It has been a quarter-century since David Letterman hosted the 67th Academy Awards, but nobody who tuned in to the telecast has forgotten that night — least of all Letterman himself, then the 47-year-old host of CBS’ New York-based Late Show. The New York Times review the next day was headlined, “The Winner Isn’t David Letterman.” Time in 2011 named him the worst awards show host ever. And The Atlantic in 2015 described it as “the gold standard of Oscar bombing.”
Things got off on the wrong foot almost immediately when Letterman kicked off the show by saying, “I’ve been dying to do something all day and I think maybe we can take care of it,” and then proceeded to “introduce” several Hollywood A-listers with unusual first names: “Oprah? Uma. Uma? Oprah.” He paused briefly before adding, “I feel much better. Have you kids met Keanu?” (Oprah Winfrey and Keanu Reeves were Oscar presenters that year; Uma Thurman, a nominee for Pulp Fiction.)
The joke fell flat, but he revisited it a half-dozen times over the course of his 11-minute monologue (which also touched on the documentary Hoop Dreams, Newt Gingrich, the baseball strike, Blockbuster Video, DreamWorks and Hooked on Phonics), acknowledging, “It’s going to be one of those things I won’t be able to stop doing all night long.” He even brought two other audience members into the mix before all was said and done: “Quincy? Sigourney.” Quincy Jones was 1995's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award recipient; Sigourney Weaver, a presenter.
Today, Letterman is 72, white-bearded and works only when he chooses to, having given up his Late Show With David Letterman gig in 2015 in order to spend more time with his wife and son at their home 50 miles outside of Manhattan. He still finds the time to speak to the great and the good with his Netflix show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, but his interviews now are longer, more in-depth and revealing. Ever a good sport, he agreed to hop on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter to mark the “Oprah-Uma” anniversary with his first extensive interview about it.
Dave, happy anniversary!
Scott, I just want to thank you and the entire show business community for helping me to celebrate 25 years after the single biggest professional embarrassment of my life.
It’s our pleasure. Whose Oscar hosting, prior to yours, did you most admire?
As a kid, I always thought Bob Hope was the gold standard — he did it year after year after year. But then Johnny Carson became what I came to expect from watching the Academy Awards. I think he wore white tie and tails in those days, and he would say funny things, and then people would accept their awards and then Johnny would make fun of them.
Prior to hosting the Oscars in 1995, you hosted the Emmys in 1986, with Shelley Long. Was that your first taste of hosting an awards show?
Yes, it was the first time. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it. I really thought, “Oh, well, this will be good, because I can come out and make fun of people.” And it turned out I was wrong. It certainly wasn’t the explosion of excrement that the Academy Awards was, but it was not great.
So nine years later, you were approached about hosting the Oscars. Did you have any reservations about saying yes, or were you enthusiastic about it?
Never enthusiastic about it. They approached me — I forget what year it was — and I said, “I don’t think I can do it now,” because I didn’t feel right about it. And then they asked me the following year and I thought, “I can’t keep hiding from this.” My agent at the time, Michael Ovitz, indicated at the time, “Well, come on,” you know? “This is Major League Baseball, let’s go!” And I thought, “Yeah, right, I’ve got to do this!” So it was all hubris. And then, almost immediately after accepting, I started to realize, “Oh, geez, what if this doesn’t go well?” And then, within a month, I had an awareness that, “Oh, by the way, this isn’t going to go well.” And it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What do you think was behind your hesitation about hosting the Oscars? Was it that people are just a bit too buttoned up and anxious about the stakes to laugh? Was it because it’s an L.A. thing and you’re a New York guy? Or something else?
I had seen Billy Crystal, who, at the time, was the new type of host — and beloved. And I knew, “Well, I can’t do that.” And I knew that I can’t just [tamely joke], “Oh, congratulations, Linda! Thank you very much! Bob, good to see you again! Nice shoes, Bob, where did you get those? Costco?” And I started to get scared realizing, “Maybe I don’t belong here.”
Many hosts have said that, in the lead-up to the telecast, they worried most about the monologue, because it’s one of the highest profile moments of the show. Did you?
