The story of David Letterman and his epic, innovative and idiosyncratic run as a late-night talk show host isn’t really as funny as it is discomfiting.
But that’s more of a tribute than a criticism when it comes to Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night by New York Times comedy critic Jason Zinoman (Harper, 301 pp., ***½ out of four stars). Zinoman’s book is a behind-the-scenes examination of the show and the man that amounts to the last word on both.
While Johnny Carson’s exit from late night was the television equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Letterman’s legacy is, by contrast, somewhat undervalued — particularly when one considers that his 33-year stretch in late night exceeded all others. (Late Night with David Letterman ran on NBC from February 1982 to June 1993, followed by Late Show with David Letterman from August 1993 to May 2015 on CBS.)
Part of the reason, as Zinoman points out, might be Letterman himself.
On his final show, in fact, Letterman told the audience, “We have done over 6,000 shows, and I can tell you, a pretty high percentage of those shows absolutely sucked.”
It’s a comment that’s emblematic of the mischievous, self-deprecating, insecure, remote, self-loathing and sometimes contemptuous star.
“He became the host who didn’t believe in hosting,” according to Zinoman, “a truth-teller whose sarcasm rendered everything he said suspect, a mocking challenge to anyone who pretended to take the ridiculous world seriously.”
Zinoman (Searching for Dave Chappelle) covers Letterman’s entire career, beginning with his Indiana roots, but focusing largely on his years at NBC, calling them Letterman’s “most fertile era and the foundation of his artistic reputation.”
All the classic comedy bits, meta moments of humor as well as their roots — from “Stupid Pet Tricks” to the “Top Ten” list — are represented in detail as is their lasting impact on pop culture. Most significantly, however, Zinoman opens the door to a more thorough examination of Letterman’s collaborative (and often painfully remote) creative process with his staff and writers, particularly Merrill Markoe, the co-creator of Late Night with David Letterman, who also had a decade-long romantic relationship with the host.
What emerges in fresh detail and with considerable access is a man in full pursuit of his dreams yet deeply troubled by some of the success that came with it — an outsider who became an insider, a man whose personal life and professional life co-mingled in ways that were both dynamic and destructive and resulted in what one of Letterman’s writers called “the two Daves.”
“What David Letterman was truly committed to was a lack of commitment,” Zinoman writes. Which goes a long way toward explaining the beard Letterman hides behind these days.