know me, but we go back a long way. I was one of maybe six people
in the nation who caught every episode of your long-forgotten,
failed but brilliant Morning Show, the one you did before
you switched to late night and became a big star. I loved that
morning show; it was so exhilarating to see television being reinvented,
turned inside out, turned into a satiric commentary on television.
Nobody saw through its tics and tackiness, its pretenses and strangeness
better than you. Nobody. The group of writers and performers (like
Chris Elliott) you gathered around you was smarter, sharper and
funnier than the overrated Algonquin wits, more sophisticated
than Saturday Night Live at its best, cut as deep as the
geniuses of SCTV, MST3K, The Simpsons, the best of Spy
and ranked up there with, I think, the almost-forgotten, unacknowledged
model for talk-show mockery, the great Fernwood 2Nite.
But now its
all gone bad, and weve got to find you an honorable exit
strategy. Its painfully obvious that its torture for
you to do the show, its torture for us to watch and no amount
of shouting and whooping by the overamped frathouse morons in
your studio audience can conceal the painful emptiness in the
Ed Sullivan Theater.
to go bad the moment you made your supposedly triumphant switch
from your fringe late-time slot at 12:30 A.M. on NBC to prime-time
late-night, 11:30 on CBS. It started to go bad the moment your
show stopped being about ridiculing big-ass, pompous televisionand
started becoming big-ass, pompous television. In doing so you
made your show a big tourist attraction on Broadway, but thats
the problem: Youve become a bad theme-park version of yourself.
to blame Mike Ovitz. By extorting that huge, $15-million-a-year
contract from CBS, big mainstream-star money, he put you in a
position where you felt you needed to earn it by doing a big mainstream-star
show. But really, it wasnt the money, it wasnt Mr.
Ovitzs fault, it was your decision, your misguided belief
you had to be bigger and brassier to live up to the money; your
belief you had to become someone else, to become someone more
mainstream, to become Johnny Carson.
like to blame Johnny Carson, to blame your childish hero worship
of that overrated icon. Because it misled you grievously. Youre
much funnier than Johnny Carson ever was, much sharper, and you
were doing something Johnny Carson in his vast complacency was
never doing. You were doing anti-television, meta-television,
television that made fun of television. But somehow you never
copped to the nature of your own genius, to the value of what
you were doing, to the fact that, at your best, you were the anti-Carson.
Instead you idealized a guy who, however appealing (and I liked
Johnny myself), was just doing TV and at the end had little to
offer beyond tired celebrity plugathon television.
You, by contrast,
had invented something brilliant, television that saw through
television, that gave all of us who have a love-hate thing about
the tube, who had to put up with the piety and crappiness of television,
at the end of the day, a relief, a virtual exorcism of televisions
hysterical conventionality. But the moment you stopped mocking
television, the moment you started doing television, the moment
you became all reverent about the "great tradition"
of the Ed Sullivan Theater, the moment you allowed your producers
to whip your audience into indiscriminate woo-woo frenzy that
guaranteed you a laugh no matter how lame your materialand
it just kept getting lamerthe moment you started flashing
those lustrous, expensive double-breasted suits, was the moment
it all began going bad.
I wish I could
blame the suits. A few years ago I wrote a column just about those
suits, about the way they embodied all that was going wrong with
your show. About the way they had become expensive confinement
garments, like the expensive trappings of your new set, lush and
shiny on the outside but increasingly empty on the inside: The
real David Letterman, the brilliant sardonic ironic genius, had
been devoured by your suits. Their double-breastedness expressed
the double bind youd put yourself in: trying ever more fanatically
to be someone you werent. The David Letterman show, you,
Dave, had become an empty suit without a real David Letterman,
just a tortured simulacrum, inside.
But you didnt
listen to my advice thento go back to being the one TV show
that took on TV, that made mincemeat of Must-See TV. Instead,
the show became ever more painful to watch. It used to be about
your contempt for showbiz phoniness, its come to be about
your contempt for yourself, for being in show business. A self-hatred
not without a bit of phoniness to it, by the way. If its
all so contemptible, if its all so beneath you, if youre
so morally superior to it, then why not just get the hell out,
Dave? Youre not gonna starve to death if you leave, but
you will die inside if you stay without changing. Look whats
happening to your hair: Thats not male-pattern baldness,
thats test pattern baldness, bad TV on the brain burning
out the follicles from within.
a moment on one of your recent shows, a moment in a sketch that
inadvertently said it all about your awful self-image. It was
a sketch about alleged TV bloopers, and you ran some tape of a
"little glitch" youd supposedly noticed in one
of the opening-week broadcasts of the new Bryant Gumbel morning
show. It was a clip of Bryant and Jane chatting superimposed on
which was footage that made it seem as if a donkey was meandering
in front of the camerathe "little glitch." Pretty
funny, Ill admit. But beneath the subtext of the gagyour
long-running, slightly overdone hostility to Mr. Gumbelthere
was I think a sub-subtext: your own self image as jackass wandering
loose on network air, meandering pointlessly with nothing much
more than jackass attitude to justify your presence in front of
not a jackass, Dave, youre a talented guy trapped in a jackass
role, a format that tortures you and what you need is an exit
strategy. I can offer two.
