David Letterman Shares His Honest Opinion on Late-Night TV
Distance has given David Letterman some perspective.
In a rare public appearance, the comedian appeared in the season premiere of his friend Norm Macdonald‘s podcast Monday. Forty minutes into the conversation, Macdonald said he wished there were fewer talk shows. “At one point, there was two shows: The 11:30 p.m. show and the 12:30 a.m. show, Johnny Carson and David Letterman,” he said. “Now, there are 100 Johnny Carsons and no David Letterman. I mean, there are 100 11:30 p.m. shows. The shows are indistinct.” Letterman interrupted, asking if Macdonald meant they are “all the same template.”
“Do whatever you want. I think you are bound by the pressure of who is writing the checks. Don’t you think so?” Letterman asked. “I mean, good Lord—how do you get away with this?”
Macdonald was curious about the title of Letterman’s old show. “What about this? The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, you followed that show at 12:30,” he said. “You called your show Late Night With David Letterman—not Starring David Letterman—but With David Letterman.”
“First of all, you can call it whatever you want. But I was embarrassed. I could not possibly—and still don’t—consider myself a star, because I couldn’t refer to myself as a star. Johnny Carson was a star, there’s no question of that. So, for me to adopt that—Starring Dave Letterman—that was just ridiculous,” Letterman said. “In the same way, I always cringe a little when people refer to the folks who watch their show as their ‘fans.’ I just think that’s a little too…you know, you kind of just stepped over the line of basic humility there. To call myself a ‘star’ didn’t go.”
Macdonald was interested in finding out why Letterman followed many of Carson’s traditions, like sitting behind a desk, while Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin did their own thing when they hosted their own respective late-night shows. “There were certain rules of television that were never to be violated. Like, Johnny had a desk. I think Steve Allen before him had a desk. Not Merv and not Mike, and I always thought those were peculiar shows. I thought those were experiments—like something Luther Burbank had concocted, that the graft hadn’t taken,” Letterman said. “I thought, ‘OK, those are on-offs.’ It’s daytime, it’s quiet, its Philadelphia, it’s no desk—don’t go near that…I just thought, ‘OK, there are certain things you cannot mess with.'”
Admittedly, decisions regarding the show’s format weren’t entirely up to Letterman. Carson’s “lookout guy,” Dave Tebet, was “his go-between between the network and the show,” he said. “He came in and told us what we couldn’t do: We couldn’t have a band more than four pieces; I couldn’t do a monologue; I could do like three jokes; We couldn’t have any of the Tonight Show guests; and other things. One time he came in and he told us, ‘Let me give you an idea of what we expect. Let’s just say Bob Hope is arrested for selling drugs’—and this was the scenario that we had to be leery of—’Don’t make jokes about Bob Hope being arrested for selling drugs.'”
Letterman—who signed off the air in 2015 and was replaced by Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert—is happy now that he’s no longer on television every night. “For a long time I didn’t miss it because there was still the high of having sort of completed this,” he said. But might he ever return to TV? “I’ve done it for 30 years,” Letterman said. “I don’t want to do it anymore.”
Norm Macdonald Live is currently in its third season.