I asked him to come out. But he didn't want to. So we went back into the greenroom and met him there. Then we talked with some of the staff and the others waiting to go on. I love stuff like that. When something collapses, it's fun to see what I can build out of the wreckage.
Playboy: Have any guests or incidents made you want to stop the tape?
Letterman: The only guest who really bothered me was Andy Rooney—and he was especially disappointing, because here was a man I'd admired for a long, long time. Years before 60 Minutes, Andy had done a series of news specials that I think represented American television at its best: entertaining, intelligent—absolutely state-of-the-art stuff. But when you actually meet the guy, you quickly discover that he doesn't just appear to be a nasty curmudgeon, he is a nasty curmudgeon.
Playboy: What did he do?
Letterman: The first thing he said when he sat down was "I don't do interviews, and from what I understand, you don't do them very well, so this should be quite a combination." And the segment went downhill from there. It's disappointing when you finally get to meet someone you admire and he conducts himself as a jerk.
Playboy: Although your show has been both a critical and a popular success, many viewers have felt that interviewing is your weakest point.
Letterman: I think some of that criticism has been unfair. We took Snyder's time slot but not his place. Our interviews aren't supposed to go any deeper than The Tonight Show's. We want our guests to be entertaining; we don't want to do This Week With David Brinkley. I'll take my full share of responsibility for being inept on any count, but part of the problem has been a difference in expectations.
Playboy: But if you book a guest with something serious to say, as you sometimes do, and then try to conduct a superficial, entertaining interview, it won't work.
Letterman: You're right, and we've definitely made mistakes with our bookings. For example, we had Gerry Spence, the attorney for Karen Silkwood's family, and we weren't tooled to handle him. I've spent most of my life trying to be funny, not studying political science. I'm just not that guy. So you won't see me steal Ted Koppel's guests again.
Playboy: What else do you think has been wrong with your interviews?
Letterman: When a guest stalls, I get nervous. Probably because I'm so shy by nature, when a person I'm with is low, I get low. If a guest doesn't want to put out, it's very difficult for me to whip him into shape. It's often said that an essential ability for a talk-show host is to get things going at all costs. But I just can't do that.
Playboy: What else can't you do?
Letterman: It frequently happens that a guest is on to plug a movie and I think that picture stinks. I'm supposed to say, "It was a marvelous cinematic work and you and the crew should be immortalized," but I can't and I don't. I also have trouble asking many of the traditional questions: "Is there a special guy or gal in your life? Which do you prefer doing, comedy or drama?" That makes me uncomfortable.
Playboy: But overall, do you agree that your interviews have been weak?
Letterman: Sometimes, sure. And I put a lot of time into improving them. I study the tapes and read the criticism very carefully. The interviews don't come second nature to me, so I have to keep monitoring that aspect of my work.
Playboy: Many people feel that your best moments have come when, almost like a kid, you say what everyone is thinking but no well-adjusted adult would dare come out with. For example, in the midst of an interview with the rather intimidating fight promoter Don King, who's as famous for his electric-shock afro as he is for his extravagant promotions, you blurted out, "So, tell me, Don, what's the story with your hair?" It was a great moment. King was startled, and the audience's laughter was prolonged by his inability to reply.
Letterman: That did work well, but more because of Don than because of me. I mean, here's an extremely nice man who's also a real showbiz salesman. He's full of crap and he knows it—and that's what I love about him. If you broke into Don's home in the middle of the night and awakened him out of a deep sleep—which I have done, by the way—I think he would be the first to admit that he learned early on how to sell the sizzle and not the steak.
Playboy: You may be right about King's part in making that moment work, because when you asked the same question of Nastassja Kinski, it was a disaster.
Letterman: I was nervous about her going in. I mean, what can you talk with her about? Her father is strange. We don't want to get into her teenage relationship with Roman Polanski. Then out she comes and it looks as if she has her hair wired around a nine iron. So I figured, Anyone who appears like that on television must be doing it for a joke. You've got to trust your instincts, and my instincts said, "This woman has a barn owl on her head; ask her about the barn owl." But the hairdo wasn't a joke, and she got insulted and withdrew. I felt really uncomfortable.