No. 1: Junk the celebrity plugathon and go all comedy. Of
all the aspects of your show, this is the onethe couch segments
with the Arnolds and the Julias plugging productwhere your
discomfort, your self-hatred has always been most painfully obvious.
And the stupid competition with Jay Leno for idiot stars telling
vacuous anecdotes to plug lame action movies
sickening to watch, its a pathetic simulacrum of entertainment,
but every talk show has been convinced they have to do it.
And it isnt
even working for you. If it were part of a winning formula, if
you were regularly beating Jay and Nightline in the ratings, perhaps
it would have some pro forma economic justification. But youre
not, and it doesnt.
So why not
just junk it? Tell CBS, "Homey dont play that no more."
Instead, go all comedy, give us real laughs, hire more smart,
funny writers, hire back some of the people that made your NBC
show great (like Chris Elliott, say), feature sharp young comics;
I have a feeling you could find and encourage some genius comic
talent: You have a pitch-perfect ear for it. And go back to your
own inventive, subversive comic roots. Take on the idiocies of
TV; be the TV show for people who love to hate TVwhich is
really all of us who love to watch TV. Take on the entire celebrity
plugathon culture, ridicule the way Jay and the awful morning
shows fawn over big stars with bad movies. Take on the bad movies
themselves; people are dying to have someone ridicule the emperors
new clothes, the big-assed double-breasted suits of infotainment-industrial-complex
product. You could create controversy, revitalize show business,
entertain us and have a lot of fun doing it.
I think it
could be a big success. But if it isnt, youll still
go out in a blaze of glory, making a statement, doing the kind
of TV you want to, not the stupid celeb plugathon that makes you
cringe doing it and us cringe watching it. And if CBS doesnt
like it, pick a public fight with them. Youll be a major
hero telling the network youre tired of shilling for second-rate
Hollywood crap. You might actually do something to turn the tide
against celebrity schlock plugola.
youve been obsessing in your monologue about the fact that
Entertainment Weekly named you No. 64 in their special issue on
"The Hundred Greatest Entertainers" of the past half-century.
You sort of make it sound as if, in your mind, being No. 64 is
some kind of diss. You get self-deprecating laughs out of ranking
behind Jim Henson (No. 59), Cher (No. 58) and way behind The
Simpsons. You ought to take a lesson from The Simpsons
(No. 10), which has maintained its subversive anti-television
television stance and still done well. Its kind of sad that
a Fox cartoon has far more edge than you do. But really, Dave,
with the kind of show youre doing these days, 64 is generous.
The high 90snear James Garner and Garth Brooksis
more like it. But you could change all that with one bold stroke
by casting off the chains of celeb plugola, striking a blow against
the publicity industrial complex. I think that would put you on
a lot of peoples all-century Top-10 List.
youre not up to a bold move like that, maybe too much bad
TV has taken too much out of you. You dont have the energy.
If thats the case, you still need an honorable way out of
the hell youve created for yourself. So let me suggest
No. 2: Control your succession, get Jon Stewart to replace
you. I dont know if youve been watching The Daily
Show, maybe you think youre above checking out the competition,
but Jon Stewart has just become majorly great. In a low-key unobtrusive
way that doesnt draw attention to itself, his Daily Show
on the Comedy Channel has become the smartest thing on TV
since The Larry Sanders Show and MST3K went off
I have to
admit it, Dave, I was a little late in catching on to just how
smart Jon Stewarts version of The Daily Show had
become in the 10 months since he took over last January. I guess
Id tuned out on the Craig Kilborn-hosted version of the
show by that timeafter his one-note, aint-my-arrogance-cute
shtick began to grate on me. That and the fact that it was up
against Simpsons reruns in the 7 P.M. slot and I found myself
preferring to watch Homer and Apu go to India for the fourth time
rather than The Daily Show once.
Simpsons recently moved to 7:30 and so I began checking out
Jon Stewart and quickly became hooked. It was not just funny,
it was consistently funny: I found myself laughing out loud throughout
every half-hour. And consistently smart: The Daily Show
realized that the satire of anchormen and newscasters à
la Saturday Night Lives "Weekend Update" had just
about been done to death. And they found themselves a juicy new
target on the infotainment spectrum: the TV "magazine shows"
that are devouring prime time, spawning clones like 60 Minutes
II, multiple Datelines and 20/20s
and the like, not to mention the even schlockier cable counterparts
the E! Hollywood specials, the VH1 Behind the Music
the smarmy urgency, the earnest, empathic, head-tilted, reaction-shot
hyper-sincerity of news magazine "reporters" than Jon
Stewarts current crew of "field reporters": Vance
Degeneres, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell and Beth Littleford.
