Just a little shy of two years since David Letterman’s final show aired on May 20, 2015, The New York Times comedy critic Jason Zinoman has written the definitive biography of the man and his show business career in Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night. Letterman, so fun onscreen, so complicated and moody off, continues to fascinate a generation (or two) of Americans the way Johnny Carson fascinated their fathers and mothers (and grandfathers and grandmothers).
Zinoman’s book functions as both a comprehensive biography of the man and a detailed look at the shows that made him famous — Late Night with David Letterman, which ran on NBC from 1982-1992, and The Late Show with David Letterman, which ran on CBS from 1993-2015.
Zinoman is great at deconstructing the comedy that made the show great and a shrewd observer of the behind-the-scenes dynamics of late-night television. He offers a great look at the relationships that shaped Letterman’s career, particularly Merill Markoe, his girlfriend from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s, director Hal Gurnee, who has been with him since the beginning of his career and writers like Steve O’Donnell and Rob Burnett. Here’s seven surprising revelations in the book:
1. Even in college, work was Letterman’s dating pool
Letterman has long been known to find his romantic partners through work. He met Markoe in the L.A. comedy clubs in the mid-70s, wife Regina Lasko was a unit manager on his NBC show and in 2009 it was revealed that he had an affair with a former show intern. It is a trend that goes back to college. When he hosted a show on a local commercial station, WERK, then-girlfriend and later first wife Michelle Cook played a frazzled waitress named Lila Whip in audio skits with Letterman.
2. Roger Ailes was almost Letterman’s Producer
Letterman’s first national program was a morning show on NBC that lasted five months in the summer and fall of 1980. Since he knew few people in the business Letterman hired Bob Stewart, a veteran producer with whom he had worked on the failed game show The Riddlers, to run the talk show. Stewart’s game show experience was ill-suited to morning TV and he quit before the show even premiered. One of the people who was offered the job was a former Mike Douglas Show producer and Nixon advisor named Roger Ailes, who briefly considered the offer before turning it down. (A few years later Ailes would help get Ronald Reagan re-elected president, paving the way for him to eventually become the founder of Fox News.)
3.Letterman was a pretty crappy boss
Zinoman describes the host’s management style as “passive-aggressive.” It manifested itself in his inability to fire people, most notably longtime producer Barry Sand and head writer Steve O’Donnell. Instead of firing them, Letterman would just freeze them out until they got the hint that they were no longer wanted. In the early years, Letterman was close to the writers, meeting with them often to work on the show. After it became a success, he became remote, preferring to see only O’Donnell and spend most of his time holed up in his office. Among the writers the joke became, “You might get to meet him when you leave.”
4. He tried to get his ex-girlfriend to write jokes for his mistress (or soon-to-be mistress)
Ex-girlfriend Markoe appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman a few times when it first went on the air on CBS in 1993. But she hadn’t heard from the show for years when she got a call in the mid-2000s about doing some Olympic segments. Markoe thought Dave wanted her to appear on air only to find out he wanted her to write segments for an intern named Stephanie Birkitt to perform on camera. A few years late Markoe (and the world) would learn that Letterman was having an affair with a staffer: Stephanie Birkitt (who had graduated from intern to assistant).
5. After the affair with Birkitt was revealed, Letterman made his staff stay with him like hostages because he was afraid to go home
After Letterman confessed on air in 2009 to having affairs with women on his staff, he organized hourslong show postmortems because he was afraid to go home. He would gather some of the writers and producers to meet in an office to talk about everything but the show. (“Everyone sat there and talked about [other] television shows or a documentary about Hitler’s final days”). Letterman admitted he started the postmortems because, “I can’t go home. I am the most hated man in America.” The meetings would last for hours, even though no work got done. One staffer said, “It was like a hostage situation.”
6. Director Hal Gurnee is the unsung hero of Letterman’s career
Much has been written about the impact Markoe had on the comic sensibility of Late Night (and Letterman himself) but Zinoman makes the case that director Hal Gurnee, who worked with Jack Paar and joined Letterman on his ill-fated morning show, was equally important, helping Letterman “understand the possibilities of the medium” by becoming the key visual stylist on the show and showing the host how mishaps — like when a singer’s microphone didn’t work — could be mined for comedy gold by breaking the fourth wall or just holding the shot for a long uncomfortable beat.
7. Merrill Markoe is the unsung hero of the book
Markoe has long been recognized as a crucial creative influence on both Late Night and on Letterman. Her comedic style was more sophisticated, more absurdist, more hip than Letterman’s comedy. (Indeed one theme of the book is how, shall we say, square, Dave’s comedy was and how much he relied on Markoe and his writers — principally the Harvard Lampoon alumni — to make him seem hip. Letterman, in Zinoman’s telling, was less a comedian than a deft performer). But in many ways she is the star of the middle half of the book. Viewed from a slightly different angle, Zinoman’s book is less a biography of Letterman than the story of a brilliant female comic whose career was foiled by the sexism of the society around her and how she internalized that sexism to see her role as more helping Dave succeed than helping herself succeed. It is a pity Markoe wasn’t born forty years later, she would have given Samantha Bee and Amy Schumer a run for their money.