I'm a millennial and I don't remember really wanting to watch late-night talk shows when I was a kid in my late-teens and early adult years. That being said, Jason Zinoman - renowned comedy critic and columnist for the New York Times - reached new heights with “Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night” by shining a light on the life of one of the most revered comics (though he's really not one) in David Letterman.
I always found David Letterman to be America's favorite uncle. In his later years on The Late Show, from what I saw, he came off as the guy you could tell the corniest joke and always feel like you killed the room with them laughing until they dropped. However, there was obviously much more than met the eyes.
Letterman was constantly a pessimistic perfectionist, going back to his college years. However, he was more rebellious in his approach to work. He never made friends with his bosses, especially during his Late Night days in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Johnny Carson was America’s favorite late-night talk show host, and in the shadow of an icon, Letterman would often do things differently. In no disrespect to Carson, Letterman didn’t want what he would consider stale banter during interviews. He’s the one who revolutionized man-on-the-street segments, and talking to random people, and punching props in opposition to the script. He wanted to be different, and he wanted to be perfect in pleasing his own aesthetic. He is unique in his own line of work, but there were multiple demons that propelled his full-fledged self-deprecation on and off the camera, as well as trying to compete with getting the last laugh.
On his journey to becoming the "king of late-night" (post-Johnny Carson), we come across some incredible revelations:
- Roger Ailes - former CEO of Fox News - was extremely close to working with Letterman as a producer. Ailes was pushed out of Fox News after multiple sexual harassment lawsuits were filed and/or settled against the embattled executive.
- Merrill Markoe, for those who are familiar with Letterman's past, was his longtime girlfriend and head writer on Late Night. She was approached by Letterman to help write material for the Olympics in Italy during Late Show. Come to find out, she was asked to write jokes for a woman who would perform the reports on camera. That performer turned out to be Stephanie Burkitt, with whom Letterman had an affair. Markoe didn’t discover the latter until a few years after the fact.
- This is probably the most incredible of what I read. After the reveal of Letterman having multiple affairs with women who worked for him, he was getting destroyed in the news, tabloids, and everywhere else media existed. He would often do what they call “post-mortem” meetings upon the show’s end each night. However, he would use that time to avoid talking about anything show-related and display incredibly emotional sides of him that nobody was used to. It was as if he was venting to his work family to avoid dealing with the problems at home.
In essence, David Letterman’s human side is what we should cherish most. We are not normalizing the awful things that he’s done to become what he is today. He’s inspired countless comedians and actors and entertainers to be who they are, as well as paying homage to Letterman in skits that he had originated on both Late Night and The Late Show.
Zinoman – also the author of Shock Value and Searching for Dave Chappelle – pulls no punches and leaves no stone unturned about the man who not only set himself apart from the competition in late-night television, but also providing a unique perspective on what it’s like to achieve success in your craft, coupled with leaving no prisoners in the ashes of the fires you set along the way. This was achieved in also coming to the realization that it only takes a moment or two to put everything into perspective and appreciate all that is around you.