David Letterman isn’t here to cheer you up this time

The veteran TV host is back with more episodes of his Netflix interview series and a perspective that has been altered by the coronavirus pandemic.

A few days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, David Letterman sat behind his desk at CBS’s Late Show and shared the story of a rally in Choteau, Montana, to raise money for New York. Getting choked up, he told his viewers, “If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the spirit of the United States, then I can’t help you.”

Nineteen years later, with the country in the midst of a monthslong pandemic, Letterman found it difficult to conjure up any similarly inspiring anecdotes. One morning last week, this veteran late-night host, broadcaster and comedian, now 73, was sitting in a park here, contemplating the Hudson River and cracking wise about the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge.

“It looks kind of unfinished,” he said through a fabric mask that barely held back his unruly beard. “Doesn’t it look like the new kid got to design it?”

But truth be told, Letterman was in a more melancholy than mirthful frame of mind. Though he, his wife, Regina, and their son, Harry, have remained safe, he knows several people who were stricken by the coronavirus, some of whom died from it. And he is deeply frustrated by what he feels have been inconsistent, nationwide efforts to inform people about the pandemic and mitigate its spread.

While hardly its most devastating casualty, Letterman’s Netflix interview show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, returns this week but nearly came to a halt. He had recorded two episodes, with Kim Kardashian West and with Robert Downey Jr., before the pandemic, and believed the season — if not the series — was finished.

Instead, he was able to produce two more episodes over the summer, under substantially different circumstances: one with Dave Chappelle, which was recorded at an outdoor pavilion in Yellow Springs, Ohio; and one with Lizzo, at her home studio in Los Angeles, which had no audience at all.

For Letterman, each of these episodes offered him a further education in the evolution of entertainment and deeper insights as an interviewer and observer of human nature. Even so, he found himself yearning for what he called “the carefree days of nonsense” when he could “bring people into a theatre and talk to them for an hour, and when we were done I would go out into the crowd and shake hands, and everybody would want to tongue-kiss me.”

“We don’t do that anymore,” he added.

Letterman spoke further about his pandemic experience, the making of his Netflix series and what he hopes the future might hold for him. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Q: How has the pandemic been for you? What is it like for you now?

A: Like everybody else, you forget about it. Six, eight months into it, you go on talking as though things are normal, and then it’s, oh, no, we can’t do that because of the pandemic. In the beginning, it was more than ghastly. The husband of a woman that worked at (“Late Show”), he died. A teacher at Harry’s school died. Paul Shaffer and his wife both had it. Cathy, his wife, was hospitalised. Barbara Gaines, who was a producer on the show, she and her wife both had it. And on and on and on.

Q: How do you feel when you come into contact with people elsewhere in the country who don’t seem to be taking the pandemic as seriously?

A: That makes me very sad. Because we learned a lesson that these other people are dismissing. I was talking to a friend of mine, and he was furious at the mayor of his city for keeping it closed, and he said, “Well, that guy will never be re-elected.” And I just thought, do I tell him what this really can be? We’re looking at a quarter of a million people dead soon. But I just didn’t want to have that fight.

Q: After the 9/11 attacks, you gave several Late Show monologues where you tried to rally your viewers’ spirits and bring them together. Do you ever feel like saying anything similar now?

A: Something applicable to these times? I wish I had the wherewithal to say something meaningful. But all of these people who are resisting the idea of prevention, I just keep thinking: What about the families of the 220,000 people who are dead? I wonder how they’re feeling. I don’t get it. I have no solution other than to do what is told: Take care of yourself and your family.

Q: How did the pandemic affect your work on your Netflix series?

A: I thought we were done for good. Really. In the beginning, it really seemed like, holy God, they’re coming over the wall, we’re all going to die. People keep reminding me that, at my age, I’m particularly vulnerable. Which I don’t appreciate at all. “Dad, you know you’re close to 100, you’d better not go out.”

Q: How did you decide to continue with your season?

A: We had two more episodes (with Lizzo and Dave Chappelle) in preproduction, and we were eager to do something. We did them within a very short period of time, and then we came home. By that point, there were protocols in place from the production company and from Netflix that we had to observe, gladly, and we got through it OK.

Q: Kim Kardashian West, who is now a prized guest on your Netflix series, was a frequent target of mockery in your Late Show days.

A: Oh, I was at the head of that list. I can remember when she would be booked on the show, it was like, I don’t know anything about her, and I’ve never seen her show. And then when we went to talk to Kanye, I thought, oh, I’ve misjudged this woman.

Q: What changed your mind about her?

A: After we met with Kanye West (for the previous season of the Netflix series), I had a long talk with her at their home, and I started to think about how I had used her as a joke and regarded her as someone not to be taken seriously. I found that that impression was not the end of the story. She had a family. She has her prison reform programme. I won’t comment on the ease of being married to Kanye West. And if she can keep a show like that on the air for all those years, that’s an accomplishment. If you can stay in business on television that long, good for you.

Q: You went to Yellow Springs, Ohio, to interview Dave Chappelle. Did you perform at his outdoor comedy show there?