Playboy: That'll teach you to go with your instincts.
Letterman: No, I'll always do things like that. It's a good way to loosen the structure of the show. And if it fails, it fails.
Playboy: Paul Shaffer's comical character provides a nice counterpoint to your cynicism. Was that something designed, or did it just happen?
Letterman: Paul was originally hired solely for the music. We wanted old R&B stuff and good, solid rock 'n' roll—the kind of music you never hear on TV talk shows. But while we were talking with him, we were reminded of all the wonderful things he had done on Saturday Night Live, playing Don Kirshner and Marvin Hamlisch. And he is a very, very funny guy. So we just naturally began utilizing more and more of his talents.
Playboy: But where did that character come from?
Letterman: From Paul, who really does love showbiz kitsch. It's his hobby. He records The Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon and plays back Jerry introducing Chad Everett 100 times in a row. On vacations, he goes to Las Vegas and listens to lounge comics and lounge piano players and memorizes their clichés. It's not that he's making fun of it; he's fascinated by it.
Playboy: What you say makes us wonder if the character he plays really is a character.
Letterman: When people come up to me on the street, probably the most asked question is "Is Paul Shaffer for real?" What he does is an extension of an aspect of his personality. So it would not be inaccurate to say, "Yeah, that's him." But he's also a very nice man; a sweet, sensitive human being. See? Maybe it is impossible to describe Paul without lapsing into those stupid showbiz clichés. You know him, you love him, you can't live without him.
Playboy: Whom have you been excited to have on the show—or excited to meet?
Letterman: This may sound crazy, but I found myself really looking forward to meeting Johnny Bench. I was excited to meet Simon and Garfunkel, Steve Martin and Andy Rooney—and then very disappointed by him. Believe it or not, I was also excited to meet Howard Cosell, whom I've always admired.
Playboy: An odd list.
Letterman: Hey, I'm an odd guy, but you gotta love me.
Playboy: You dress very nicely on the show; but outside the studio, we've yet to see you in anything but jeans and a T-shirt—
Letterman: Merrill's mother says she watches just to see me in a suit.
Playboy: This is an awkward question to ask an adult, but do you dress yourself?
Letterman: The show has two gentlemen on staff whose job it is to do everything with clothes that I, after 37 years, am still unable to do. I just don't have my personal life sufficiently organized to know which shirts go with which pants and have them all cleaned and pressed at the same time. I have nothing but admiration for people who always seem to know that on Tuesday they pick up their slacks and on Thursday they pick up their shirts. I don't like doing it, I'm not any good at it and having people to do it for me is one of the great things about show business.
Playboy: You've occasionally been criticized, particularly after vacations, for your hair's being somewhat unkempt.
Letterman: Yes, yes. It's just that I never know when to get a haircut. I know that sounds odd, but if I get a haircut when I think I need one, I'm a week late. For a while, I was getting it cut every week, but that was too often. Hair, like clothing, is yet another aspect of life that after 37 years, I still haven't learned to manage by myself. Pretty pathetic, I'd say.
Playboy: Recently, you appeared visibly angry at a stupid-pet-tricks contestant who used his puppy like a bowling ball.
Letterman: Yeah, that was a mistake on our part. The dog wasn't hurt or even frightened, but we've been policing our stupid pet tricks a lot more carefully since then.
Playboy: Do you have an all-time favorite stupid pet trick?
Letterman: That would have to be the guy who trained his dog to go to the 7-Eleven store with a ten-dollar bill in a rubber band around its paw. The dog would pull a six-pack out of the freezer and put it on the counter. The cashier would take the money, put the beer and the change in a bag, and the dog would carry the bag home in its mouth.
Playboy: Do your dogs, Bob and Stan, do any stupid pet tricks?
