David Letterman has become a grizzled old man – or, at least, that’s how he presents himself two years after leaving late night TV. Now, when he deigns to appear before a camera, he sports an enormous gray beard, a furrowed face, and a cantankerous expression or maybe a half-grin, all more suited to the lair in which he mostly hibernates than to the public platform of a public figure.
For over thirty years Letterman belonged to a very small, special elite – the elite of nighttime talk show hosts who year after year sufficiently amuse us, provoke us, engage us, to preside night after night over a talk fest in which we vicariously participate. Like all the best late night hosts, Letterman carved out a special niche. He was more ironic than witty, more creative than reflective, more difficult than ingratiating, more distant than intimate, more intellectual than visceral, more cool than hot.
Letterman was never particularly political. More precisely, he was a little bit political. But not a lot political. He was not, for example, like Jon Stewart who built his great reputation on skewering the ostensibly high and mighty, or like Steven Colbert, who in his new incarnation finally hit the mother lode, discovering in the presidency of Donald Trump an endless procession of occasions on which to make fun. No, David Letterman was not like them. He was too removed from the daily fray, too chill to send through the medium of television a consistent political message.
Now though things are different. Now Letterman – like David Remnick and Philip Roth* – is so angered and agitated he declared war.
David Letterman on Donald Trump:
Trump’s the president and he can lie about anything, from the time he wakes up to what he has for lunch and he’s still the president. I don’t get that. I’m tired of people being bewildered about everything he says: ‘I can’t believe he said that.’ We gotta stop that and, instead, figure out ways to protect ourselves from him. We know he’s crazy. We gotta take care of ourselves here now.
That press conference that [Trump] held berating the news media? I mean, how do you build a dictatorship? First, you undermine the press: ‘The only truth you’re going to hear is from me.’ And he hires the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Steve Bannon, to be his little buddy. Bannon looks like a guy who goes to lunch, gets drunk, and comes back to the office…. How is a white supremacist the chief adviser to our president? Did anybody look that guy up?”
When he was asked if comedians or late night talk show hosts should take on Donald Trump, this was Letterman’s reply. “I think you have an obligation.”**
*See my two blogs immediately previous.
** David Marchese, “David Letterman in Conversation,” New York, March 6-19, 2017.