I had the same doubts about Jason Zinoman’s “The Last Giant of Late Night” Letterman biography that I had about his New York Timesman predecessor Bill Carter’s “The Late Shift.” That is that the book starts out with the same erroneous New York-centric take that Carter’s concluded with.
Carter’s book, later made into a TV movie, ended with Letterman leaving NBC after much melodrama, launching his show on CBS, and becoming King of Late Night. Carter implied that this would be the way it was going to be until Letterman, like Carson, took his leave from the public airwaves.
And as history shows, that didn’t last. Not at all. The audience wearied of Letterman’s brand of irony in months, not decades. He bungled the Oscars, Leno landed Hugh Grant post Divine Brown.
And Letterman, aside from occasionally crushing Conan O’Brien when NBC gave him “The Tonight Show,” was rarely relevant again — post 9-11, by default, post-heart attack, and later admitting on air that he was a serial philanderer subject to blackmail.
So “Last Giant of Late Night?” Not so much.
But I enjoyed Zinoman’s (comedy columnist for the Times) approach. He watched thousands of hours of Letterman’s shows. He talked with the man and a lot of his staff, including those he systematically froze-out (he hated the confrontation of firing somebody) over the decades.
He connects with signature memorable moments of the show, fixates on Letterman’s love of language and word play, weighs in on what others called Letterman’s chilliness, his Indiana xenophobia (he loved “funny sounding” foreign names, part of that word play, too much). Zinoman touches on the sarcasm that crossed into cruelty in interviews, the sneering Harvard frat boy writer’s room style of humor that mocked Larry “Bud” Melman (Calvert DeForest) and others.
He connects Letterman, “the broadcaster,” with Howard Stern, an old friend with whom he shared an irreverence for celebrities and a lust for leering at starlets.
Zinoman deconstructs a series of AM and PM shows that deconstructed themselves, and traces as well he can Letterman’s inspirations — from Robert Benchley onward.
He tries to debunk “the Oscar myth” (Letterman is the one who insisted he bombed, and was right — lots of TV critics failed to get that). He lays out the years of Letterman NBC slights, insults and simple person-to-person rudeness that cost him “The Tonight Show” job. Letterman, like Conan, likes to milk his version of that “done me wrong” story, which some fans still swallow whole.
And Zinoman captures the long, lazy fall — an out-of-touch curmudgeon who disconnected from the writing staff, refused to rehearse, refused to leave the desk for remotes, refused to put in any effort — for years and YEARS. “Irony is dead” may not have done Letterman in. Phoning it in did.
Letterman the Man comes off as a leaning tower of insecurities, quick to lash out at others, quicker to ignore any triumph and absorb every failure as a personal character flaw. Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show” experience is correctly brought up as the perfect parallel to Letterman’s psyche, petulance and attempted “bored with it all” style. He just lacked Parr’s sophistication and curiosity, as indeed every late night host who followed has.
It’s a good book, even if Harper Collins editors didn’t do Zinoman a lot of favors. Letterman was a middling stand-up, and the “comedy columnist” is out of his depth talking about broadcasting, which is how Letterman labeled himself — “broadcaster.” Letterman’s early days mid-day radio show is labeled “drive-time,” when it wasn’t, Zinoman confuses Boris Karloff with Bela Lugosi (Ed Wood’s muse in “Plan Nine from Outer Space”), asserts that pro-wrestling during the Andy Kaufman era was “covered like a real sport” (never ever happened) and hits you with one of these blunders every few pages.
He gives shorter shrift than he should to the ways Letterman copied and updated others’ TV “innovations,” the wacky on-the-street bits Steve Allen did are mentioned, the proto-surrealism of Ernie Kovacs that plainly inspired other running gags is missed.
Letterman repaying Tom Snyder, whose time slot he grabbed at NBC, with a “later” show is detailed. Craig Ferguson, the best “talker” of the lot, who replaced Snyder, is not.
But here’s Chris Elliott, son of a Big Letterman Influence, Bob Elliott of “Bob & Ray,” weaseling his way on the air, and there’s the office worker Meg Parsont, courted by phone on late night TV by a host who could come off creepy because plainly he was and is, when it comes to women — leering, clumsily flirting, subjecting starlets to decades of innuendo.
That over-arching thesis, “Last King,” is an easy over-reach, too. You may not like Leno, who is probably worthy of a thorough bio of this sort as well. Leno didn’t do his show from New York, was more plebeian and conservative and was hated by many a stand-up comic for his one-upsmanship. The Times sided with Letterman from the start. But Leno beat Letterman handily in audience appeal, innovated almost as much, and endured merciless criticism over “stealing” “The Tonight Show” from first Letterman, and then from Conan, neither of whom thrived in that hour of the night.
Colbert and Fallon are ably following in all their footsteps, innovating the format as much as Letterman or Leno or O’Brien ever did. That undercuts the “Last King” thesis, as well.
Letterman comes off as the worst near-stranger to have a beer with. Leno, in impressions formed outside of the book, always bulls through to a punch-line, even now on “Jay Leno’s Garage,” and would wear one out in person and turn annoying in short order. O’Brien just isn’t as clever as he’s always thought he was and has a tedium about him that makes him worth only small doses of your time.
All seem like insecure, guarded and selectively-revealing funnymen who only truly exist for that TV limelight.
Truthfully, the reclusive Johnny Carson was probably the “Last King of Late Night.” You still hear old stories about him, and his growing laziness, greed and arrogance (Needed for him to be able to deal with NBC, but not showing up and always lightening his workload?) is touched on, here. He wanted to anoint his successor, something Letterman had the good sense to avoid. There’s a last lesson Carson inadvertently taught them all, the true “Last King” leaving that as a legacy. The King doesn’t get to pick the next King.
But who’d read a book about him?