Dave’s World of Doubt : Letterman changed his ‘Late Show’ set, altered his act and even fired his producer. But don’t expect things to settle down. Can the former king of late night ever be happy?

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Verne Gay covers television for Newsday in New York

Stupid, stupid, stupid. How--Dave now wonders--could he have been so dumb? The year is 1994. David Letterman has purchased a huge house in the rolling horse country near North Salem, N.Y., for $5 million, which is a lot of money. Even for Dave. And . . . well, let him tell the story:

“It was amazing to me,” he says, “that this house was still standing, because structurally I don’t know how it got approved. It was built the way a robin builds a nest, which I guess is maybe an insult to the robin. It was built with no structural integrity, and I’m so dumb, I didn’t know this until I got in there.” Instead of moving in, Letterman rebuilt it from the inside out: board by board, plaster wall by plaster wall. “But I’m so upset with it now that I don’t know that I could ever feel comfortable living in it. It’s just like, I’m so stupid, I made a mistake, but I can’t walk away from it until I’ve corrected the mistake.”

Herr Doktor Freud, are you listening? Deep within the psyche of David Letterman there is a little gremlin that sometimes recites, sotto voce, words to this effect: “You’re not good enough. You’re not smart enough. You’re not funny enough.”


It is a malicious gremlin, to be sure, yet it provides a crucial catalyst in the nearly inscrutable brain that is Letterman’s. He is not, of course, the first person to buy a lemon, nor will he be the last. But rare is the breed of buyer who rebuilds the house only to decide not to live in it afterward.

That David Letterman brings the same conflicting set of emotions to CBS’ “Late Show” should hardly come as a surprise. When the monologue clicks and the guests come alive, the host experiences the greatest joy that he knows. But when the show does not soar, he enters his own private hell, tormented by the gremlin whose whisper becomes an incessant growl.

And yes, there has been plenty of growling in recent months. It has led Letterman to muse publicly about moving “Late Show” to Los Angeles or even quitting altogether when his contract ends four years from now. It has led him to change the set, and even to change his act slightly. But most shocking of all, it has led to the firing of his producer (and occasional on-air star), Robert Morton, who was recently replaced by Letterman’s close friend and former head writer, Rob Burnett.

Letterman “is very, very hard on himself,” says Leslie Moonves, president of CBS Entertainment. “He is truly a perfectionist.”

Another industry observer has a slightly different take: “Dave is eternally in turmoil and, because of that, he is always double- and triple-guessing everything he does and what those around him do.”

It is a show-biz axiom--which may have the added advantage of being true--that the job of late-night talk-show host is the hardest one in all of television. As one network source puts it, the job gets progressively “harder because you’re talking to the same damn [guests] over and over.” With Letterman, the job is even more brutal because “he is never satisfied with his performance, or almost never.”



If possible, Letterman has actually become tougher on himself. Ratings have slid over the last year, to a point now where 2.2 million fewer viewers are watching each night than in late January 1994, the show’s high-water mark. Currently, NBC’s “The Tonight Show” averages about 6.1 million viewers to “Late Show’s” 5.1 million. (“Tonight’s” numbers are flat over this period.)

“Late Show” has been victimized by a horrible CBS prime-time performance and the network’s loss of some key stations that defected to Fox. But its boss didn’t do himself any favors, either. There were times this season when Letterman was surly, even angry on the air. Monologues were flat and the comic bits were stale. For a brief time, it seemed the little gremlin was finally speaking the truth.

Ironically, “Late Show” ad revenues are as high as ever (about $185 million this year) while profits hover between $75 million and $85 million--easily making “Late Show” the most successful show on the CBS schedule.

Nevertheless, “Late Show”--nearing its third anniversary at CBS--has entered a crossroads. The key question: Can Letterman recapture the dominance that he so recently enjoyed, and, in fact, become heir to the late-night throne that Johnny Carson left behind four years ago?

Even Letterman is not entirely certain.

“I know I have some limitations,” he says, “and I wish I had overcome them better. . . . On any given night, you wish you were working up to your potential and when I don’t get to my potential, or close to it, it’s just discouraging. I think that by now, that ought to be automatic.” He adds, “But maybe that’s enough of an aggravation to keep you motivated.”

In a wide-ranging interview in the “Late Show” offices high above the Ed Sullivan Theater, Letterman hardly seems a picture of tortured angst. He is almost absurdly rail thin--a perfect ectomorph specimen to Jay Leno’s endomorph--and the owl-rim glasses he wears in lieu of contacts give him the appearance of a college professor or bookish intellectual. And while he seems tense, chewing vigorously on a toothpick, he is also incisive and to the point. There are no jokes, no joshing around. Letterman is all business.


Foremost, he gives the unmistakable impression of a man who will do whatever it takes to revive his show’s fortunes.

“The impression,” he says, “was that the show was dull, it was the same, it was lifeless, it wasn’t where it ought to be. And I think some of that was true.”