A: Yes. I think I did it. (To his publicist) Did I do it? (Publicist answers: “You did it.”) I’m being told I did it (laughs). It was grand. The setting is unique. It’s outdoors. Everybody’s tested, everybody social distanced. He had three or four comics on and each comic made my heart sink deeper. Because when I was doing comedy, a lot of it was (weakly) “Hey, where you from?” But these men and women, whoa — the level of it, the intellect of it, the presentation of it is so much more than it was when me and my little buddies were, “Hey, how ya doin’, I just got in from Indiana.” Really? No one cares. Get outta here.

Q: Did you come up with a new standup set or use your past material?

A: Past material (laughs). Yeah, I keep past material in the treasure chest. Because it’s so valuable that I don’t want others to hurt themselves with it. No, it was all of the moment. I could have said, “Excuse me, I’ve got to tie my shoe” (imitates crowd laughter). Because once Dave puts his stamp of approval on somebody, it’s not as hard as you think it’s going to be. At first, I thought, oh, God, this is not going to work. And then when it was finished, I thought, wow, this is the most fun I’ll have all summer.

Q: You had previously had Lizzo as a guest on your Late Show in 2014 before her career really took off. Is that why you went back to her now?

A: (Deeply sarcastic) Chronologically, you can make the case that I’m the reason for her success. And I think we — I think I, screw everybody else — I put her on the map. And I stand by that.

Q: Because of the pandemic, this episode has no audience — it’s just the two of you talking in her home studio. Did it make you rethink how you might approach the series going forward?

A: It felt far more relaxed, and I think that’s all her. She was so lovely and gracious and pleasant, and what really tipped me over was her ability with the flute. I was always the one that thought we had to have an audience, because that’s how you built the show — your timing was generated by the audience. But going forward, the requirement of an audience is not essential. I would be eager to see if it works with more than Lizzo.

Q: Do you ever have moments in these interviews where you feel as if you don’t have a shared frame of reference to talk to some of these guests?

A: Yes. Because the experience is barely parallel. We’re all in show business, but that’s as close a comparison as you can make, culturally. I did feel like, is this going to look stupid? An old guy here, trying to talk to people who are thriving and alive and dominating the world through social media? I felt like it was a wreck. That’s the inner dialogue.

Q: How do you get past this?

A: Like anybody else that you talk to, every human being, there are situations that helped develop into what they are. So you’re going to get a story out of anybody. It may not happen in the first five minutes, but in every one of these experiences, there’s always a conduit for mutual experience. “Oh yeah? You think that’s something? Well, one time I choked on a peanut-butter sandwich and nearly died.” You have to make everybody a good interview.

Q: Do you think that late-night television, a genre that you helped to pioneer, has been diminished in recent years — that so much of it has become political comedy that doesn’t really move the needle and crowds out everything else?

A: I know that people have been hugely successful with it. Stephen (Colbert) has done a great job with my old show — his show now. In my day, the goal was just anything to make the audience laugh. That may be part of the dynamic now. People have this hunger to see the current administration being assailed and embarrassing itself. So I think that’s what (late-night shows) worked toward. I don’t fault them for that. After a while, it wears thin, but the appetite for it has not worn thin. I think they still do enough business to keep people happy.

Q: Do you ever find yourself fearing for the future of this country?

A: I really did, until recently. And now I am confident — or more confident than I’ve been in the last four years — that we’re changing presidents in a couple of weeks. And it will be a huge victory. Not just for our culture and our government, but the simple act of voting will have been the reason that the rest of our country is put back together and, in many ways, saved from what appears to be tyranny, certainly jeopardy. I think it will be a huge victory on many fronts, not the least of which is calling attention to the valuable freedom of voting.

Q: Please don’t mistake this for a suggestion, but do you ever think about packing it in as a broadcaster entirely?

A: First of all, you can’t hurt my feelings because I’m dead inside. But the Netflix people put me back in business in a way that has been, for me, really, really fun. On the other hand, I recognize my own shelf life. I’m way overdue. When it happens, I still will enjoy little things here and there, and that’ll be enough. But there’s other people more capable. I got no problem with that. If there is any kind of schedule, it would be when my son is finished with high school. But if it’s tomorrow, that’s fine.

Q: Your son, Harry, is 16 now. Are you worried about how the pandemic is going to affect his life?

A: I think it’s every parent’s concern, regardless of the age of their kids. But for Harry and his buddies, the junior year of high school is a crucial experience. Now they’re starting to look beyond high school, and it’s not good. For guys Harry’s age and older, it might be a setback. Time takes care of everything, and one hopes that that’s the case here.

Q: How do you talk about these feelings with him?

A: I had a conversation with my son the other night that went this way. Because of the pandemic and the fact that he’s getting older, I said, Harry, your mother and I have two responsibilities. One is to keep you safe. And other than the time that your mother let you roll off the bed and land on your head, we have kept you safe. The other responsibility is your happiness. And he said, “Have you been drinking?” So that’s how that works at my house.

Written by: Dave Itzkoff
Photographs by: Victor Llorente

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