Letterman: I like to think so. Bob sounds exactly the way I do when he eats potato chips. And if you give Stan the names of three early television comediennes—Bea Benaderet, Vivian Vance and Lucille Ball—the one he always chooses as his favorite is Lucille Ball. That comes, of course, not from watching Fifties television but from his association of the word ball with endless hours of fun. Nevertheless, it's a wonderfully stupid pet trick to sit Stan down and say, "OK, Stan, who did you like best? Did you like Bea Benaderet?" And, of course, there will be no response from Stan. So then you say, "How about Vivian Vance?" Again, nothing from Stan. "Stan, one more name: Lucille Ball." And suddenly he's up, running and jumping and making whelping noises. Now, you tell me: If that's not a network-quality stupid pet trick, what is?
Playboy: Who is Larry "Bud" Melman, and what is he doing on your show?
Letterman: He's an actor named Calvert DeForest who's done some theater and film work, but live TV is definitely not his strong suit. We thought he was a real odd touch and began looking for ways to incorporate him. I like the guy. He's not the best actor in the world, nor is he the best-looking man in the world, yet I find him genuinely entertaining.
Playboy: Continuing with the theme of strange people on your show, Pee-wee Herman is a frequent guest despite the fact that a sizable chunk of the American viewing public finds him objectionable.
Letterman: Pee-wee splits people right down the middle. They either really enjoy him or can't stand him. But to me, he's a great guest. A lot of brain power has gone into that little character he plays, and he executes some very witty material without straying from that context. He's a professional. He won't let you down. And you won't see Pee-wee Herman on The Tonight Show. In fact, I don't know where else you'll see him.
Playboy: One of your regular guests, Andy Kaufman, passed away this year. Be honest: When you first heard about his illness, did you think it was a prank?
Letterman: Yes, and so did the people who told me about it. Even after he was gone, people were saying, "Is Andy Kaufman really dead?" As sick as that sounds, I think that in a peculiar way, it's a tribute to Andy's unique talent. I think exaggerated eulogies are in poor taste, so I'm not going to pretend to have considered Andy America's best value for your entertainment dollar just because he's gone. But he was one of my favorite guests and we had him on the show as often as we could get him, because I think it's important to have guests who annoy the public. It feels good to scream at the TV once in a while, to go to work the next day and tell everyone how annoyed you are. Andy was a real showman. And he was unique.
Playboy: Do you watch much TV?
Letterman: If there's a show I like, such as Cheers, I'll make a point of watching it. But I don't like too many others.
Playboy: Do you follow Dallas or Dynasty or Hill Street Blues?
Letterman: No, and I don't think I'd recognize Joan Collins if I backed up over her in my truck. But I must say I do enjoy watching The Love Boat. To me, that's American TV at it's finest.
Playboy: Because it's so bad?
Letterman: I won't go on record saying The Love Boat is bad TV. It's solid American fare, and there's no mystery as to why it has succeeded. Every week, people from other television shows are thrown together in what's presented as a glamorous circumstance. And I get a kick out of that. But I do love bad TV. And I, too, must confess to loving the Jerry Lewis telethon. One summer, Merrill and I had a house in the Hamptons and we couldn't get the channel the telethon was on. So I built a big roof antenna myself just to watch that one show. A volatile guy in a volatile circumstance with no sleep in front of a live Las Vegas audience at two in the morning—you just don't get that kind of excitement anywhere else.
Playboy: Building your own antenna? You must be a pretty handy guy.
Letterman: Yes, and I'm very resourceful. I'd be good in prison. I'd be good in a shipwreck. I'd make a great hostage. Oh, I have talents aplenty. Unfortunately, precious few of them have any redeeming social value.
Playboy: Did you catch Jerry Lewis' talk show this past summer?
Letterman: Oh, yes. And I think that if that show gets a fair shot this fall, it will find a wide audience. There apparently are millions of people in this country who have a reverential attitude toward show business and show-business personalities, and those people couldn't get a more crystallized offering than The Jerry Lewis Show. Every single guest was treated with relentless adulation. I watched it every night and found it most entertaining.
Playboy: Aside from comedy and baseball, what interests you?
Letterman: Last night, I went to sleep thinking about the new solar system they've discovered. I did a sort of exercise in which I placed myself first on this planet, then in this solar system, then in this galaxy, then in the universe. It gave me a floating feeling of helplessness that I found curiously pleasant.
