An in-depth interview with David Letterman is about as rare as it gets. But before the Late Show host heads off into the sunset on May 20, The New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff got the chance to ask him questions about his career, legacy and future. Below are the highlights.
He Knows He Doesn’t Have the Energy of ‘The Jimmys’
“When I was watching those interim shows they did on The Late Late Show, and I saw John Mayer hosting one night, I thought, ‘Ohhhh, now I see exactly what the problem is.’ Because he’s young. He’s handsome. He’s trim. He’s witty. He was comfortable. So then I realized, I got nothing to worry about. I know I can’t do what Jimmy Fallon’s doing. I know I can’t do what Jimmy Kimmel is doing. There’s nothing left to be worried about… I’m 68. If I was 38, I’d probably still be wanting to do the show. When Jay was on, I felt like Jay and I are contemporaries. Every time he would get a show at 11:30, he would succeed smartly. And so I thought, This is still viable — an older guy in a suit. And then he left, and I suddenly was surrounded by the Jimmys.”
He Has Little Interest in Going ‘Viral’
Similarly, while Fallon and Kimmel have become experts at creating “viral” that bring their shows to an audience that would never watch an actual television at 11:35 p.m., Letterman has seemingly made no effort to do the same.
“[The internet ‘arms race’] just came and went without me. It sneaked up on me and went right by. People on the staff said, ‘You know what would be great is if you would join Twitter.’ And I recognized the value of it. It’s just, I didn’t know what to say. You go back to your parents’ house, and they still have the rotary phone. It’s a little like that.”
Stephen Colbert Was Not Necessarily His First Choice as a Replacement
CBS moved unusually quickly to secure Stephen Colbert as Letterman’s successor, but they did so without his input or consultation.
“I always thought Jon Stewart would have been a good choice. And then Stephen. And then I thought, well, maybe this will be a good opportunity to put a black person on, and it would be a good opportunity to put a woman on. Because there are certainly a lot of very funny women that have television shows everywhere. So that would have made sense to me as well… Just as a courtesy, maybe somebody would say: ‘You know, we’re kicking around some names. Do you have any thoughts here?’ But it doesn’t bother me now. At the time, I had made the decision [to leave] and I thought, O.K., this is what comes when you make this decision.”
He Doesn’t Think His Rivalry with Jay Leno Was ‘Overblown’
And it was that underdog status that helped keep the Late Show weird.
“It would have happened if I’d have gotten the Tonight Show, and he would have come here. I think people are curious to see, well, what will happen? And we prevailed for a while, and then I lost my way a little bit. Quite a little bit. And at that point, there was not much I could do about it. People just liked watching his show more than they liked watching my show… It didn’t start to settle down until it couldn’t be more clear that Jay was the more popular show. And when we all realized that there’s not much we can do here — you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube — then we started going our own way again. I think it was just inevitability. The guy in the race who spends more time looking over his shoulder, well, that’s the mistake. For two years, I made that mistake. We ran out of steam.”
He Didn’t Think He ‘Sex Scandal’ Would Be That Big of a Deal
In 2009, Letterman briefly became tabloid fodder when he was blackmailed after having an affair with a woman who worked on his show. Did he think at the time it might “be the end” of his career?
Looking at it now, yes, I think they would have had good reason to fire me. But at the time, I was largely ignorant as to what, really, I had done. It just seemed like, O.K., well, here’s somebody who had an intimate relationship with somebody he shouldn’t have had an intimate relationship with. And I always said, ‘Well, who hasn’t?’ to myself. But then, when I was able to see from the epicenter, the ripples, I thought, yeah, they could have fired me. But they didn’t. So I owe them that.
His Last Show Will Be More ‘Upbeat’ Than Johnny Carson’s
People tend to remember Johnny Carson’s second-to-last show, in which Bette Midler sang “One for My Baby,” than they do his actual last episode, which contained mostly clips. But either way, Letterman insists he is going in a different direction.
“I have decided what I will do, yes. And I know of other things that are being worked on… [Carson’s final show] was fantastic. I can remember when he signed off that night, it just left you [with] a nagging sense of loss. This doesn’t apply here. I want it to be a little more cheery. And I want it to be upbeat, and I want it to be funny, and I want people to be happy that they spent the time to watch it. Of course, Johnny’s last show was historic. This one won’t be.”
Read the full interview at nytimes.com.
[Photo via screengrab]
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