A chat with Jason Zinoman

Jason Zinoman not only writes about comedy for the New York Times, he is also a self-professed “devoted David Letterman fan.” Few would be in a better position to pen “Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night” (Harper), Zinoman’s newly released authoritative biography on the talk-show host. Peppered with first-hand interviews from nearly all the Late Night / Late Show principals — including lengthy passages from Dave himself — “Letterman” is a must-read for fans, brimming with insights on how our favourite Indiana smart aleck evolved into a treasured, albeit caustic, industry legend. We chatted with Zinoman by email about his book, how he got everyone from Jay Leno to Merrill Markoe to wax nostalgic, and his attempt to have Letterman sign a can of Spam outside the Ed Sullivan Theater years ago.

First off, thank you for this book. Beyond my bias as a Letterman fan, I’ve found it curious that there hasn’t been as much written about him. I contrast it with another 1980s icon, Bruce Springsteen, and there are many Bruce biographies. Or Steve Jobs. Or even Johnny Carson (less a 1980s icon, of course). Is that part of the reason you took on this subject, that there was a hole in the canon for a seriously reported book on Dave?

Yes. In fact, when I started work on the book, I had a real sense of urgency because I figured this would be one of several Letterman books that would come out after his retirement. I wanted to talk to all the sources I could before my competitors did. And then at some point, I realized that there wasn’t another book coming, which, frankly, I can’t explain.

Dave, the TV hero, seemed to mean a fair amount to you, as he did to me and many others. What was meeting him like? How many times did you meet him?

I met him once. I was in regular contact through his representative, and checked some facts with him, but otherwise, I only talked to him for around four hours towards the end of the process. Meeting him was stressful, because I needed to get so much accomplished in one visit, but he was a spectacular interview: candid, charming, direct. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

In general, how did the interviews with everyone else go? I imagine a walk down memory lane wasn’t the same for everyone. (This is a feeble attempt to ask about Jay Leno.)

Haha. You know, Jay was also a very good interview and a really smart guy about comedy. I only talked to him on the phone, though, so didn’t get the full Jay treatment. The reporting was probably my favourite part of the process, since that’s where you learn the most and test all your assumptions. And also, so many funny, interesting people worked on the show, and I talked to hundreds of people for this book. I can’t say that spending the day with Hal Gurnee at his house was anything but a pure delight.

You do an excellent job demonstrating that “David Letterman,” the character, was a collaborative effort, most importantly with Merrill Markoe. She has seemed reluctant in the past to discuss that chapter of her history again. Was her participation difficult to get? How were you able to get access to her diary entries, which added a great deal of insight to the book?

I always knew that Merrill was critical to the show, but it wasn’t until I got into the process that I realized the extent it was true, so I knew she needed to be a major character. I really wanted to describe her and her role in granular detail, because it’s very easy for her contributions to be forgotten as years pass. So I talked to her a huge amount, and while I visited her in L.A., what I discovered was that the most fruitful discussions with her were over email. Merrill is a writer and a lover of language who comes across vividly on the page or, I guess, the screen. So I emailed with her quite frequently over the course of a year and a half or more and got to know her through this correspondence. I do think email was key. Some days, I would bug her incessantly. I am sure I was quite irritating. But she is a fascinating person who is incredibly thoughtful and analytical and I learned a tremendous amount from her. I agree that the diary entries were critical to my book because a primary source like that is worth 10 times what a memory from decades ago is, especially when you are trying to give the reader a sense of what it was really like when Dave and Merrill first met in a narrative. My hope was for that chapter to read a little like the start of a rom-com about two very different but complimentary artists. I don’t think I accomplished this feat, but it was a worthy goal.

I have to admit, I was expecting a book double the size. (Again, though, I’m biased. I probably could have used a 10-volume set.) How was the challenge of editing it down to 300 pages? Were there tough edits? (For example, I don’t think Joaquin Phoenix made an appearance.) Any plans to publish the full interviews?

I am a believer that it’s better to leave them wanting more. Also, nothing is worse than a boring tome. Perhaps its because I’ve primarily been a newspaper journalist, but I aim for economy and concision, and try to pack as much as I can in a small amount of space. My goal was to appeal to people like yourself who could read 10 volumes on Letterman but also a casual fan who might feel alienated by too much detail. So the edit wasn’t tough, but if anything, my editor felt the same way I did and he did some pruning and tightening. No plans to publish the interviews.

