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Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night

Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night - Jason Zinoman

It’s hard to imagine any future critical biography of David Letterman superseding
the achievement of New York Times comedy critic Jason Zinoman. That’s because his book includes much more than the essential information of Letterman’s youthful influences, early apprentice work, then long discussions of the high-flying career we witnessed on two networks, especially the most significant moments of Letterman’s late-night reign. Zinoman also provides considerable context and analysis of what we saw on the small screen as well as what we didn’t.

Of course, analyzing the life and legacy of Dave Letterman was perhaps one of the most
Daunting challenges any writer could take on of such an enigmatic personality. It was worth the effort. Zinoman successfully blends Letterman’s talents and comic gifts along with his quirks, hypochondria, self-doubt, personal remoteness, and Letterman’s unique vision that the comic turned into one of the most distinctive broadcast canons of them all.

Astutely, Zinoman critiques Letterman’s career by breaking down his book’s organization into the various eras and very different periods of Letterman’s two most important shows on NBC and CBS. Along the way, the author demonstrates why the most creative years took place while Letterman was at NBC, especially when he worked with his professional and personal collaborator, Merrill Markoe. Zinoman also describes how the contributions of writers, directors, and producers like Hal Gurnee, Chris Elliott, Steve O’Donnell, and Rob Burnett fed into Letterman’s unusual concepts of what a talk show could be, their ideas often pushing against the host’s own wishes. We witness the tugs-of-war between the various groups of writers including veterans of the Harvard Lampoon and the on-again, off-again tenures of writers for SNL.

Many long-time fans of Dave Letterman will notice Zinoman chose the guests he discusses to make specific points and not try to provide a rogue’s gallery of the countless faces that walked across Dave’s stage. No mention of Teri Garr continually kicking up her legs in front of Dave’s desk. No mention of the night Dave reconciled with Oprah Winfrey, the night Paul McCartney performed on the outside roof of the Ed Sullivan theatre, or the feud between Letterman and Alaska governor Sarah Palin. No mention of Letterman’s post-retirement work as a celebrity correspondent for the climate change documentary series, Years of Living Dangerously.

Naturally, since so many decades had to be covered, how could any one book touch on every interesting moment? Zinoman does share the origins of Stupid Pet Tricks and the Top Ten list and Letterman’s latter-day stories about the woman breaking into his house, his heart attack, 9/11, and the blackmail threat that led to the exposure of Letterman’s various affairs. Hmm, one wonders how Letterman would have fared in these days of the “Me Too” movement. Should that have happened in 2017, no matter how venerable Letterman had become, odds are he would have had to be fired.

We should be grateful Zinoman avoided the sorts of trails other biographers might have followed, as he doesn’t give us a detailed genealogy of Letterman’s second and current wife, Regina Lasko. We know they married in 2009, bore a son together, not much else. Instead, the author explores everything that mattered in Letterman’s professional career with a very analytical and scholarly eye that is appreciative when that is due, critical when that too is appropriate.

Now, as to whether or not Letterman was the “Last Giant of Late night,” I have to say the jury can’t conclude that just yet. It will be some time before any other host can claim such an honor as the cream of the current crop, Stephen Colbert, has only been on the job a few short years. So for some time to come, there won’t be any competition for this year’s winner of the Mark Twain Prize. And Jason Zinoman too deserves accolades for his timely, well-researched, fast-moving, revelatory, well thought-out exploration of an entertainment giant, the last of his kind or not.

This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on Dec. 5, 2017