Letterman: Because it took the pressure off. I mean, who am I fooling here? There are other things going on in the universe besides a nightly talk show. And there may even be other realities beyond this universe. For all we know, our entire universe may exist in a Styrofoam beer cooler in somebody's garage.
Playboy: You've mentioned Bill Murray and Pee-wee Herman. Who else makes you laugh?
Letterman: That's a long list of folks, and I'd hate to just rattle off names, because I'll leave people out and feel bad later.
Playboy: That said, all the people you don't mention can assume you love them but just happened to forget them today.
Letterman: You don't know comedians; but, OK, here goes. John Candy always makes me laugh, regardless of what he's doing. When I was a kid, Jonathan Winters made me laugh really hard. Predictably, I always loved watching Steve Allen and Johnny Carson. I enjoy Bob Newhart's stand-up work, and I respect the fact that he's done successful TV shows over three decades. That really means something. Steve Martin is another guy who makes me laugh regardless of the context. And there's Bill Cosby, who's always good and has the special gift of making complex stand-up material seem effortless. Eugene Levy of SCTV has that same effortlessness in his comic acting. Richard Pryor's stuff is just flat-out state of the art. When I watch him, it's like a .180 hitter's watching Ted Williams take batting practice. Also in that class is George Carlin, because of his great technique, because he's so amazingly prolific and because he's gone from generation to generation and he's still right in there. Among the newer people, I like Jay Leno's observational comedy. I think he's very bright.
Playboy: How about comic actors?
Letterman: I have a lot of respect for Danny DeVito of Taxi, Andrea Martin of SCTV.… It's interesting: The more I think about it, the more people I think of—which I guess is a good sign.
Playboy: Well, it certainly seems that for a basically depressed guy, you spend a lot of time laughing.
Letterman: [Laughs] I suppose I do.
Playboy: What kind of humor don't you like?
Letterman: I don't like jokes about sex or bodily functions or drug use or the difference between New York and L.A. I never do any of that on our show. And I don't like stand-up comedy that requires a lot of props. I really respect people who can walk out onstage alone and with no other tool but their own minds and can make you laugh and maybe even think a little.
Playboy: Are you now or have you ever been a fan of Saturday Night Live?
Letterman: I rarely saw the original version, because I was always onstage at The Comedy Store at 11:30 Saturday nights, so my only clear memory of the original show is envy of those young performers who had such great jobs. Looking back at the reruns now, I think the underlying strength of the show was Dan Aykroyd's relentless pursuit of detail. Among the others, Jane Curtin had the gift of really going to work on things. Gilda Radner, of course, can pretty much do anything. You can put her in any situation and she's money in the bank. John Belushi brought a lot of energy to things. Bill Murray, as I've said, makes me laugh really hard every time out. I haven't seen the show enough since those days to comment on it.
Playboy: Do you find yourself hanging out mostly with show-business people?
Letterman: No, not at all.
Playboy: You and Merrill have been together for more than seven years, you're both in your mid-30s and still have no kids. Can you see your life being happy and fulfilled if you never have children?
Letterman: Probably not. The longer I'm in show business, the less I like it—and I know that's how America feels about me. So I've realized there are other things grownups should be and need to be concerned with—such as kids. A recent survey purports to prove that the majority of couples today who have children are sorry they had them. That certainly gives me pause. I'm also concerned that I won't be able to take care of a kid, God knows, I'm only marginally able to take care of myself. What if I suddenly got the kid's head caught in a revolving door? And having been married once, I'm perhaps a bit more shy to jump in again than Merrill is, who has never been married. But she's not as anxious as I am to start a family. So our relationship is sort of at a plateau.
Playboy: Rumors were strong this past summer that you and Merrill had become engaged.
Letterman: Well…I suppose we're engaged, yeah. When we get married, it will be to each other. We just can't seem to get around to getting married. We talk about it and make arrangements and then say, "Ahhh, let's wait a while." It's sad that at the age of 37 I can still be that silly about an important subject.
Playboy: Do you vote?