There’s a quote from Martin Short that I really liked, calling Letterman “a punky kid.” That rings true, the idea that Late Night Dave had a NYC DIY-punk style. I know Letterman would never call himself a punk, but do you think it’s off the mark? After all, who else was wearing a sports coat and tie with khakis and Adidas?

In his first decade, there’s no question that part of his appeal for many fans was his little brother irreverence. Not just the sneakers, but the steamroller and the dropping things from roofs and the attitude. One thing I wanted to get across was that for many kids like myself, Letterman really felt subversive, juvenile in the best way, and even, though I hate when people use this term as an adjective, punk rock.

What were your favourite Letterman moments? You mention the Colleen Boyle remote, when he visits her in person, as a high point, for example.

Too many to mention. Just Bulbs. They Took My Show Away. Every interview with Sandra Bernhard and Teri Garr. The GE handshake. Making toast during the writer’s strike in 1988. The monkey cam. The Too Tired to do a Show show. Christmas with the Lettermans. Hal Gurnee’s cutaway from Brother Theodore to Billy Joel. Dave’s monologue after 9/11. But if I had to pick one, the Colleen Boyle remote might top the list. It has everything: brilliant editing, ad libs, true surprises and sarcasm mixed with sweetness.

The New York Daily News recently printed excerpts of the book that focused on Letterman’s “ugly personality.” After reading the book, it’s an unfair depiction of both the host and book, although it did seem like the later Late Show years were marked with unhappiness and tumult. You could make a good argument the show and Letterman were coasting. How do you process those later years? Did you keep watching, or did your interest wane as some Letterman fans’ did?

I kept watching, but it’s fair to say I saw those later years as less ambitious than his earlier ones, which I explore in the book. As for that Daily News piece, it was frustrating to see the first press for the book — my first impression you might say — so completely distort what I wrote, making the book seem like a hatchet job. And then so much other media picked it up, including Howard Stern, who called me an asshole on his show without ever reading the book. Second thought, it was pretty cool to be called an asshole by Howard Stern.

The NBC years were Letterman’s golden era and the book’s focus on it was well placed. Did you worry it was too focused on those early years?

Yes. I particularly worry that diehard fans will feel cheated by the book if they expect something that goes into detail on every year of the show. But at the end of the day, I have to write my book, and you can’t make everyone happy.

I love the book’s subtitle, “The Last Giant of Late Night,” as I have often described Letterman as a giant in the entertainment industry. I’m not sure, however, that sentiment is widely shared, his influence on not just late-night TV but on comedy in general being short-changed. Do you agree, and if so, why do you think that is?

I’m not sure how shared it is, but I knew the title was argumentative, which carries some risks (a decade from now, it might seem obviously wrong). But it’s rooted not just in an argument about the talents of Letterman but also in the state of pop culture, which is so fragmented that it’s very difficult for one talk show to have the cultural impact that Late Night did in the 1980s. Also, the hour-long talk show itself has changed from being less of a cohesive whole than a collection of parts designed to go viral. To be fair, the form was always a collection of parts, but I think one thing that distinguished Late Night from previous comedy talk shows with celebrity guests was the extent that it had such a consistent and unified aesthetic tying everything together. Whoever the stars were on the show that day mattered less than the comedy and the host. The celebrities were there to serve the show, not the other way around.

On that point, it seems that Letterman himself discounts his own legacy, and at times even dismisses it. Again, contrast that with Carson or Jerry Seinfeld, whose websites demonstrate how important their legacy continue to be. Do you agree and any clues why that is? Is it false modesty?

I don’t think it’s false modesty. But he does say in the book that he cares about his legacy because of his son. He’s a self-deprecating guy who is not comfortable tooting his own horn so this is probably complicated for him. But I do think his legacy is more fragile than it seems, in part because his shows are not on television anymore. And that’s one reason I wanted to write this book.

In the book, you acknowledge using the video services of Don “Donz” Giller, whose Letterman archives appear to be better than anything official. Isn’t that surprising? Did it make your job researching the book more difficult seeing that there is no official archive?

