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.

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