Letterman: No. With all this moving back and forth, my registration has lapsed and, well.…
Playboy: Do you consider yourself politically interested to any extent?
Letterman: If there were somebody who captured the interest of the people I respect, I'd probably be interested in voting for that person. But I know so little about politics that I'd never throw my support to one candidate or another. I'd hate to think there were people in America saying, "Well, hell, Letterman likes him; let's vote for the son of a bitch."
Playboy: Do you now consider yourself successful?
Letterman: No, but I am at the end of the road I always dreamed of traveling. For better or worse, this is the property I picked out of the catalog; I'm finally here.
Playboy: That must feel good.
Letterman: It removes a lot of self-imposed pressure. I'm relaxed enough to look around for the first time and perhaps explore those regions of the world that exist outside show business. Until now, I couldn't. One reason comics in particular tend to be such a peculiar and unhappy and not very well-adjusted group is that it's always you against the fucking world. When you're onstage, it's you against the audience. When you're at The Comedy Store, it's you against the other comedians—always that single-minded struggle. Now, suddenly, the struggle is over and I want to be involved in other things. I want to find out what real people do for a life. I want to be married and have a family and go on vacation—just do normal things.
Playboy: Like what?
Letterman: Like maybe even do something totally different for a living.
Playboy: Sell insurance, perhaps?
Letterman: Well, I'm having some work done on the house we own in Connecticut, and I find that fills me with endless glee. When I was a kid, a friend and I had a tree house that we never stopped building, because it was the work we loved, not the tree house. I could be a carpenter—just go down to the union hall and sign up for day labor. That would be nice. Merrill hates all that stuff, but I find it exhilarating. Maybe someday I'll quit show business and throw up a development of low-income tree houses.
Playboy: Do you handle your own financial affairs?
Letterman: No, I have people who do that for me, but nothing is done without my knowledge. I haven't just turned over a tubful of dough to these people and said, "Here you go, boys. Anything you want."
Playboy: Isn't that a little frightening, to give other people control of your money?
Letterman: Yeah, but on the other hand, when I was handling my own money, even when I wasn't making very much, I got myself into enough trouble to know that I'd be a fool to continue on a larger scale. Now people are going to read this and say, "That wimp. What a weasel!" Sure, it is embarrassing that a grown man can't look after his own affairs. But on the other hand, somebody's got to entertain this country.
Let me assure you that by TV standards, I don't make a hell of a lot of money. I just make a lot of money by real-life standards. That stuff is for the prime-time guys. The thing you really have to avoid—aside from going to prison for fucking up your taxes—is letting the money and the recognition a performer naturally receives make you feel like an especially worthwhile person. I have no evidence that I should feel anything but lucky for what has happened to me, and I certainly have no evidence that I'm a better person than anyone else. But most successful performers seem eventually to come to the conclusion that they are better people. It's amazing. And it's very silly.
Playboy: But the money is nice, and a famous name and face can make daily life a little bit easier for the celebrity than for the average person. What was it like for you when you started getting that recognition?
Letterman: I can remember being home for the holidays soon after I'd first hosted The Tonight Show. An old friend and I were doing Christmas shopping in Indianapolis, and some of the people who went by recognized me. One said, "Oh, look, there's Dave Letterman." And another said, "Are we supposed to be impressed?" And I remember thinking, You're right. You're not supposed to be impressed. If you happened to see me perform and I happened to make you laugh, great. That's all I'm in it for.
Playboy: Don't you like being recognized?
Letterman: Sure, I love being recognized as a guy who sometimes makes you laugh on those occasions when you've got nothing better to do than tune in to my show. But I hate the notion that celebrities deserve to be treated with some kind of deference. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't want to be a showbiz asshole. There are enough of them already. I don't mind being accused of being a bad comedian and I don't even mind being accused of being a bad talk-show host, but I never want to be accused of being an arrogant, pompous showbiz asshole.
Playboy: Sounds like you're writing your epitaph.
Letterman: I couldn't hope for a better one: "Dave Letterman. He Wasn't Funny, But He Wasn't an Asshole."
Photo by Benno Friedman