My hero, Larry King, said in a recent USA Today column, ”You look up ‘consistently funny’ in the dictionary, you get a picture of David Letterman.” I agree, as usual, with Mr. King (”I hate pens with thin points”: Holy cow! Me too!), but lately it often seems as if he and I are outnumbered by people who either don’t like or don’t get Late Night With David Letterman. I hear the complaints all the time. ”Oh, Letterman was so mean to Mickey Rooney last night!” ”Did you see the way he treated Sean Young? And she was trying so hard to be nice!” ”What’s Letterman’s problem, anyway?”
The cranky, gap-toothed Indiana man-boy has been rankling both guests and viewers for nine years now, and, presuming that an angry mob doesn’t torch his set before then, Letterman will celebrate his 10th year of Late Night next February. Think of it: A decade of Dave, with no notable ratings slippage, and many people are still troubled by the conspiratorial, you-and-me-against-show-biz pact he tries to strike with his viewers.
Basically, I think Letterman’s ”problem” is that he’s a victim of the New Primness, the entertainment version of Political Correctness. Under the unstated laws of the New Primness, you’re not supposed to say anything mean or funny about anyone, ever, lest you offend the delicate sensibilities of even one person in the United States.
Thus, by the rules of the New Primness, Letterman was inflicting cruel and unusual punishment upon Mickey Rooney when, a few months ago, the host prevented the diminutive actor from continuing with the same ceaseless, addled plugging of his new autobiography that he had inflicted upon many other talk shows in the preceding days. Letterman, the cad, actually tried to ask Rooney a few questions about his career — can you imagine the gall?
Similarly, the New Primness would deem it unforgivable for Letterman to snap, as he did recently when baby-faced actor Steve Guttenberg moaned that he was ”getting old,” ”Oh, come on — get in a cab and get outta here!”
Why don’t people realize that Dave’s ”bad attitude” derives not from contempt for his guests but from intense identification with his audience? He proceeds from the premise that, when confronted with a pretentious, vague, or self-promoting guest, he should say the kinds of things we all wish talk show hosts would say — amusing variations on ”Let’s change the subject, shall we?” or ”Ah, come off it.”
It used to be that viewers appreciated talk show hosts who guided guests past mere promotions of their latest movie/book/TV special. When Letterman tries to do this, it’s interpreted as meanness. The most depressing thing about the New Primness is that we already know the results: Many big-name stars who want to plug-plug-plug without being ribbed about it have defected to The Arsenio Hall Show, where the host is endlessly amenable to empty chatter.
Viewers turned off by Letterman’s sarcasm are currently missing out on a Dave who has really hit his stride. It may be because he’s more confident or (more likely) because he’s just bored out of his skull, but Late Night has an air of improvised looseness that’s enormous fun these days. His latest running gag — a pledge to pitch ”one half inning of shutout baseball” for any major-league club that will have him (”or the tickets are on me”) — is a good joke that, who knows, may turn into a great stunt if some smart (or desperate) team takes him up on his boast.
That’s the best thing about Letterman — you never know. Was he, for example, kidding one night not long ago when he told bandleader Paul Shaffer about the owl that had accidentally flown into his Connecticut home? I was willing to buy it until Letterman claimed he had lured the owl out with ”a head of lettuce…the cheap, iceberg kind.”
Whether he’s rattling off ”The Top 10 Least Popular L.L. Bean Catalog Items” (”goose-down condoms” got the loudest applause) or introducing ”leggy supermodel Elle Macpherson” or having one of his periodic contests with talent coordinator Mary Connelly, to see who can toss the most footballs into a wastepaper basket (Connelly, possessed of a tireless, rapid-fire arm, usually wins), Letterman remains the best talk show host on the air. Ironic, goofy, and unpredictable, he’s mean to all the right people. A