Don was essential to me, and many other journalists. [See Zinoman’s excellent new feature of Giller.] I might have a hypothesis about how Letterman’s reputation as a bad Oscar host was in part due to the way he joked about it on the show, so I would ask Don: Could you send me every joke Letterman made about hosting the Oscars? This is a huge ask. Letterman made those jokes for years. But before long, Don sent me a list of the jokes, and through study of them, I could track how Dave’s thinking, at least in his comedy, on the Oscars, changed, hardened and turned into a kind of myth. Letterman’s hosting gig was not nearly as poorly received as people think. But that reputation developed over the years, in part due to his own persistently self-mocking jokes. I could test this theory only because of the help of Don Giller. This is just one of many examples.

What was your original title of the book, that you mention was “wisely” rejected?

“Stupid Human Tricks.” My older daughter Penny (then seven years old) didn’t like it. She thought it was stupid to write a book with the word “stupid” in the title. And I listened to her. Also, your readers might be interested in the book she recently finished, “32 Fun Facts about Cats.” I can promise you that the facts are all truly fun.

Letterman has kept up some appearances after the Late Show’s end, although he hasn’t moved on to anything substantial. Do you think, like Carson, he’ll resist any attempts to “come back”?

I have no idea. I have guessed wrong before, so probably shouldn’t again. He seems real happy doing what he’s doing now.

I know you’ve had a chance to interview and meet many famous folks as a journalist, but considering your appreciation for Letterman over the years, especially growing up, would you consider it a career high-point to interview him?

When I was a kid religiously watching Letterman, I never imagined I would be sitting across the table from him. And while there’s a part of me that is simply delighted by it, I don’t really consider getting the interview a career highlight. I consider finishing the book a career highlight, because finishing any book really seems like a damn miracle.

Finally, what happened to the can of Spam that you claim in the book may or may not have been signed by Dave?

It’s in storage. I will send you a photo of it that my friend Jeff took right after we saw the show in 1993.

Jason Zinoman, NYC, 1993.

A chat with Paul Shaffer

The man who played the introductions needs none himself. It’s Paul Shaffer, who simply doesn’t get enough credit for how he reshaped the role of music on late-night television. Thirty-three years as Letterman’s bandleader, and five before that on Saturday Night Live, Shaffer was as consistent a presence in many viewers’ lives as few others were on TV. The proud Canuck, who vowed he wasn’t going to retire once the Late Show With David Letterman finished in May 2015, is back in the public eye with a new album and tour, reuniting members of the Letterman band with a name devoted fans will be happy to hear again: Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band. We chatted with Shaffer by phone about music, saying goodbye to the Late Show and why he and Dave both still need an audience.

Letterman fans are thrilled to see you and the World’s Most Dangerous Band back at it. It must have been a thrill for you to work with them again, too.

Well, it was very natural. We set up and went to work just like old times without saying too much. We didn’t have to. We fell back into the old sign language and extra-sensory communication that we have. We were in the trenches together with Dave Letterman for all those 22 years, this larger version of the band. And before that some of the guys — Will Lee, Anton [Fig], Sid [McGinnis] — were with me almost the entire 11-year run at NBC which preceded it. So that’s a lot of time. Rock bands don’t normally last that long. Then we had gone our separate ways and hadn’t seen each other for maybe a year. But it was a very sweet reunion, yes.

I read recently that there was talk of doing a reunion Late Show Christmas show at New York City, and that Letterman ultimately kiboshed it. Were you involved in that?

Yes, I might have been involved in that. Yes, had it happened. But it was something that Dave himself changed his mind on. He just didn’t think that recreating a show that we used to do each year — we used to do the same Christmas show every year, as you remember — but it didn’t cost any money at that time. You could keep doing the same thing year after year knowing that people weren’t paying for it. He didn’t think it was fair to ask people to come to a theatre and pay for something that they used to get for free. I think that was the bottom line: Dave changed his mind on it. And I think that’s heroic.

It’s a shame from a paying-customer standpoint. But it’s good to see those old shows live on via YouTube at least.

And one might surmise that Dave likes to be in front of an audience, and considered the idea, before he changed his mind. He certainly does still enjoy an audience. And that’s part of what I love about him.

You’ve said that you still meet with him regularly. Do you think there are plans ever to work with him again or for him to do something substantial, like you’re doing with the new album?

Well, I don’t think he needs to go on TV again, but as long as he gets an opportunity, which he still does, to show up somewhere and give somebody an award — me, he’s done several times — but in doing so, the opportunity to address an audience kind of keeps him going and he doesn’t need too much of it. Just enough to remind him that he was once in show business, as was I.

