Speaking at The New Yorker Fest on Friday night, David Letterman didn't mention the leaked Access Hollywood audio of Donald Trump making lewd comments, which had just surfaced a couple of hours before his talk began, but he did have plenty to say about the Republican presidential candidate, who was once a frequent guest on his Late Show.
Calling him "Trumpy," Letterman reiterated much of what he told The New York Times, saying he was disturbed by Trump's comments and actions, particularly mocking a disabled reporter, and that if Trump had been a guest on his show in the past year, he would have gone after him.
In fact, Letterman said that he has been proven wrong in an earlier assessment, following Trump's birther claims about President Barack Obama, that the man isn't racist.
As Trump questioned whether Obama was in fact born in the U.S., Letterman said, "We got to talking about it one night on the show, without Trumpy, and I said, 'Well, if he’s a racist maybe we shouldn’t invite him on the show.'
"So then I had to call Don because he wasn’t coming back on the show," Letterman continued. "And I said, 'Don, I don’t think you’re a racist because you’re too smart. I think smart people are not racists.' And he said, 'Well, of course I’m smart; I’m not a racist.' And I said, 'There you go, you’ve proven my point, come back and be on the show.' And he came back and he was on the show two or three times after that and I thought the deal was done. I thought I’d called him out: He's too smart to be a racist. Well, I was wrong."
Letterman indicated he remained a fan of Hillary Clinton, saying, "She’s always treated me very nicely, been very kind with me, been very frank with me, very smart. So I have nothing but the highest regard for her. I hope when she’s elected she'll be a good president. Let’s just say, she’s not the perfect candidate. Who has been the perfect candidate?"
Letterman also made the packed audience at New York's SVA Theatre a guarantee: "There’s not a chance in hell that this man [Trump] will be elected president. And if he is, I’ll get you all a lovely gift from Tiffany's."
He did acknowledge that Trump seemed to offer a lot more fodder for late-night comedy than his Republican opponents would have.
"If it wasn’t for Donald Trump, what would this campaign be?" Letterman wondered. "How much fun would it be? If you pick one of the other 17, would we really be having fun? ‘Oh, did you hear what Marco Rubio said today? He went out and bought lifts for his shoes — look out!’ I mean, we’ve got a crazy man running for office!"
But the former talk show host wasn't sure if he could talk about Trump every night.
"It would be never-ending. I mean it would be the lead story of every show, and it's been running now for a year and a half and will go far beyond November," said Letterman. "So while it might be fun here and there to drop something in, I don’t know if I’d have the stamina for a full plate of Trumpy night in and night out."
Still, the former Late Show host wasn't done speaking about "Trumpy" on Friday night.
"In any other walk of life, he would be ostracized. You would not go near a person who behaved this way," he said, before looking at it from the other angle that Trump's campaign is also a "wonderful exercise in democracy" and supports the idea that "anyone can be president."
"He did nothing illegal, that we can pin on him," Letterman said, laughing, before getting serious. "He should've been forced out of the Republican party."
While Letterman said "there might be something to" the event's interviewer and New Yorker articles editor Susan Morrison's suggestion that the entertainment industry and its constant coverage of Trump may be to blame for his success, he stopped short of criticizing Jimmy Fallon for going easy on the candidate ("It depends on the host") and also didn't have anything bad to say about Fallon's NBC colleagues Lester Holt, who moderated the first presidential debate, and even Matt Lauer, who was widely criticized for how he hosted a veterans forum featuring both candidates.
"I'm not quite sure what the expectation is for a presidential debate host. Do you lay back and be courteous to the two people running for the highest office in the world? Do you insert yourself? Do you intervene? Are you a referee? I'm not sure," Letterman said of Holt's role as moderator. "I can remember reading after Matt Lauer did the presidential back-to-back deal. I watched it and I thought, 'It seems all right to me.' But it turns out it wasn't perceived that way. … I think really the moderator is the least of it. … They should have the debates without a moderator."
