Late-night legend David Letterman’s ugly personality no laughing matter, former colleagues say

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF ‘THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS’)

Late-night legend David Letterman’s ugly personality no laughing matter, former colleagues say

Late-night funnyman David Letterman was hardly a barrel of laughs off the air.A new biography of the now-retired talk show host portrays Letterman as more self-loathing than self-critical — and an often miserable man who inflicted his pain on his staff.

“He was never truly comfortable unless he was seething with unhappiness at something,” one longtime writer told author Jason Zinoman in “Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night.”

In fact, few of the acerbic Letterman’s close colleagues sang his praises to Zinoman.

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Letterman’s demeanor soured after July 1995, when his CBS front-running program dipped to second place behind “The Tonight Show” with former friend-turned-enemy Jay Leno.

Letterman infamously sucked on a strand of Jennifer Aniston's hair.

Letterman infamously sucked on a strand of Jennifer Aniston’s hair.

(CBS)

Viewers flipped to NBC when Leno landed an interview with actor Hugh Grant, fresh off his arrest for soliciting a hooker improbably named Divine Brown.

Many never returned, curdling Letterman’s on-air persona.

He became more openly caustic as his comedy took a sadistic turn. One night, after his “Late Show” was whipped in the ratings by both “The Tonight Show” and “Nightline,” his rage visibly surfaced.

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A comedy bit called for a life-size Letterman doll to sit in the guest’s chair. Seemingly on the spur of the moment, Letterman punched the doll — to much audience laughter.

The laughs continued as he landed a few more blows. And then the 580-seat theater went silent when Letterman fell into a frenzy of punching and slapping his plastic alter ego.

Obviously, something was wrong with Dave.

“People don’t understand why you’re behaving the way you’re behaving,” said Rob Burnett, a trusted colleague and the head of Letterman’s Worldwide Pants production company, in a candid chat with his boss.

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Letterman’s anger wasn’t all directed inward, and he became upset with pretty much everyone on the show.

A retired Letterman sporting a fierce beard.

A retired Letterman sporting a fierce beard.

(SPLASH NEWS/SPLASH NEWS)

Burnett returned as executive producer, but things became strained. His unique ability to manage his boss’ dark moods ended with a “falling-out,” according to Burnett.

Their relationship eroded to the point where they were barely speaking. According to a veteran producer, “everything changed after that.”

A veteran staffer who served under Letterman through both his late-night shows observed that getting close to the boss was perilous: “There comes a moment when he turns on you.”

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The tale of Tim Long, one of several head writers hired during the show’s run, was typical. Unable to deal with the host’s constant rejections and dark moods, Long took to chewing Coke cans — and swallowing pieces of tin.

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Competitor Jay Leno leapt to fame after viewers flipped to watch his interview with actor Hugh Grant, fresh off a prostitution sting. Letterman lost a chunk of viewers to Leno and his more affable personality.

(GETTY IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES)

Even the famously mellow Paul Shaffer lashed out at Letterman one night when Todd Rundgren sat in with the band.

Letterman kept pushing and needling, trying to get Rundgren to do more than the one number done in rehearsal.

“The cat flies in to do us a favor and you just want what you want,” Shaffer yelled at his boss.

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It embarrassed Shaffer so much the moment was cut from the show before airing, even though Letterman said he was fine with it.

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Letterman chatted with racing icon Mario Andretti before the start of the 2007 Indy 500.

(MICHAEL HICKEY/WIREIMAGE)

The irony: Letterman was miserable even when his ratings put the show at No. 1 in late-night viewers. In 1993, he walked away from NBC after the network chose Leno to succeed Johnny Carson, taking the 11:30 p.m. slot on rival CBS for his “Late Show With David Letterman.”

CBS offered Letterman a then-record deal with a $16 million annual salary. The payoff was immediate as Letterman seized the ratings lead against the once-invincible “Tonight.”

Yet Letterman remained miserable. “He always complained from the very beginning,” recalled one producer.

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Things went downhill from there.

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Letterman appeared alongside girlfriend Merrill Markoe during a 1982 photo shoot.

(GEORGE ROSE/GETTY IMAGES)

“It got worse when he went to CBS,” recalled Shaffer. “Any flaw, minor flaw, he exaggerated. He was most uncomfortable at No. 1.”

Comic Rich Hall, a writer for Letterman’s NBC show, was floored by the host’s new, abrasive nature when he appeared as a guest. Hall followed actress Andie MacDowell, who had just flopped in her segment. Before the cameras came on, Letterman leaned over and snarled, “How’d you like to be married to that c—?”

What the author calls Letterman’s “ferocious fear of failure” was there from the first.

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Barbara Walters appeared on Letterman's "Late Show."

Barbara Walters appeared on Letterman’s “Late Show.”

(CBS)

His girlfriend at the time and for years to come, Merrill Markoe, was a brilliantly inventive comedy writer and instrumental in shaping the show.

Markoe, who rarely comments on Letterman publicly, told the author about the resulting fallout.

“If it weren’t for you and your crazy ideas,” Letterman shouted at her on the street, “I’d still have a talk show like John Davidson!”

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It’s a comment funny only in retrospect.

Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer.

Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer.

(SUSAN RAGAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Markoe became head writer on NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman” from the first show in 1982 — and suffered for that, too.

Every night after the show, an agonized Letterman would lock himself in his office with Markoe.

“The last 10 months have included a nightly discussion about what a failure we are,” she once noted.

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In those days, the acid-tongued Letterman would hang out, trading barbs with the writers. His targets learned not to return in kind, as the hurt would show on Letterman’s face.