Although “Late Show” will be traveling to San Francisco for its May 6-10 broadcasts, there are no plans for major changes in the program. “It’s just going to be the best version of the same show that we can make it,” Letterman says.

Indeed, a casual observer might have trouble figuring out exactly what is different with the presumably new and improved, Burnett-produced “Late Show” over the old one bearing Morton’s stamp. Staples like the monologue and the “Top Ten” list remain firmly in place. There have been and will continue to be more remotes from outside the studio (a Burnett specialty) as well as more comic bits, but the biggest change may be in Letterman himself. Gone are some of the old, overworked mannerisms--the shadow-boxing, the lying flat on the floor when a joke tanks. The host is more relaxed and even gives the impression that he’s enjoying himself again. Nor has it hurt that the monologues are actually funny again, after what was a very long dry spell. (In a recent one, Letterman referred to himself as the “Uma-bomber.”)

Nevertheless, the host says that radical surgery is not out of the question. Some ideas that have been floated:

* Moving to L.A.: Letterman says “it’s an actual consideration. . . . All the opportunities [for guests] are right there. It makes it difficult to get people to come to New York City; it’s just a geographical obstacle and eventually, if it becomes an obstacle for us, [then] I think that would be the only real dramatic change we might consider down the road.”


Sources say Letterman nearly decided on L.A. when he switched from NBC to CBS, but backed off because it would have been too disruptive for the staff. While it was assumed some day the show would move, some observers now aren’t so sure. The reasons: KCBS-TV Channel 2’s news lead-ins are even weaker in Los Angeles than the WCBS-TV lead-ins in New York. Moreover, guests might still prefer “Tonight” over “Late Show” because Leno has made his show a more comfortable venue for stars hawking their latest projects.

* Moving to another network: Not likely to happen, but some powerful forces are at work. Letterman confirms that Michael Ovitz, his former agent at Creative Artists Agency and now president of Walt Disney Co., has broached the idea of joining Disney-owned ABC when Letterman’s CBS contract ends in four years.

“It was something that was discussed, but never seriously,” Letterman says. “It was sort of like, ‘Well, now that I’m here, what do you think? Maybe someday?’ I never took it seriously. . . . It was more of a lark, the kind of thing you just shoot the breeze over.” He quickly adds: “CBS has been really good to me here and my first and last commitment is to this network. . . . You probably won’t see another show [with me] once this show is over.”

CBS’ Moonves says: “It is four years down the line. Our relationship with Dave has never been better. He teases us on the air, but it is terrific. It’s fine.” A Disney spokesman said, “We generally don’t comment on speculation.”

* Moving in guest hosts: Letterman says the addition of guest hosts “is something we’ll explore within the next year or so. It’s something we consider all of the time. I would love a schedule of guest hosts somehow, like once every six weeks, or whatever makes sense. . . . It would be nice to have some more time to do outside production for the show [and] to give everybody a break.” Will it happen? Observers say it will be very difficult to find a guest hostcompatible with the show Letterman has created.


The biggest “Late Show” change--and one with lasting repercussions--was the March 8 departure of Morton, a colleague who had worked alongside Letterman for nearly 15 years.


The firing took place after a Friday-night taping, just before a two-week vacation for the staff was to begin. In the brief meeting, Letterman told Morton he could run the production arm of Worldwide Pants Inc., Letterman’s production company, which would have meant salvaging projects like CBS’ now-shelved sitcom “Bonnie,” starring Bonnie Hunt. Morton turned it down and he’s now looking for a new job.

The ouster caught CBS executives by surprise, who had no inkling of discord. Morton, by all accounts, was shocked too and remains mystified about what exactly happened. (He declined comment for this article.) Partly for these reasons, many now say the matter was poorly handled.

“People say that was a horrible way to do it, but I don’t know a good way to fire people,” Letterman says. “If I knew a good way to fire people, then that doesn’t make you a very good person. You know, like working it into a card trick: ‘Here, pick a card. Oh, look at that. You’ve been fired.’ ”

It was “maybe the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, and it did hurt me. It hurt my stomach. It hurt my head. And I know it hurt Bob. But things were not going to get better the way they were going, so I had to make a change.”

Letterman and Morton, in truth, were never particularly close. Letterman is intensely private while Morton yearned for the spotlight. Morton is a fixture in the Hamptons and, more recently, Hollywood--two places where Letterman sightings are virtually unheard of. Yet for years Morton thrived because he is a skillful “show runner” and maintains hundreds of show business contacts (valuable for booking guests). He is also adroit at handling the press. Letterman finds these chores distasteful.

When Morton was axed, some decided that Letterman--pressured by diminished ratings and a sagging show--could no longer tolerate his producer’s drift to Hollywood. Letterman scoffs at the notion: “I always got a kick out of Morty . . . living that life. [But] it’s nothing I could ever do or be.”


Letterman’s version, in fact, spells out a complex management dispute. It is a version supported by other sources, both at CBS and elsewhere.

