You wouldn’t know it, to see the free-as-a-bird David Letterman who’s about to spread his wings and fly the Late Show coop as of Wednesday night, but there was a time when Letterman could be vexed by a guest, or nettled by a corporation. I offer two examples here.
In the late 1980s, Letterman had the great comic-book writer Harvey Pekar on the show. I’ve always assumed someone on Letterman’s staff was a fan of Pekar’s amazing comic book American Splendor, a vast chronicle of working-class life in Cleveland, Ohio, featuring Pekar in autobiographical adventures as a file clerk at Cleveland’s Veteran’s Administration Hospital.
The Pekar you saw on Letterman was an entertaining crank, unimpressed with the star — which of course is one reason Letterman liked him; Letterman loves people who don’t think David Letterman is a great star. But Pekar was much more than a crank — he was a serious writer who was interested in union politics.
And so it was one night in 1987, when Pekar returned to NBC’s Late Night show with renewed ire. He was revved up about a labor dispute then ongoing against NBC owner General Electric; he wore a T-shirt in support of striking workers and tried to talk about anti-trust violations and nuclear reactors owned by GE. In the clip below, Letterman encourages Pekar to promote his own comic book instead, but the guest just wants to discuss the exploitation of workers, and Letterman does not want to engage. “You’re a guest in my house, so shut up,” Letterman snaps. To be fair, Pekar had told Letterman to shut up a few minutes before. Less fair on Letterman’s part is his ridicule of Pekar as “a guy writin’ comic books.” The only thing to do, at a certain point, is to cut to a commercial, which Letterman does.
My overarching point here is that Letterman is the only late-night host during that period who would a) have an idiosyncratic guest like Pekar on, numerous times, and b) allow a tirade to play out, be unafraid to show his irritation, and air the whole thing. (Pre-Letterman, both Steve Allen and Dick Cavett had booked contentious guests, but — except for Cavett’s famous “put it where the moon don’t shine” petulance with Norman Mailer — rarely displayed irritation.)
Second example, with Letterman on the other side of the argument: Soon after GE acquired NBC, Letterman wanted to greet the new owners with a fruit basket. Boy, did he get a rude reception, in 1986. Make sure to notice how well-edited this is, how it captures every second of threatened corporate power reduced to security-guy strong-arm tactics.
We can laugh now — I mean, is that “corporate handshake” stuff great, or what? — but in 1986 it was entirely possible that Letterman’s corporate masters might have decided, You know what? This guy isn’t worth the headaches, and yanked him off the air. Good for Letterman for committing to this bit. But since it took place before the Pekar incident, I wonder how much this run-in with GE figured in Letterman’s thinking when he shut Pekar down.
In any case, after Wednesday night, no one is going to be doing stuff like this on TV anymore, ever again.
The final Late Show With David Letterman airs Wednesday night at 11:35 p.m. on CBS.