It seems there’s somewhat of a difference between Dave and yourself in terms of needing that show business or creative connection. I remember the Rolling Stone interview after Letterman announced he was leaving the Late Show, where you said you were definitely not retiring. And this record, the tour, that’s a product of that: you are still active.

Yes, yes. Because even though I said that, I was tired and when we finished up those 33 years and I thought, “Well, I should take a rest first. Let me lie down.” But I wasn’t prone very long before I started just getting antsy and depressed. I have a need to play the piano. I realized that, you know, it’s kind of equivalent to Dave’s need [to be in front of an audience]. Mine is I’ve got to make music. I love to play the piano and I love to play for people. And when I got the opportunity to make this record, I cheered up right away. I had something to do. And it was a musical something. Getting the old band back together was really the icing on the cake. It showed me plain as day, I’ve got to keep making music. That’s how I thrive.

You use the phrase “getting the old band back together” and that immediately takes one back to the Blues Brothers — a project you worked on in the 1970s — where they use very much that same language in the movie.

As I have been doing interviews regarding this project and the fact that I did reunite the World’s Most Dangerous Band, I don’t think I was the first person to bring up that phrase. People do remember that phrase in that movie. It was pretty strong. They have been saying that and it wasn’t me. But now I’m saying it, too.

As for the new album, it’s great. It’s fun. And I was surprised it was as contemporary as it sounds — it feels of the moment even though it’s primarily covers. I think my favourite song is the Darius Rucker cover of Timmy Thomas’s “Why Can’t We Live Together.”

Yeah, I can see why. I love that one.

It’s a terrific vocal. Your organ is fantastic. And one thing I picked up on, which frankly I hadn’t before, was the political relevance of the song. Was that in the back of yours or his mind in picking that?

Sure. You know who suggested it was an old friend of mine from Canada named David Smyth. He and I were childhood friends and we used to listen to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band together and play in local bands in Thunder Bay. I called him and said, “David, what should I record?” I just felt like going back to one’s roots. David came up with that idea. And he came up with it, I believe, because musically it reminded him of me. It featured an organ, even on the original record — not a solo, but certainly organ was prominent. And when I listened to it, of course, I heard the lyric, too. And then said, “Well, this is what we need today.” It was obvious. And Darius agreeing to sing it was just perfect.

You mentioned your love for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in your autobiography, which I’m currently reading. If there’s one thing I really take away from it is your love of music. Not that it shouldn’t have been obvious before, but it’s so clear on the page. I’m Spotifying music left and right while reading it. I know you’ve said James Brown is one of your favourite artists, but do you have a favourite record that jumps out for you?

My favourite record is “My Girl” by The Temptations. Hands down. Favourite of all of them, of all rock-and-roll records. Because I love everything about it: the song, the composition of the song by Smokey Robinson. The arrangement, the instrumental arrangement: the strings, horns, alto sax at the very end. The vocals, lead vocal, David Ruffin, one of the greats of all time. Background vocals and arrangement, just phenomenal. And rhythm section, bass, piano… that’s hard to hear, you don’t hear it initially, but now it just fascinates me. And this record is such that when it comes on the radio, I never take it off. I always tune in and listen to it and always learn something new about what’s in the background on the record. And gain new appreciation for that lead vocal of David Ruffin.

I had a chance to read Jason Zinoman’s new book on David Letterman, and it says in there you weren’t able to read music or still can’t. I find that so hard to believe, especially as in your book you say you had music lessons. Is that wrong?

Yes, of course, I took music lessons and I can read and I can write and arrange. But I can’t sight-read. That’s what I mean by that. I can’t sit down with a two-stave piano part and play it like many of my friends in the studio business can. I never could. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, that had been my real ambition at that time, to become a studio piano player, and I was able to do it because I learned how to read enough to get by. And then sometimes I would just say, “Can I have five minutes with this chart?” I could certainly get through sessions, but I’m just not the kind of sight-reader that somebody like Bette Sussman or Robbie Kondor, Cliff Carter – guys that I would sometimes call when I needed a second keyboard player on the Letterman show, knowing that if it was a written singing part, Robbie Kondor could play this without even having to think twice about it. I’m not that kind of sight-reader. But I can read music.

Was there any difficulty in getting the name, the World’s Most Dangerous Band, back? Because there was obviously some “intellectual property” nonsense with it back in the ’90s.