The story begins with Burnett, an intense, baby-faced 33-year-old whom Letterman counts as his closest friend on the show. New Jersey-born and a Tufts graduate, Burnett became an intern on NBC’s “Late Night With David Letterman” only a year out of college. He later joined the writing staff, where he honed his own peculiar specialty, outdoor remotes involving gimmicks and stunts. He was named head writer in 1992.

Then last June, Burnett left the show for Los Angeles to produce a prime-time comedy series for Worldwide Pants that would star another Letterman pal, Bonnie Hunt. The move was a big promotion for Burnett, who had put in long days for “Late Show.”

But Hunt and Burnett never clicked. He returned to New York last fall, where he coauthored a new sitcom called “Ed.” CBS executives loved the script, about a man who loses his job and wife and has to start over, and ordered a pilot for the 1996-97 fall schedule.

Over at “Late Show,” however, things weren’t going quite so well. Letterman and his new head writer, Donick Cary, never developed a close relationship, and the show itself began to suffer. Meanwhile, Letterman had decided to create a new management team, proposing that Burnett run the production arm of Worldwide Pants while Morton worked full time on “Late Show.”

But Morton, according to several sources, bucked the idea. He wanted to run the whole company and step away from day-to-day responsibilities at the show. At this time, Morton also brought up the idea of hiring Jeff Ross, a close friend and the executive producer of “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” to run “Late Show” and report to him. (Ross declined comment, but sources said he did not seek the job.) Letterman was angered by the proposal. As one observer puts it, “Morty wanted to be a grand pooh-bah [and] it was a gross miscalculation.”


Letterman says that he wanted “all three of us [as] equal. But we found out a couple of weeks later that [Morton] was not comfortable with that. He had a different vision of how things should be run that coupled with the idea that he wanted to step away and bring in a friend of his.” He adds, “I don’t like working with strangers.”

He also says that “we started to have real problems when [Burnett] left. I can’t run the show. Rob can. We just needed to try to rekindle the impression that the show was funny and lively.” Burnett, he adds, is “smart, very smart, very funny, but the most important thing is that he’s a person who knows how to convert ideas to activity. I’ve never been around a guy who so readily can get results. My tendency is to talk, talk, talk and nothing ever happens.”

So Letterman secretly hatched a new plan: Morton would have to go.

By most accounts, Letterman decided on Burnett after being pleased with a Feb. 19 prime-time special that Burnett helped produce, “Late Show With David Letterman Video Special II.” But the comedian dragged his feet about implementing the change until he was forced a few weeks later. The catalyst: Burnett was about to hire a director and thus become fully committed to his new show “Ed.” That project has now been pushed back to mid-season.

Burnett won’t comment on the controversial succession, but he does address the question of whether he is seasoned enough for the job, or familiar with the ways of the network.

“Let’s face it,” he says. “Do you know how much money we make for them? You’d have to be a chimp if you can’t deal with the network. I have a terrific relationship with them. The truth is, there are many areas of this show that I was always involved in anyway.” He adds that, “after 15 years on the air, this show produces itself, to a large extent. Dave is the vision of the show from top to bottom.”

Nevertheless, Burnett now heads a show that is weathering the rockiest period in its short history at CBS. Piece by piece, he’s had to rebuild a writing and production staff that has been depleted by major defections in recent months.


“There are a lot of staff changes,” Burnett says, “but the transition is, overall, an extremely positive thing and there’s a real energy here.” Is a housecleaning underway? “No, no, no, definitely not.”

It should come as little surprise that Burnett, a writer, wants to reinvigorate the show’s writing. “Most of the real change will come, honestly, from Jon Beckerman [the new head writer],” he says. “When we don’t give Dave enough, the guy has to save the show all by himself. He does it already a lot, but it’s too much to ask of any human being, night after night. What we fall into--and I go over this with all the new writers--is that if you give Dave spoons, he’ll be funny with spoons. But you just can’t keep giving Dave spoons.”

But Burnett faces an infinitely more daunting prospect: Dave may quit the show in four years, spoons or no spoons. He has spoken about moving on before--although he was infuriated by a front-page story in the New York Daily News several months ago that suggested his retirement was a fait accompli.

“Everybody has a built-in viability and I know I’m not kidding myself,” says Letterman, who just turned 49. “I can’t work into my mid-60s the way Carson did. My father was dead by the time he was 53, so I don’t want this job to kill me. I just think that, in anybody’s life, you look at these landmarks as they come up and you act on them or you don’t. In five years, I’ll be in my early 50s. You don’t want to do this kind of show into the early 50s. It’s a job for a younger man.

“But I’m very happy and this is a good time for us,” he adds. “We have a real challenge to make sure that the quality of this show is the best it has ever been. That’s exciting to have that challenge.”

So maybe this is the key to the psyche of David Letterman. You don’t necessarily find happiness living in the house. Happiness is in the rebuilding.