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Letterman shakes hands with late-night predecessor Johnny Carson.

(STEVE FRIEDMAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“He was very sensitive,” says Barbara Gaines, a producer who remained with Letterman until his 2015 retirement.

By the end of the ’80s, Letterman was the king of hip and cool. He now smoked cigars and assumed “a statelier air.” Notably, he no longer made a show of despising celebrities, as he had for a decade.

When Barbara Walters booked him as a guest interview on one of her specials, he walked around the office openly expressing his admiration for her.

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“What happened, Dave?” asked head writer Steven O’Donnell.

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Letterman at a 1982 NBC reception honoring the announcement of his show.

(AP)

“They are like my peers now,” the host told him.

It was during that era that Letterman started abruptly turning on longtime, trusted colleagues. Barry Sand, a producer and ally since the morning show, suddenly could do nothing right.

After a guest canceled at the last minute, Sand scrambled and was able to book Mel Gibson — then at the height of his fame. Letterman turned on the producer and snarled, “Who the hell wants Mel Gibson? I don’t want Mel Gibson.”

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He opted instead for Kamarr the Discount Magician. Sand was soon gone.

Letterman in a 1984 promotional photo.

Letterman in a 1984 promotional photo.

(SUSAN WOOD/GETTY IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES)

In the rush of his success, the formerly prudish Letterman switched up his persona, booking “leggy supermodels” as frequent and welcome guests.

The phrase “leggy supermodels” was funny, but Letterman’s leers came off as sincere and appreciative.

Boorish advances became his signature. Sitting next to Jerry Hall, whose breasts exploded from her dress, he openly enjoyed the view.

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“I get the awful feeling I may have overinflated my tires,” quipped Letterman.

Letterman announced his new CBS contract in a 1993 press conference.

Letterman announced his new CBS contract in a 1993 press conference.

(ALEX BRANDON/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

On one cringeworthy show, he sucked on a strand of Jennifer Aniston’s hair.

Zinoman writes that after a time, the satire faded away to show the bits for what they were — a rich and famous man indulging his fantasies.

“As he got older, Letterman increasingly played the horny creep,” he writes.

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By the time he was an eminence grise on CBS, he became “crudely sexual” in his interviews. The camera would slowly pan over the legs of Aniston or Gwen Stefani as he delivered lascivious comments.

Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night

Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night

“He seemed like a pervy old man at times,” says one of his head writers, Eric Stangel.

Even before the 2009 scandal when an affair with an assistant exposed Letterman to an extortion try, the host interacted infrequently with most of the show staff.

The only trusted colleagues were those who had worked with Letterman for decades — at least, those left standing.

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Letterman just couldn’t bring himself to talk to people.

It seems, though, that after a year and a half in retirement, Letterman is now eager to chat.

In an interview with New York magazine, Letterman claims his son, Harry, 13, doesn’t like being in public with him.

Not because of his snow-white mountain man beard, but because he talks too much to everyone.

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Letterman might have been kidding. Or not.

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For Those Of You Who Have Survived The Past 60 Years Here On Earth With Me

 

Holy cow folks, what a ride life has been for those of us fortunate enough to have been allowed to ride it. Think of all of the things each of us have lived through. For me, I was in second grade in Nov of 1963. Bobby and Dr King, I was 11. Nixon, China, still a kid. Vietnam and the Draft ended when I was 16.

Now these days and it seems that Russia is becoming a ‘dirty word’ in D.C. politics. Who knows, who even cares these days about what is honest or not, or just a good story. Ethics in our world seems to be only a distant memory of our childhood lives. Life is still primal above all else, what will people do in their attempt to keep the wolf out of their kitchen or into their bed. Humans have proven to be fascinating creatures, both good and bad. So many mass murderers, so many wars, so many lost lives, why, what for? Just a couple of years ago I watched a Documentary about the dollar cost to the U.S. Treasury of the U.S. led War in Afghanistan. Up to that given point in time it was $1.1 Trillion. worse was the next statement the announcer gave, he said that about 90% of the people in the country only had no more than one extra change of clothes. If those stats are correct and it wouldn’t shock me if this story is validated, its sickening. I/we are the generation of a lot of ‘awakening’ of our Country.

 

We’ve seen Vietnam on our family T.V.’s every night, we watched Saddam smile as he hid behind children. We all most likely can remember where they were at when we first seen and heard the audio on 9/11, then there was 5/01/11, I believe this is the day Osama lost his head. We watched Elvis live, and die. Two of the Beatles are gone. We have actually had a professional Actor become our President, no it is not President Trump, I said a professional Actor. I was speaking of Ronald Reagan of course, and we have had a ‘shocker’ of course in the election of a half Black and half White Social Worker from Chicago as our President, for two terms. We have seen ‘A Polish Pope’, we heard Johnny Carson say, good night. Now we and our children and theirs will be at war until the ‘end of days’.

 

I hope that each and everyone of you were able to relate to these or maybe other events in your personal life. Another one for me is the Belvidere Tornado of April 21st of 1967. There are great moments of glory like the birth of your children and your grandchildren and there is crushing heartache like the deaths of so many loved ones. I thank God everyday that I believe in Him and He in me and I feel so sad for those who beat their own chest and brag their own names. These people are dead already and they don’t even know it. This is not some kind of a suicide note, I do not believe in the ethics of suicide so that will never ever happen. I’m just reminiscing with some old friends about some of the stars and highlights and low points of our own lives. All people who have taken of your time to read this article I would like to just say thank you. I hope it gave you some smiles, and a few good memories.