“…Letterman inspired an entire generation of comedians. He created a blueprint that was followed by almost every late-night show with an adventurous bent, and helped define a sensibility that changed the entire culture.”
-Jason Zinoman (from Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night)
During my college years there were few options for after primetime comedy/variety/talk shows. Most nights I watched The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, then Late Night with David Letterman and finally Later with Bob Costas. From 11:30 pm to 2 am I could rely on being entertained and even informed; a terrific one-two-three punch that was unrivaled at the time despite having no real network competition. (Even today I defy anyone to find a line-up to match the aforementioned in quality.) The highlight for me was always Late Night; I felt a real connection with the show and its host, or more like anti-host, David Letterman. (In fact I remain such a life-long devotee that to this day I still have the last two editions of his CBS talk show saved on my Videotron box.) The acerbic and enigmatic TV “personality” is the subject of the new book Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night by columnist and journalist Jason Zinoman.
The author begins Letterman by telling an interesting personal tale of attending a taping of Late Show with David Letterman as a young man (I have a story of a similar experience on my blog called A Souvenir of Letterman @ http://essaysbyandreas.blogspot.ca/2016/06/a-souvenir-of-letterman.html), almost gushing over how big a fan he was. The rest of the book is a biography that covers all of Letterman’s life from his boyhood in Indiana to his recent retirement; conveying to the reader a detailed account of the man, the entertainer, his shows and his legacy.
Zinoman claims to be an enthusiast, but reading the book I started having my doubts. He is harshly critical of Letterman and often gets hung up on analyzing and over-analyzing his on-air persona and personal behaviour, making him seem like some kind of pathetic, unsympathetic sociopath. In several chapters it happens almost non-stop, leaving me frustrated and annoyed; it felt like the author was trying to understand Letterman but yet the book has no real revelations or original conclusions.
Zinoman omits many of the positive aspects of Letterman’s character, like how loyal he is (having invited the cast of the film Independence Day to his show after his name was mentioned in the movie) or that he gave Penn & Teller their first exposure to a national audience, or his friendship with the late Warren Zevon, whose last appearance on the Late Show after being diagnosed with terminal cancer was a moving, profound moment in late-night talkshow history. With more than 30 years on the air and over 6000 shows, there is bound to be awkward moments, love affairs, and conflicts between staff. Why focus so heavily on that? How about just a little more on the innumerable comedians or bands who had their big breaks on his broadcast? And his Kennedy Center honour?
Letterman contains numerous redundancies, like using the word “irreverent” or “irreverence” more than 15 times. Zinoman has a broad vocabulary (on full display in the book), couldn’t he come up with any synonyms? I can think of 3 offhand (derisive, iconoclastic, impertinent) and here are 3 more (sassy, crusty, cheeky). I also have issue with some of his facts, for example on page 243 he describes show regulars Mujibur and Sirajul as the “owners” of the gift shop next door, K & L’s Rock America. I know for a fact they were just employees (I went to the store in 1995 and met the actual owner). And on page 279 Zinoman lists Rudy Giuliani as a guest on Letterman’s first show back after 9/11 (aired on September 17, 2001), but in fact Dave’s guests that night were a tearful Dan Rather and the ubiquitous Regis Philbin. (Although a regular on the Late Show, the former Big Apple Mayor was not a guest on that evening’s broadcast.)
As a long-time “Lettermanic” I was hoping the book would be an illuminating stroll down memory lane, giving me a better understanding of a man I call one of my idols. Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night is instead tiresome and disappointing and the mysterious Mr. Letterman remains inscrutable.
And here are 3 more (flippant, impudent, profane).