Well, here’s what happened, and we can just take this step by step. I had a bunch of jokes that I had gotten from various sources, and I had them iron-clad rote memorized. So I knew that — laugh, don’t laugh, I don’t care — I’m going to get through those jokes ... and hopefully they would get laughs. I kind of felt like, “Okay, here’s what I’m going out with.” And at the last minute, this tremendous, tremendous idea is offered to me from Rob Burnett, who was our head writer at the time [on Late Show], which was to go out and, “Hi, thanks, welcome to the show,” and then go right to introducing Oprah to Uma, and then it was going to be paid off by having them say hello to Keanu. And by the way, this is a solid idea that I would do today if those three people were ever in the same room with me again — which seems unlikely, now that I think about it. But I said, “This is great, this will be perfect, this will supersede the jokes, this will loosen everybody up!” Because unusual names — we have three! One of the mistakes that I made was I didn’t tell anybody, “Maybe we need a shot of Oprah, maybe we need a shot of Uma, maybe we need a shot of Keanu.” It never occurred to me. I just thought, “Once you say, ‘Oprah,’ well, the camera will swing around to Oprah.” So I get out there, and I can’t find Oprah. Rob had said, “She’s stage left. You’ll find her.” “OK.” “And Uma is the equal position to the right.” “Well, easy enough. Left and right.” I get out there and I can’t find Oprah, and then I can’t find Uma, and I gave up looking for Keanu. So the whole thing was like a crazy man — “Well, maybe we’d better help Dad back to the home.” So it was a great idea, but it needed some preparation. And then we were off and running!
As a guy who understands comedy as well as anybody, can you break down — and I don’t mean this facetiously — what was funny about the bit, in your mind?
In my mind, we have these three people, highly respected and of great status in the popular culture, in the same room, so it’s not like we’re introducing “Linda” and “Diane” to “Bob.” We have Oprah — I don’t know that I know another Oprah, although there probably are hundreds of them now; same with Uma; and Keanu, I barely care about, but nonetheless, it’s still a different name. And I just thought, “Oh, this will be so fun and lighthearted.”
Did you always intend to return to the bit numerous times throughout the monologue? Or did you do that trying to kind of make it funny after it didn’t go over the first time?
Well, see, now this is interesting, because I had forgotten the subsequent references. Did I do it continually?
Oh. I was trying to save myself. “If you have an extra life raft, throw one to me!” That’s what I was trying for. But I had forgotten that — I thought it was just one and out. It must have been pure survival instinct.
And you could tell, in the moment, that it was not landing?
(Laughs) Oh, yeah! Yes. Because I felt like, “I think someone’s perspiring in this suit — oh, it’s me!” I knew right away.
People forget, though, that the rest of the show was actually pretty well received, and that show’s ratings were the best since Carson had last hosted in 1982. What would you hope people would remember about that night, if not the Oprah-Uma part? Did you feel that the rest of the evening was good?
(Laughs) No! What I would hope that people would remember is that that was a year they didn’t have the Academy Awards! The reason for the numbers was Forrest Gump — everybody loved Tom Hanks and the movie, so if you have a favorite, you’re going to tune in to see how your favorite does. So I can’t take credit for the numbers whatsoever.
How quickly after the show ended did you realize that “Oprah-Uma” was going to be something that people were not going to let go of?
Well, when I was done with the monologue, we had a videotape to play, so they put you in some kind of [backstage] structure that you might see in the showroom at Cabela’s, and you sit in there. I was talking to Rob and Robert Morton [a Late Show producer], and I said, “Well, what do you think?” And Morty said, “Yeah. It was okay.” So now I’m thinking, “Oh, Jesus.” And I said, “Was it just—?” And he said, “No, no, it was fine.” And I thought, “Fine?” And finally I browbeat the poor man into saying, “You know, it was great!” And I thought for the first time in my life, I’ve gotten someone to lie to me about my own performance. I felt horrible about that. We went from “fine” to “great” in about a 15-minute conversation, and that was my first realization, other than the heavy perspiration.
Was it hard to go on with the rest of the show knowing that the monologue had not gone over well?
Yes, it was. But luckily, there wasn’t much more for me to do. I remember when Steve Martin came out to present — and I idolize and love Steve Martin — he said, “I really enjoyed Dave’s opening monologue.” And then he said, “But then again, I also like cleaning up after my dog.” And I just thought, “Oh, my God, Steve Martin hates me.” And I felt horrible about that. But it was just embarrassment — that’s all it was. It was like when your body turns on itself. “Well, what happened?!” “Well, your liver is eating your kidney.” My personality was attacking itself. So the story of the evening started to harden.
If you had refused to do the Oprah-Uma bit, do you think people would have received the rest of the monologue differently? I don’t know if you’ve watched it back, but do you think that apart from that, it would have played well, and that just poisoned it?