Their heroic efforts to keep a straight face while interviewing
the lovably demented eccentrics, obsessives and weirdos they track
down is itself a hilarious subtext to their reported pieces, which
are all true stories, real people and sometimes evince the deadpan
sense of wonder Calvin Trillin and now Errol Morris bring to their
dispatches from the land of the odd.
But the key
distinction of Jon Stewarts Daily Show from the past
Daily Show and from every other show of its kind on now,
Dave, is Jon Stewarts apparent prodigy-level, almost idiot
savant-level talent for spontaneous ad libs. I say "apparent"
because sometimes I cant believe theyre not scripted,
they seem so lightning-quick. But its more than pure speed,
its the little twist, the curve he puts on it, the spin
that warps a wisecrack out of conventional comedy to some meta-wisecrack
dimension. Im not saying hes the funniest or most
innovative comedian Ive ever seen, but he may be the fastest
on his feet.
Or is he?
Had I seen enough shows to say that? When I started writing this
column, I got the Comedy Central publicist to send me several
hours of past shows on tape, and a cassette of Jon Stewarts
appearance at a Museum of Television and Radio panel (along with
the shows super-sharp producer, Madeleine Smithberg, some
writers and actors), and Jon Stewart was pretty impressive in
what seemed unscripted circumstances. Just as fast on his feet
as he appears in The Daily Shows "Four Minutes
" segments, in which hes transformed celebrity
plugola into a compressed, absurdist, sped-up version of the tired
I had just
finished watching those tapes, and I still wasnt sure, when
I got a fortuitous call from my friend Christine, who said she
had an extra ticket for the live taping of The Daily Shows
Millennium Special that evening. (It airs Dec. 15.)
And I have
to say watching Jon Stewart work live at that four-hour taping
over on 10th Avenue, watching him interact, between the scripted
segments, with the audience, the crew, the band (They Might Be
Giantsa perfect touch: Jon Stewart in his low-key, nerdy
way might be a giant), I have to tell you, Dave, he seems to be
the real thing. Watching him catch a remark coming at him and
mint it instantly into a smart, goofy, unexpected wisecrackits
the comedic equivalent of watching a Magic Johnson no-look pass:
genius at work. Indeed, it was almost like watching a child prodigy
do astoundingly complex mathematical computations in an instant.
Christine, equally dazzled by Stewarts verbal facility,
compared it with the grim death march your nightly monologue has
becomeendlessly, tiresomely making the same smirking jokes
about the failure of your jokes. Dave, your body language cries
out: "I dont belong here. Im better than this
shtick Im doing, Im on a higher level than Jay Leno,
but Im trapped into doing Jay Leno material." It really
begins to grate, Dave. Jay is what he is. You cant keep
pretending youre meant for something better without at some
point delivering something better. You cant keep coasting
on the serene certainty of your contempt.
Which is why
its time to get you out of the self-created hell of self-contempt
youre trapped in. Time for Exit Strategy No. 2 to get you
off the show. Time for you to arrange your succession. Now the
thing people say about you, Daveand it may not be true,
but its true that its what they sayis that you
are deathly afraid of letting other comics, other host personalities,
show you up. Which is why, they say, a few years ago you nixed
Jon Stewart for the time slot following you on CBS in favor of
the unthreatening Tom Snyder. Thats why there are no guest
hosts for you.
had fun with that widespread perception when he cast Jon Stewart
as his ambitious replacement-rumor rival. And maybe Mr. Shandling
should be a lesson to you: He refused to shift his brilliant show
from HBO to the networks, kept it fresh and focused on cable and
then left it when it began to go a little stale on him. In doing
so, he earned the kind of respect and honor you once had. He didnt
earn the kind of money youre making, but you have enough
to last a lifetime: What youve lost is the kind of respect
money cant buy.
2 is a bold stroke that could get it back for you: Find a way
to make Jon Stewart your successor. Bring him on your show, the
way Johnny did with you. Make him a regular, ask him to guest-host,
set it up with CBS so you leave early to do some prime-time specials
and he gets your chair. It would be a stunning, utterly classy
move. And, hey, if you really want to go out in a blaze of glory
that would reignite your career creatively, try Exit Strategy
2A: a job switch with Jon Stewart. Let him take over the Late
Show gig and you go to Comedy Central. Work a smaller room
for a while, where you can resuscitate and reinvent your talent.
It would be like Michael Jordan playing basketball for love. From
your new post at The Daily Show, you can become the cult
fave you once were, you can really express your anger at the crappy
absurdity of mainstream TV the way you no longer have the energy
or edge to do on mainstream TV. The switch could be the hottest
thing since those two Yankee pitchers swapped wives. Call me and
well work out the details. And do me a favor: Dont
listen to Mr. Ovitz this time.