By Frank Moher
David Letterman’s brilliant skewering of Paris Hilton last Friday night, even as it confirms that he still has the old mojo, throws into relief just what went wrong with our boy Dave over two decades.
First an appreciation: Letterman’s performance was as good as the graceful jetés Johnny Carson was capable of on his best nights, and which led Kenneth Tynan to call him “a grand master of the one show-business art that leads nowhere” (by which Tynan meant that talk-show hosts are basically one-trick ponies, but there was none better than Carson). It encapsulated a basic appreciation of the absurdity of the situation — a powerful, 60 year-old showbiz icon yoked to a 26 year-old socialite best known for being known for nothing at all — and a hard-headed determination to exact the operative quid pro quo: she’d try to hawk her new perfume, he’d get ultimate tabloid value out of her.
What distinguished Letterman’s interrogation from, say, the gentle paddling Jay Leno would have given her wasn’t its cruelty so much as its sustained satirical guile. “I love you Paris!” shouted someone from the audience. “I love you too,” she replied, tossing her admirer a kiss. “Somebody you met in prison?” Letterman asked.
Granted, maybe the guy in the audience was a set-up, but then so, probably, was the moment back in 1976 when Carson left his studio to disrupt a taping of some now-forgotten Don Rickles sit-com.
By definition, it doesn’t have to be genuine to be a great TV moment.
But here’s the thing: Letterman used to do this all the time. First on his short-lived morning show in 1980, and then on Late Night with David Letterman, he was routinely, breathtakingly rude to his guests, though usually in an offhand, “did he just say that?” sort of way. The effect was especially tonic in the morning — kind of like going to school and waiting to see what the smart-alecky kid in the back row would say next. When he moved to late night in 1982, his sarcasm ripened into something more like spleen; it doesn’t really do the job, but this clip from a 1982 interview with Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon Unit (apparently shot through the Hubble telescope) will gave you some idea of what I mean. Letterman is studiously decorous in discussing the stupid names Zappa gave his kids, then goes to a commercial with “I’m not sure why exactly, but we’ll be back to talk with Mr. Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon.”
Some people say Dave started to lose his bite with his move to CBS in 1993 — those flawless three-piece suits he started wearing did nothing for his frat-boy image. But I think it started long before that — specifically, back when he interviewed Cher and then Shirley MacLaine and started to develop a reputation for being misogynistic.
His new persona was largely unearned (to set the record straight: Cher didn’t call him an “asshole,” she said she thought he was an asshole), but by the time Madonna showed up in 1994 and called him “a sick fuck” he’d pretty much become feminist cannon fodder. This too was one of Dave’s classic performances (and probably the beginning of the end for Madonna). But when he starts doing his Johnny Carson impersonation in the clip below, he really does look like he’d rather be back in 1965 on the set of The Tonight Show.
The result was, before long, a kinder, gentler Dave — kinder, gentler, and a lot less funny. Until the other night, that is, when he decided to let go all the spite he’s been holding back while interviewing vacuous celebrities of both genders for the last 10-or-so years. The result has been the sort of buzz (three million views on youtube) that Leno once garnered with his interview of Hugh Grant, just after the latter’s arrest on lewd conduct charges. It was that buzz that propelled Leno past Letterman in the ratings, never to look back.
So here’s what I hope: I hope Letterman is emboldened by becoming this week’s viral video, and decides to bring the old Dave back for good. And that that, in turn, puts him back on on top of the Nielsens, so he can retire a few years from now a happy man. Happy as he looked back in 1980 when, in a tart little paradox, he was the nastiest thing on TV.