Is Brian Abrams's Oral History Of Letterman's Late Night Worth Staying Up For?
Or is this dish better served by The Late Shift?
The Brand: David Letterman
The Extension: And Now...: An Oral History Of "Late Night With David Letterman," 1982-1993, a Kindle Single by Brian Abrams
Is This A Brand Worth Extending? Sure? ...This is where I admit that my interest in late-night shows is pretty much reserved to books about them: the SNL histories, The Late Shift, etc. But that never stopped me from taking Letterman's side in any battle with Jay Leno for post-local-news supremacy, just on GPs. I've watched occasionally; I'm conversant. More so with his CBS work than with the NBC years Abrams focuses on, but the larger point, really, is that the "brand" is Letterman himself, and is closing up shop in a few weeks. Ray Romano's hosting a tribute to Letterman, A Life In Television, the night I write this; we're in the homestretch of the victory lap, so it's a good time to look back at Letterman's career and what made him a late-night legend.
Is This An Extension Worth The Branding? What I lack in depth of knowledge about Letterman, I make up for in omniphagic consumption of oral histories regardless of subject. I love the format, and would read about almost any topic in the format, up to and including Was Once A Grape: An Oral History Of The Universal Order Of Raisinophiles. So, Abrams's choice of medium is smart, and one of the things I love about oral histories is the way that, sometimes, people don't know how they sound and string themselves up kind of unwittingly. Janeane Garofalo did it in the SNL book, and Richard Morris does it here, repeatedly. Morris, an early writer on Late Night, is quite condescending about other guys in the room not having standup experience; let go after a time, he's all, sure, I saved my best material for my own sets...what? Then he sniffs that he "could have had some more support from Merrill" Markoe, then Letterman's partner and head writer at that time. Markoe: "I didn't see it as my job to provide emotional equilibrium for the writers." Dry as a Bond martini. Love it.
Abrams gets some decent dish, like Tom Snyder standing in the wings and dismissing Letterman as a "no-name" (who then took his job) (the guy who overheard the comment "never told Dave that story"); Chris Elliott starting out as a mere booker for the pet tricks; that guests didn't have a ton of contact with Dave, and writers and producers got outgrown and let go without ever really knowing why; that a lot of staffers from the early years thought the hiring "process" -- which consisted largely of one writer recommending another he knew from The Lampoon -- needed work. Mark Hamill loved doing comedy bits. Leno was a regular guest in the '80s and his spots guaranteed a pro show. Nobody had substance issues.
Abrams knows his job is to collate the material and stay out of the way, and he does that well. Letterman himself didn't participate, but Markoe, Dee Snider, Randy Cohen (I didn't know Cohen, the "Ethicist" columnist for the New York Times for many years, was a Late Night writer from 1984-90), and various producers make up for that. It does feel a bit rushed and thin as you get up to the early '90s, and on the one hand, I think it's wise to avoid territory The Late Shift covered so thoroughly. On the other hand, I wonder if the project isn't better served getting more commentary about earlier times, and stopping at, say, the late '80s when Markoe and Letterman split and she left the show.
But it's a fun, fast read that might blow your mind if, like me, you'd totally forgotten they started Letterman in a morning-show slot.