Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night
By Jason Zinoman
344 pages, $28.99
The first thing I looked up in the excellent index to this excellent book is "cocaine." Not there. Next I tried "green room." Not there either. Taking a different tack, I tried "Bill Cosby." Uh-uh. No luck.
I looked for a few more unsavory topics that might have concerned either Letterman's life or career (or both) and didn't find them either. Before I actually dove fully into the book, I already had a fair idea that Jason Zinoman wasn't going to go anyplace too nettlesome. Here is one pop cultural biography entirely without a briar patch.
Critics of Letterman's genuinely epochal first late night show -- the amazing "Late Night" on NBC at 12:30 a.m. -- would often comment on miscellaneous comedians and performers sitting down opposite Letterman nervously flicking phantom powder from their upper lips or off their chests. Coke was sailing high and wide in all of show business, comedy especially, and it wasn't hard to see from people's on-air behavior that there were no stern hall monitors in the Letterman "Late Night" green room.
When, in 1989, a book called "Saturday Night: A Backstage History of 'Saturday Night Live'" was a virtual toot-by-toot, toke-by-toke portrait of SNL's early days, Letterman publicly said that he never wanted to see anything like that about a show of his.
So this in no way resembles that book. The cooperation of Letterman and his friends was obviously paramount to what Zinoman is doing. He is described as being the "comedy critic" of the New York Times and this is a biography full of thorough, first-rate reportage by a writer who is limiting himself to everything he can report, without demeaning those who gave him access or destroying future access.
With Letterman and friends cooperating, some foreclosure was unavoidable. All through the comedy world, fellow comics have said that it was always known there were unkosher things about Cosby's extramarital life. But Letterman, along with everyone else in show business, publicly treated Cosby as a living and revered master of the comedian's trade right up until Cosby's reputation imploded. Letterman's own public admissions of philandering engender no Zinoman investigation, thereby insuring they'd be inimical to everything he wanted his book to be.
Which is absolutely superb for the thorough, if superficial, thing that it is. But what it is has to be seen as only half a book. It's a revealing biography but far from a revelatory one. It's full of reportage by a first-rate New York Times talent.
But this is NOT a profound history of Letterman and what he brought to television. That would have required layers beneath the ones Zinoman stays on. It would have required more insights than the ones that are here; it would have required analyses of the sort that good reporters rightly ignore when too much conjecture will discredit the important new facts they've assembled.
But, to take the most obvious example, what that leaves you in this book is a clear-cut portrait of Letterman's peculiar self-lacerating misery without anything connecting the dots to the portrait that is drawn of his parents.
His father, Harry Joe Letterman, was a recovered alcoholic with a heart condition who died young. He obviously had a hunger for attention. His mother -- whom America came to love on his show and who just died at the age of 95 -- was, in Letterman's childhood, "quieter, exacting, and stingy about doling out approval."
What we have watched throughout Letterman's performing life is some of the oddest public self-loathing ever seen from an American celebrity. Obviously it connects somehow to his childhood, which, for all Zinoman reports, explains nothing.
And, as fine as this book is about one of the most historically important figures in American television, this is its problem: It's the book by a gifted, hard-working reporter full of news about the man I'd argue was the most important talk show host America will ever have. But for almost every piece of Letterman biography here, there will be an attendant new question.
For instance, we recently learned that one of his two sisters, Gretchen, was a newspaper reporter in Tampa for 31 years. But we're never told how that might relate to one of the most startling facts about Letterman the late-night talk show host: Despite his ostentatious claims of ignorance, his questions about world and national affairs when he interviewed journalists and politicians were some of the most impressive of any comedian on television. In that way, he actively paved the way for Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee, Jon Oliver etc.
Did he and Gretchen ever collude? Was there sibling rivalry? They're the kind of unanswered questions the book creates.
Anyone who has read Bill Knoedelseder's "I'm Dying Up Here" about standup comedy clubs -- a book which pleased Letterman so much he had Knoedelseder as a guest on his show -- discovered that once upon a time, Letterman and Jay Leno were the best of friends when they were the dual princes of Mitzi Shore's L.A. Comedy Store.
None of that makes Zinoman's book. It should have.
On the other hand, students of Letterman's three TV shows -- the very brief NBC morning show, the pivotal "Late Night" on NBC and the 11:30 p.m. "Late Show" show on CBS -- will be ever-grateful to Zinoman for the most complete picture yet of exactly how much his former girlfriend Merrill Markoe contributed not only to his success but his enduring influence.
We have always known that she's where things like "Stupid Pet Tricks" came from. But what this account of "Late Night with David Letterman" makes clear is that 40 percent of it, conservatively, stemmed from the mind of Markoe. Which opens up the question: Why did her influence never became that decisive anywhere else?
That is the essence of the problem of this book, however essential it is to anyone who wants to know about television. Everything new we learn seems to create another question.
Which is to say that a large outlay of new, often surprising and even revealing facts merely underlines the fact that, in so many ways, he has vastly exceeded the puzzle that was his idol Johnny Carson.
Just as Carson never had an American moment to react to as dramatic as 9/11, he never came anywhere close to the human grace Letterman showed all of America on those days after 9/11 when a good part of America's fragile psyche seemed to be in his weirdly capable hands.
In 2017, the figure Letterman presents to us has a terminally alienated John Brown/Walt Whitman beard that he cheerfully admits his own wife and son despise. Nothing in this book comes anywhere close to explaining how its subject could now look like that in his 70th year. He is, even after reading this biography, vastly more unknowable than Carson ever thought of being.
Jeff Simon is the News' Arts and Books Editor.