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David Letterman In Conversation With Susan Morrison At Mastercard Stage at SVA Theatre 1


the lion in winter


David Letterman is the second greatest late night talk show host in US history, and if that sounds like one caveat too many, well it isn’t. It puts the great funny man at the forefront of American culture from the 80s till his retirement last year, with over 6000 shows to his credit, between his brilliant NBC Late Night, and, less dazzling, Late Show on CBS. But what he wasn’t was likable, or cuddly, or even easy going. In my only contact with the man, an attempt to get an interview for Creem in the 80s that found me jumping hoops getting his manager Jack Rollins approval, before being given a curt no after being put on hold for 45 minutes, I have no doubt, he was an asshole to me.  I loved him anyway of course, and happily our relationship remained on the same keel with Letterman shouting “I bet you were fired, weren’t you.?You were fired…”  as I headed back to my seat after delivering  the only hard question of the entire  “David Letterman In Conversation With Susan Morrison” performance yesterday evening at Mastercard Stage at SVA Theatre 1 (I questioned how he left CBS). There was a strain of aggression running through Letterman’s  work, that survived and thrived last night, even  during Susan Morrison’s softball obsequious questioning, a waste of a rare opportunity to figure the great man out (No, Morrisson, he didn’t invent irony, that would be Alanis Morissette).   The features editor at the New Yorker would never have let one of her writers getaway with such claptrap. Who is she protecting? David? He wouldn’t return the favor. Give her a one on one with Jesus and she would have asked about carpentry.

This problem became very clear during a discussion of Leno and the Tonight Show: Leno consistently beat Letterman in the ratings wars and while Susan was baffled by it, Letterman forthrightly explained how at first he blamed the weak lead ins (not in those words, but that’s what he meant) but in the end came to peace with people simply liking Leno more. They were both missing the point: it was a question of time period, Leno was a less alarming close to the night, he soothed the audience with banalities, Letterman battled them with barbed wire comedy. Carson was better than both, and better than the current generation of hosts, because he maneuvered between the two.

Watching Letterman in the corner during the introductions, his full bush of a white beard is less Santa Claus, and more Tolstoy, as Helen Bach noted, it reminded me of the man during the commercials while filming the Late Show, it is like a curtain is waiting to be risen. Dave is tall, healthy, handsome, gone are his trademark gym shoes: the brown shoes are glistening, the suit impeccable, the temperament both dodgy and kind, the smile non existent till he hits the stage. The biggest change between early and latter day Letterman, is that latterday, the last coupla years, perhaps as far back as post heart surgery, Dave, had bigger problems turning the switch back on. He seemed testy, out of sorts, not getting off on the job the way he used to. None of which Susan mentions even remotely.

The evening began with the de rigeur battering of Donald Trump, and while Letterman’s wish to give him a good talking to was perhaps the best take possible given the circumstance, I am getting a little tired of all the Trump bashing, myself. As has been noted, if you paint him in too broad strokes, all he has to do is not appear to be as crazy as we know he is, and he wins. Leave him to his own devices, he doesn’t need stuff like the current, silly, controversy. And we don’t need Morrison’s salivating over the opportunity to let David loose on the Donald. When asked if he missed the opportunity of joking on Trump during this election cycle, David noted how he would have gotten tired of it after awhile and that since the Donald doesn’t stand a chance of winning, we can all relax. Later in the evening, towards the end, he noted that while he didn’t miss television, he missed his friends, especially Paul Shaffer (who I’ve also met and who is truly one of the industries nicest people) and also the way performance ritualized his life: something he had to get used to not having. I would guess the nearly 70 year old man’s opportunity to spend so much time with his thirteen year old son Harry (an adorable looking kid, a coupla seats away from me, who refused to stand when Daddy asked him) makes up for a lot of it.

With the niceties out of the way, Morrison attempts to get Letterman to discuss his craft and while answering every question in detail, David isn’t really being forthright. There is no doubt that masters of comedy like Merrill Markoe, show runners like Rob Burnett, and his excellent director Hal Gurtner…Gurnter… GURNEE were a huge part of Letterman’s programs, David makes precisely one smart observation (Gurnee getting a second joke that wasn’t there through cutting away to reaction shots), the rest is boilerplate. This is Susan’s fault, we signed up for neither a testimonial nor an infotainment, but that is what we got. I am sure Susan was being polite, she saw herself as setting it up so Letterman could be Letterman, could present the lion in winter as he chose fit. OK, but we aren’t discussing a man who doesn’t know how to handle himself, he can deal with the hard questions: of success, of transition, and of decline. Undoubtedly the show declined, is it bad manners to ask him what happened? There is a million miles between refusing to make videos that might go viral, and failing to follow up traffic lights races or the girl who worked in an office opposite the studio, with anything remotely as funny. It is a disservice to Letterman, the audience, and herself not to get to the root of Letterman’s success and failures. I am not even referring to the latter scandals that occurred, I am referring to the sea change in Letterman as he grew older and how it happened and why. David was in his mid-thirties when he hit big, no longer the big somewhat goofy gap-toothed mid-Western kid, but a solid professional playing hari kari with America’s late night habits (he was extremely funny early on as a weatherman, congratulating on a storm being upgrading to a hurricane). From there, the late night wars left him bruised and Late Show’s edge was angrier and became angrier still. At the end, as he said in reply to my question, he had a one year contract, Les Moonves might had been able to renew it but chose not to so, so  no, he wasn’t, technically,  fired. He also mentioned (if I understood him correctly) that he wanted a woman to take over from him. He wasn’t aware of Suzanne Bee’s show on TBS. He also claimed to go to sleep to late to watch his Late Show descendants, a stupid comment I’d have knocked right back at him. Really, that’s why? Now, that might have proven interesting, perhaps he hasn’t heard of Hulu or DVRs.

If this is all a little bit rough on Morrison, she is a well paid media pro and should have done a better job. If I appear to calling out Letterman as a sophisticat, I am. He is so smart he can answer everything and still not say much we didn’t already know. One thing he did tell us is that his beloved Mom, Dorothy, just celebrated her 95th birthday while mistaking homemade butter for hand cream at her party. And he can still riff on nothing, suggesting, several times, that FDR might have appeared on the show once. He claimed Hillary Clinton is a very nice woman (I am sure she is…. to him). He is still funny, he still has great timing, and he still has a strange just below the surface hostility (maybe he doesn’t like people asking if he was fired?) Oh, and he has just made a documentary about Global Warming and  India, where they plan to get solar based electricity to the 300 million plus people who currently have no electricity at all: as Letterman noted, the country with access to renewable energy will eventually rule the world. This is a special on National Geo, owned by Fox, who own Fox News, who are shilling for Trump, which leads us back to where we started. Of course, neither Morrison nor anyone else bothered noting it.

Grade: B

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