As readers of Marvel comics know, there isn’t just one universe, but many of them. Perhaps you’ve read the New York Times interview with David Letterman in one universe. We thought you might want to read the Times interview from the universe where Dave’s career had a slightly different path:
This week, David Letterman retires after 23 highly successful years as host of The Tonight Show. We caught up with the legendary host and asked him to share his thoughts.
Hi Dave. I’d like to start by quoting an Esquire cover story about you from September 1991, shortly after the decision was made to replace Johnny Carson with you and not with Jay Leno.
Sure, go ahead.
“His joke – powerful enough to convert part of a generation – was that his audience, his life, his network, the very medium of television, was just…getting in his hair!” That’s their italics. Uh, you, along with performers like your first guest on Late Night and The Tonight Show, Bill Murray, were “giving us the message that he or she was not really in the movie [or show], but outside of it, somehow in legion with us. Anyone who could give us the feeling that we were bigger than this…that we share a sensibility that is larger than the script.” This was contrasted to Leno, who was seen as too hardworking and sincere.
That’s for you guys to say, not me.
Jay Leno has been doing well for twenty-plus years at CBS, hosting his own Late Show, but Jay has mostly had to settle for number two, while you’ve mostly stayed number one. Is that because of something you did, or the strength of the brand Johnny left you, or the strength of the NBC brand?
Maybe a little bit of all of it. Certainly we’ve appreciated the strength in NBC comedy over the years.
Don’t you think you’ve affected that a bit, with your sort of promotion of irony?
I have to unironically say I doubt it.
You and Seinfeld seemed to get huge at the same time, reflecting or pioneering a kind of baby boomer isn’t-this-all-silly? sensibility. And then Friends became this bitter, angry show, which people loved. And then all the Stupid Human Tricks on The Office, the Top Ten Lists on 30 Rock, the Monkey-Cam on Parks and Rec, all tremendously successful…amazing.
I guess we’ve been lucky.
Meanwhile CBS has become the old-person network, identified with Jay Leno and CSI episodes – this great lumbering dinosaur.
Well, they’re doing okay, aren’t they?
But you and Lorne Michaels basically own America’s young eyeballs every night at 11:30 except Sunday. And that’s translated not just into NBC staying #1 among networks, but also into this era of YouTube-based comedy.
That’s very nice of you to say.
Do you remember how you exactly got the job at The Tonight Show?
Well, you know I’ve never talked about this, but I suppose I can admit this now: I went against my instincts, accepted the advice of some people close to me, and actually asked NBC for it. Jay Leno had also asked for it. The executives at the time were a little concerned about…well…
All your jokes at NBC’s expense?
But that’s what’s made NBC America’s favorite network. It’s all irony anyway, right?
Ha. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel I’m seeing the real you when we see your mom – at every Olympics since 1996. I mean, those have been fun, haven’t they?
I love my Mom, whether she’s in Sochi or Schenectady. Thank God she lets us fool around on her show.
Well, and there was the real you after 9/11, leading the nation in healing.
Not sure we did that, but thanks for saying that.
That reminds me of a weird story. You’ve had Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on your show a few times since you took over The Tonight Show. You two seem to get along quite well.
Sandra is an American treasure.
I heard that she came to you for private advice on Bush v. Gore, and you encouraged her to her to honor Florida’s Supreme Court. In other words, to make Gore President. Which she did, in that infamous 5-4 decision.
I think we might be giving me a little too much credit.
You don’t want credit for Al Gore becoming President?
Well, that’s nice, but I’m sure Sandra spoke to a lot of people. Besides, all things considered, Al Gore should be furious with me.
Because he was impeached?
Yeah, you can see how that might bother a guy.
Well, anyone would have been impeached after 9/11. If Bush had become President, they would have impeached him too. Whether or not anyone could have prevented 9/11, it wouldn’t have mattered.
I think we’re playing too many what-ifs. But I am happy that President Lieberman kept up President Gore’s legacy, what with all the funding for alternative energy sources. At least we’re not arguing over global warming anymore.
More than that, who but an American Jewish President could have nurtured an independent Palestine and therefore peace in the Middle East?
Next thing you’re going to give me credit for killing Osama bin Laden. I’m just a talk-show host. Maybe we should get back to that?
Okay, let’s. Did you have any involvement in choosing Sarah Silverman as your successor?
A little bit.
Were you consciously trying to break that glass ceiling of women in late-night comedy?
Maybe a little.
Have you given Sarah any advice as to what she should do?
No, I don’t think she needs my advice.
She’s probably sublimated it anyway, just as we all have, just as your sensibility has permeated all over the culture. I know you have to go, but I hope your sensibility never goes.
You’re too kind. And I mean that, because I’ve seen every level of kindness.
Your final Tonight Show airs this Wednesday. What will you do Thursday morning?
I will be completely in the hands of my family. I will be going, later in the month, to the Indianapolis 500. And then beyond that, for the first time since Harry’s been alive, our summer schedule will not be dictated by me. It will be entirely dictated by what my son wants to do. And I think that’s pretty good. After you take a good, solid punch to the head, you’re just a little wobbly. I think in that state it would be good to have others making my decisions. That’s how he’s describing his retirement. A good solid punch to the head.