This is an excellent question — and then also something very funny, the idea that I’ve watched it again. That’s humorous. But if I had lost the Oprah-Uma thing? I don’t know. I don’t know that those jokes were strong enough, anyway. If we lose Oprah-Uma, I bet I’m not sweating in my tuxedo — but I don’t know that that would have saved the evening, honestly.
After the show, did you read reviews, or do you not like to do that?
Oh, I didn’t need to read them. We flew back to New York and then we had to change planes to go to London, so as I’m walking through the waiting area at the gate, I see people by the dozens holding up the New York Post with screaming headlines about how I had ruined the Academy Awards and they were going to stop making movies for a year and rethink the whole thing. And even before that, as we were leaving the show — the men and women who were with me — there was a stagehand getting ready to load the 40-foot Oscar or whatever they were taking out of there, and the guy says, “Yeah, well, geez, I hope you get to do it again next year!” And then I realized, “Oh, that’s just bullshit, they say that to everybody.” There was nothing you could say. The patient — me — was wounded. Self-inflicted. Maybe wasn’t going to die. But had to live through the recovery. I remember [Ovitz] saying to me, “Ah, you know what, one bad outing isn’t going to ruin your career.” And I just thought, “Oh, Jesus, we’re that close to ruining my career?!”
That was the first time you talked to him after the show?
No. (Laughs.) The first time I talked to him after the show, everything was great. He shows up and he’s got Paul Newman with him — I knew Paul Newman from various racing activities and stuff — and everything seemed fine. It was later, when I was in London and it was all collapsing, that he called up and reassured me about “one bad outing.”
When you were a guest on my podcast, we talked about the fact that it was right around that time that Jay Leno passed you in the ratings, and things stayed that way ever after. Do you think that was related or unrelated to the Oscars?
Oh, no, I think that had to be a factor, because I think people who theretofore didn’t know what I was up to got a really close look. (Laughs.)
And what about Oprah? There were all of those years when you two supposedly had a feud. Did the Oscars have anything to do with that?
No, I don’t think so. I think she must have been bewildered, but I don’t think she and I ever talked about it. We became friends, but we never discussed it.
Were you ever asked to host the Oscars again after that night?
Yes, I was, I think two different times. And I don’t how know that happened — maybe a new guy came in who hadn’t seen the original? And I considered it and then I thought, “What, are you crazy? No!” Because I knew the same thing would happen again. But I will say: Billy Crystal followed the next year and was kind enough to include a bit of comedy with me that allowed me to kind of knock the ugliness off the event — it was a reference to Oprah-Uma, and I think it went pretty well. It wasn’t enough to kick the taint off the night, but it was very generous of Billy to do that.
With the benefit of 25 years of hindsight, do you still think the original bit itself was funny, but just not to that particular audience? In other words, do you think there is just a different sense of humor for people in New York versus L.A., or TV people versus movie people, or anything like that?
If I agreed to your premise, would that let me off the hook for bombing? If that’ll do it, then yes, that’s absolutely what happened! No, I think it was just not my night.
There have obviously been 25 years of Oscars telecasts since then. Have you been particularly impressed by any hosts since then?
Well, I thought that Kevin Hart [the original choice to host the 2019 telecast, before unearthed offensive tweets led to Hart stepping aside] was a genius choice. The first time this kid was on my show — Scott, I don’t know if you know this, but I used to be on TV every night — he did not do a pre-interview. Kevin said to the segment producer, Brian Teta, “Don’t worry, I can make anything funny.” And I thought, “OK…” And he sits down and oh, my God, everything was funny! I just thought, “Whoa! This is something unique!” So I was kind of eager to see what that would have been. I thought Ellen [DeGeneres] did a great job. I thought Jimmy Kimmel did a great job. I didn’t see Neil Patrick Harris, Hugh Jackman or Seth MacFarlane — I was out of the country on business for the government.
You know who probably felt the closest to the way you felt? James Franco and Anne Hathaway….
Yeah, but they were fine. Me? “What has he been in? A sauna?!” And by the way, Scott, let me just take this time, once again, to thank you and the entire show business community for helping me travel 25 years down memory lane. It’s been nothing but fun.
Well, it only took them about 25 years to realize that their best bet was to have no host at all….
(Laughs) Maybe I’m the one who killed off the whole thing! I’ll tell you something: I had no idea it was the 25th anniversary of this, and this is the first time I’ve talked to anybody about it at any length and perspective. And now I just find the whole thing delightful. I’m alive. I went on to have a family. I didn’t have to leave and change my name and live in remote parts of Montana. So now I find it fascinating.
Interview has been lightly edited for clarity.