Well, exactly. The name, which was David’s name of course — he named us the World’s Most Dangerous Band and said that he got the sort of nomenclature from the world of wrestling. And we always had the most fun. But yeah, it got slipped up into that crazy late-show wars thing and became intellectual property and had to be left behind [when Letterman moved his show from NBC to CBS]. But my manager, Eric Gardner, when we were trying to figure out what we were going to call the band, said, “You know, I don’t think there’s an NBC executive over there that was even alive when all that stuff went down.” He made a call and sure enough they said, “Well, we don’t even remember that. Of course, use the name. We don’t care.” So hats off to them, and yes, we’re back to being the World’s Most Dangerous Band.

I also wanted to ask you about that last Late Show in May 2015. It was a momentous show, following such a tremendous run of final episodes. Can you talk about what that experience was like?

I think truthfully, I haven’t thought about it since then and I don’t think that I really realized the significance of it at the time. It’s hard to realize that after 33 years of doing five of them a week you are now going to do none. So we did the last show, my family was there sitting in the audience and David did an elegant job, I thought. He elegantly thanked his family, which was so important to him of course. And said goodnight in a very understated way. Then, you know, it’s sort of hitting me right now: “Oh yeah, we did a last show.” Yeah, it was something. I didn’t think so much about it, you know. The very next day my daughter Victoria graduated from the New School, so I went to her graduation and saw her in that cap and gown and that kept me going for a while. Ultimately though, the big change that it was became evident and it was quite physical the change in schedule and what it did to my sleeping patterns and stuff. My body relaxed and I realized, “Boy we were all pretty tightly wound during that show.” But it certainly was a privilege to be that tightly wound. It was a lot of fun.

I’m looking at a photo of you and me taken after one of the last Late Shows. I had the privilege of going to the one with Martin Short, a fellow Hamiltonian. So thank you for that and all your time on the show — it was incredible. It’s terrific seeing you guys back and hopefully we’ll get a chance to speak again about future projects.

Fun talking to you. Thank you. I’m very flattered you heard the record and that you enjoyed it. Thank you very much.

Thank you, Paul.

Paul Shaffer and author, May 2015.

A chat with Rob Burnett

A case could be made that — after David Letterman, of course — the next top creative force at the Late Show was Rob Burnett. The New Jersey native first began as an intern at Late Night in 1985 at just 23 years of age, rising in the ranks to become not only head writer, but also executive producer of the Late Show and CEO of Letterman’s production company, the wonderfully named Worldwide Pants. WWP would also produce Burnett’s acclaimed NBC primetime show Ed and receive a production credit on his newest directorial project, the Netflix Original movie Fundamentals of Caring, starring Selena Gomez and self-proclaimed “Letterman fanatic” Paul Rudd. We chatted with Burnett by email about his years “growing up” on Letterman, regrets about Jay Leno, and being ready to move on from the show.

As we know from the end run of Late Shows, Paul Rudd, the star of your new movie Fundamentals of Caring, was a big Letterman fan. Did you know this before making the film? Did he pepper with you questions about the show?

Paul and I had met once or twice, but didn’t really know each other. I was a huge fan and as it turned out, he did have a healthy respect and love of the Late Show.

He was curious about the show and we did talk a bit about it on set. I am always a little reluctant to say too much about some of what went on up there. Some of it was pretty ugly, and I think it probably will remain with those of us who lived it.

What was Worldwide Pants / Letterman’s role in the production of the movie? I know it’s a Netflix Original, but I understand they didn’t commission the movie.

The movie was independently financed. Worldwide Pants has a production credit on the movie because of my role with the movie. Dave was not involved at all, nor did WWP provide financing.

Netflix came in after the movie was done. They have been a distribution partner, not a production partner in this case. They have been fantastic.

Is leaving the Late Show somewhat bittersweet? I know your role has expanded and contracted depending on your other projects, but it obviously gives you the opportunity to pursue directing movies full-time.

I’ll treasure my time there, but honestly I think it was time for the show to go off the air. It was tough being the old, irrelevant show when Fallon was killing it across town. It was the first time I can remember losing staff to another show. We had always been the talk show everyone in NYC wanted to work on, and it felt strange to have people wanting to be elsewhere.

I was a little worried at one point that the end would be a whimper, but we did indeed go out with a bang. I was relieved that it turned out so well. I think in the end the whole body of work was too big to ignore.

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