Friday, August 4, 2017

David Letterman’s Biographer Uncovers a Sad Clown

Yes, I stay up late, but it rarely occurs to me to watch television. So I’m trusting in Jason Zinoman -- who covers comedy for the New York Times and has written the masterful Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror – to guide me through the intricacies of David Letterman’s unique career as a comic and talk show host. His new bestselling biography is called Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night.

I discovered through Zinoman that one of Letterman’s original comic idols was mine was well: the late, great Steve Allen, who brought to his TV hosting duties (on the Tonight Show and elsewhere)  an antic spirit and a willingness to do pretty much anything (wacky visits to the Hollywood Ranch Market! custard pie fights with the studio audience!) for a laugh. Letterman, of course, did much of the same, dropping watermelons from high places and donning a Velcro suit to hang from the walls of his studio. Zinoman notes the similarities of these pranks, but also zeroes in on one key difference: “Steve Allen played the role of a game, if occasionally reluctant, guinea pig delighted to be part of his experiments. He followed jokes with a big, booming cackle. By contrast, Letterman didn’t appear to be having a good time, like a man forced into this situation.” What he contributed to the insanity onstage was his own ironic detachment. What we saw on his face, says Zinoman, was perilously close to misery.

Zinoman’s point is that David Letterman, though highly ambitious and determined to make his way in the comedy world, seemed almost congenitally unable to enjoy the laughs he generated. Zinoman carefully delineates the various stages of Letterman’s career, as he moved from an NBC morning show to NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman to CBS’s Late Night, as well as the crushing moment when he was denied the chance to follow Johnny Carson as permanent host of the Tonight Show. Letterman’s style evolved over time, but the man himself seemed to become less and less comfortable in his skin, and far less willing to collaborate with those whose job was to make him look good.

The story of Merrill Markoe is a particularly vivid one. When Letterman was a nobody, she was his girlfriend, also an aspiring comic as well as someone with a special flair for writing. As Letterman rose through the TV ranks, she masterminded his comic persona, contributing to his shows such off-the-wall features as “Stupid Pet Tricks” and “Viewer Mail,” as well as the remote featurettes that sent him out into the community, honing his native sarcasm through chance encounters with everyday folk. But Markoe couldn’t count on Letterman’s affection and gratitude forever. Eventually she moved on, only to be summoned back when he needed a quick sequence that would feature him in conversation with an office intern named Stephanie Birkitt. Eventually Markoe figured out what was going on—Letterman was having an affair with Birkitt behind the back of his then-wife. On her blog Markoe made a heartbreaking joke: “This is a very emotional moment for me because Dave promised me many times that I was the only woman he would ever cheat on.”

But David Letterman is far from a total egotist. One of the most powerful moments of his career came in the wake of 9/11. Reeling from the disaster that had hit his beloved New York City, he spoke to his audience candidly and with great emotion. David Letterman moving beyond irony was truly something to see.

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