Letterman, who is still sporting the voluminous beard that he's grown since stepping down from CBS' Late Show in May 2015, also talked about what he does every day now that he's no longer hosting a nightly talk show.
"Most of the day I just sit around and wait for Ellen to come on," he joked. "I do a lot of stuff. The family and I did a great deal of traveling this summer and it was delightful. We were in Montana for about six weeks, in Martha’s Vineyard for about six weeks, went to Japan for two weeks. And it was fun. You live and die with your kids, and if your kids are having fun, you don't care."
Letterman has been getting offers to return to the limelight, and indeed will be featured on National Geographic's Years of Living Dangerously. He talked Friday night about his trip to India for the show and his feeling a strong sense of responsibility to his son to work to address the effects of climate change.
But he said most of those offers are for "cameo work" and he turned down the offer to appear in the upcoming Spider-Man reboot.
"What I get is people saying, 'What would you like to do?' and I say, 'I did what I’d like to do.' I get offers like a lot of cameo work, like somebody was doing a movie — oh, it was Spider-Man and they said, 'Would you like to be a street vendor in Spider-Man?' I don’t think there is a device invented today that is capable of measuring the amount of time it took for me to hang up the phone."
He also echoed comments he'd made before that he's moved on from late-night, saying, "I don't miss it. It’s for younger people. … I’ve had a lovely time here this evening, so this is all I need."
The former Late Show host also said he hasn't been watching the current crop of late-night hosts, jokingly referring to James Corden at one point as "Johnny Condon" before saying he knew that's not his name and asked Morrison and the audience to give him the name he'd forgotten. But while he's not watching, he would still like there to be a woman hosting a broadcast late-night show, telling an audience member who said that he was inspired to be a late-night host by Letterman that he hoped the guy wouldn't do that.
“There’s so many late-night shows,” Letterman said. “It’s 2016, and nothing against you being male, but I think I would be happy to watch a woman. … You’ve got two Jimmys and a Stephen, I don’t know. And good luck to you getting your own show, I’m sure you’re hilarious. … There are plenty of funny women."
Letterman also looked back at his long late-night career, including his interactions with Johnny Carson and his famously not getting the chance to host The Tonight Show.
"I never really talked about this with anybody, but I kept thinking that somebody would ask me to host The Tonight Show," Letterman said. "I thought that’s how it would work. I didn’t know that what you needed to do was go to the network and say, 'Come on, when’s this gonna happen?' So I didn’t. I think I sent the message that perhaps I wasn’t interested. I had numerous meetings with Brandon Tartikoff over and over and over again, and I can remember one in particular where he said, 'So, anything else?' He came in, because the ratings on the NBC show were tremendous for a late-night show, and he came in and said, 'Anything else?' And I said, 'No, everything’s great.' And it occurred to me, years and years later, that that ‘anything else’ might have been the opening for ‘Yeah, I’d like to host the Tonight Show.'"
Letterman also said he was still upset that, after winning the ratings battle against Leno for two years, his show wasn't able to return to the top spot.
"I was embarrassed by it," he admitted. "Because it's like putting toothpaste back in the tube. What happens there? We didn't know exactly what happened — we just knew that we'd lost our way. For a long time … I would blame the network and I used to get in furious fights with Les Moonves. He's still there. I'm gone. We had a fight that lasted a full 24 hours because I thought the problem was not me. I thought the problem was the network and then I gradually began to realize the problem wasn't the network, it is me. And I was able to make peace with that. It was simply that a larger number of people liked watching Jay more than they liked watching me."
He continued: "When Jay started winning, it was just like, one night he wasn’t and the next night he was. We thought, 'Oh well, it’s anomalous.' Well, it wasn’t. It went on like that forever, and that panicked us, or perhaps me because I was at the head of the thing. We lost our way for a while. It took a long time to settle back in and find out what we were comfortable doing. On occasion we would beat him in the ratings here and there, but not routinely. I felt bad for the network, I felt bad for my staff. I felt like I was failing the staff. I was embarrassed for my family. I got over it, but I still wish we could have been the No. 1 late-night show."