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'The Epitome Of New York Cool': Letterman Biographer On Late Night Icon


David Letterman hosted late night TV for more than three decades with his own brand of quirky funny, like stupid human tricks, throwing a watermelon off a roof and those daily top 10 lists, such as the top 10 things that sound cooler when a rapper says them.


DAVID LETTERMAN: And the number one thing that sounds cool when said by Snoop Dogg.

SNOOP DOGG: I'm just a simple old hockey mom from Alaska, you betcha (ph).


LETTERMAN: There you go.

MCEVERS: It was weird and it was funny. But still, Letterman had this cool detachment that kept people guessing about who he really was and how he became the person he was. Jason Zinoman set to find all that out in his new book, "Letterman: The Last Giant Of Late Night." Zinoman is a comedy critic for The New York Times. He interviewed a bunch of Letterman's friends, family, coworkers and, yes, Letterman himself. And Zinoman says yeah, Letterman could be cranky and aloof. But at the same time, he was relatable to almost everyone.

JASON ZINOMAN: Letterman seemed to me as, like, the epitome of New York cool.


ZINOMAN: Which is bizarre when you think about the fact he comes from Indiana. And I think that's one of the - you know, the interesting accomplishments that he had as a broadcaster, is he could appeal to both sides.

MCEVERS: In the book, you describe his career as having these three great artistic periods. What were they?

ZINOMAN: Well, the first period is - began on the morning show in 1980 and goes to 1984. In a lot of ways that was partly defined by Merrill Markoe, who was his, you know, girlfriend and artistic collaborator. And this was a much more kind of writerly show. The writers really had a huge impact on it. And they did a lot of innovative, clever conceptual work around a host who at that time seemed more like a traditional broadcaster. His second period is when he starts to get famous and the show kind of becomes bigger and more visually ambitious. That's when you have, like, the monkey cam and you have...


ZINOMAN: ...The Velcro wall and more spectacle. And then in the last period his writers become less important and he is more open in terms of storytelling. He turns his own life into comedy and his own kind of prickly personality into comedy more often. So you move from the first version of a kind of conventional-looking host surrounded by this crazy show to the third period when you have this fascinatingly eccentric host surrounded by what's a more traditional talk show.

MCEVERS: You know, how important of an influence was Merrill Markoe on David Letterman? I mean, would you write a Letterman book today if it weren't for Merrill Markoe?

ZINOMAN: No. I mean, I think one of the arguments of this book is that Merrill Markoe is the unsung hero of Letterman's career. This is not a new thing. You know, people have pointed out that she has been - she was important to him and even the first head writer. But I hope the book kind of puts some meat on the bones of this argument. We think about talk shows as all about the host. And the truth is that these are much more collaborative affairs than people realize.

MCEVERS: Tell me about it (laughter).

ZINOMAN: Yeah, you know. Exactly. You know. I mean, it's - I mean, you get all the credit and you get all the blame, right? The - but she created the remotes that...

MCEVERS: The remotes. You mean the story - like, field stories.

ZINOMAN: Exactly.


ZINOMAN: This idea of going into the - onto the street and talking to normal people and cutting it into a comedy piece that was not scripted was a relative - it wasn't unprecedented, but was a relatively new idea. You know, stupid pet tricks she came up with, viewer mail she came up with. Merrill Markoe was a comedy genius in her own right.

MCEVERS: It's interesting that he was normally so aloof on stage. You write that he actually - he had this smirk on his face like there was a joke that only he knew but, you know, didn't have to tell anyone else. And that was kind of his move. But then there were these vulnerable moments. At one point he was famously being blackmailed by someone who threatened to reveal that he was having an affair with a member of his staff. He actually talked about it on the show. Let's hear just a clip of that.


LETTERMAN: Now, my response to that is yes, I have.


LETTERMAN: I have had sex with women who work on this show.


LETTERMAN: And would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Perhaps it would. Perhaps it would, especially for the women.


MCEVERS: He made a joke out of that. But he also had this, you know, really serious moment right after 9/11. He also introduced the doctors that performed his - you know, his quintuple bypass. From what you found out, how did he decide to let his guard down like this?

ZINOMAN: I think in both of those cases events forced his hand. The affair - he had to address it somehow. And, I mean, think about the amount of times you've seen politicians do news conferences having to confess affairs and how badly it's gone.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

ZINOMAN: Nobody has ever done that better than David Letterman.

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Right.

ZINOMAN: I mean, that was - they should study that at, you know, whatever, the Kennedy School or something...

MCEVERS: Right, make it into a joke (laughter).

ZINOMAN: I mean, you heard that clip you just played. They're applauding and laughing...

MCEVERS: Yeah, right.

ZINOMAN: ...After the confession. And I think there's something tremendously moving about a guy who is normally not very emotional, who normally is a little repressed allowing himself to be vulnerable like that.

MCEVERS: There was - there was darkness, too, right? I mean, this is not a guy who is super happy-go-lucky. I mean, there was a reason that that persona came across on the air of someone, you know, with kind of this ironic smirk at times and at other times kind of cranky, right? I mean, did you - did people who worked with him, you know, confirm that narrative?

ZINOMAN: Yeah. I mean, that was a consistent refrain. I mean, I would often ask, you know, what was the happiest you ever saw David Letterman to people he knew, and then there was usually a long pause. You know, the - and...

MCEVERS: (Laughter) Wow.

ZINOMAN: But, I mean, I think the - you know, the context of this is before David Letterman, late night talk shows had the mood and spirit of, like, local TV banter - a lot of puffery, a lot of forced smiles, a lot of promoting your movies. And Letterman came along and he showed some antagonism toward show business. He showed his mood. If he thought you were, you know, full of hot air he let you know it. And I think he spoke for a lot of people in the audience who were like, finally, someone is...


ZINOMAN: Someone on TV is saying the way we all feel. I mean, I think that the darkness is integral to understanding his greatness.

MCEVERS: How do you think David Letterman will be remembered?

ZINOMAN: I think he'll be remembered as somebody who revolutionized the television talk show, who created a template and a vocabulary for irreverent, innovative work in that form. And I think he'll be remembered as a - you know, the rare comedian with gravitas, a figure who could speak after 9/11 and a figure who when he left his show people cried. This was a person who had an incredible intimate relationship with, you know, this country.

MCEVERS: Jason Zinoman, author of "Letterman: The Last Giant Of Late Night." Thank you very much.

ZINOMAN: Thank you. This was great.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOCEAN WORKER'S "TICKLE IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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