Jun 23, 2003  •  Post A Comment

As you must recall, Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” opens with shots of a starry sky and the voices of George Bailey’s friends and neighbors praying for his welfare-“Dear God, please help George …” and so on. And in somewhat the same way, we far-flung and essentially faithful fans of David Letterman sometimes find ourselves worrying about Dave’s trials and tribulations. Is Dave happy? Is Dave OK? Is Dave mad at the network again?
Right now is one of those times. Dave is not off his stride comedically; nothing seems to throw him off his stride, be it a bum Top Ten list or a partly severed finger or Paul Shaffer’s just refusing to shut the hell up. But there are little indications of things being amiss. One of them is Dave’s recently announced decision to take Friday nights off (at least during the summer) and let guest hosts fill in. It doesn’t sound like much of an energy-saver for Dave, since he had Fridays off anyway; he’s been taping two shows on Thursdays for months.
Then there is, of course, Dave’s nemesis, the Nielsens. When CBS prime time was pretty much a pet cemetery on every night but Sunday, the Forces of Dave could blame the network’s lousy lead-ins for the fact that Jay Leno and “The Tonight Show” on NBC were defeating him, particularly among younger audiences. CBS under Les Moonves is doing much better now, and yet Dave still seems to be lagging behind his woefully inferior competitor. There are even nights when Conan O’Brien, in Dave’s old NBC spot at 12:30 a.m., beats Dave in young demos.
Is Dave losing heart? Is Dave depressed? Is Dave, God forbid, thinking about chucking it and going fishing for the rest of his life? He seems detached sometimes on the air now, disenchanted even with the idea of being king of late-night (which he is if one uses his annual Emmy wins and his fans’ depth of affection as criteria). He looks old, for Dave. His hands tremble slightly in tight close-ups of so-and-so’s new CD.
Fortunately, there is evidence that Dave is just Being Dave and that none of the indicators indicates much. One week ago (Monday night, June 16) Dave celebrated his 2,000th show on CBS by doing a terrific interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton (after first announcing, of course, how uninformed he was and what a poor job he was likely to do). And with Hillary there, and a “CSI”-CBS lead-in, Dave beat “The Tonight Show” and scored his best numbers in the 55 metered markets since March, when he made his gala return after a painful bout with shingles.
All bouts with shingles are painful, I am told, and the disease seems perversely to afflict comic geniuses. Jack Benny had a case once, and so did Conan, back before he had his own show. Anyway, Hillary’s visit, supplemented with an appearance by Yankee Roger Clemens, fresh from the 300th victorious game of his career, marked one of those nights when “Late Night” fired on all cylinders. It was Dave ablaze.
One night doesn’t change the world. But according to Sources within the Forces of Dave, things are better than they appear. If the late-night universe consisted only of the 59 markets where the local CBS station wins the 11 p.m. news ratings, for instance, Dave would be the victor. Lead-ins do count, even in this age of the ever-ready remote. CBS soars in “the 10-spot” on Monday and Thursday nights, and Dave’s numbers are regularly up on those nights too.
Those of us who love Dave think naively that because he does much the better show, he should automatically win. But decades of irritating Nielsen-family fickleness have taught us TV is no meritocracy.
Now and then I tune in Leno for his monologue, which includes so many jokes that there are bound to be some nifties. Leno seems to get so little joy out of doing it, though; that confounds me. He’s America’s most successful humorless comedian. There’s a strange bitterness there. And it just doesn’t seem right, even after his decade’s tenure, for Leno to be occupying a chair and desk previously filled by Johnny Carson, Jack Paar and Steve Allen. These men were giants. They had class.
Ratings woes haven’t been the only Letterman problems. There was the strange case earlier this year of cue-card boy Tony Mendez, who was fired, allegedly by Dave, then quickly rehired a day or two later. But Dave didn’t fire him, sources say; he quit after a fight with lame guest host Brad Garrett. Mendez is back and Dave is being nice to him on the air.
The guest-host thing has been peculiar in that nearly everyone has bombed. Brutally. On next Friday night’s show, though, the titanically talented Jimmy Fallon, of “Saturday Night Live,” is scheduled to host. There was talk that executives the Nasty Broadcasting Company were trying to block Fallon’s appearance, since they consider “SNL” to be an incubator now for NBC prime time (how could Lorne Michaels have agreed to such a heinous arrangement?). But Fallon’s publicist said Friday that as far as he knows, the gig is on.
Dave, like Carson and even more so like Paar, invites psychoanalysis by us amateurs out here in Television Land. He’s 56, which means he’s having to face the awesome spectre of 60. His heart bypass and shingles may have made him more aware of his mortality and perhaps regretful of not having started a family of his own. But we’re your family, Dave. And even though we’ve had our feuds we’ve never doubted for a minute that inside your nearly hairless head resides one of the most agile, unpredictable and mischievous minds ever to work in television.
And if Dave isn’t happy, well, when the hell has he been? After all, a colleague says, “You don’t want Dave to be too happy, or he’d never be able to do what he does.”