Anyone who had only seen him on television during his heyday would hardly recognize him in the photos of the past few years. The white mop of hair with the corresponding bushy beard, which gives him something hipsteresque or Santa Claus-like, depending on how you look at it, didn't really suit the guy in the double-breasted suit who grilled his celebrities in the studio; casually, of course, as with Paris Hilton, whom he cheerfully asked after her stay in prison what was going on in prison until her attempts to smile away turned into pure embarrassment.
Then again, the unexpected, like the beard, was always the trademark of David Letterman, the man who, beginning February 1, 1982, put Americans to bed with his shows for NBC and CBS for more than 33 years. He even surpassed his idol Johnny Carson, who had made it to 1992 to 30 years. And when the Germans thought they had to put on a night show in the 1990s, Harald Schmidt's team initially copied the format right down to the empty coffee mug on the lips.
The two moderators agreed to hide their personality behind their humor. However, those who followed the original from the United States quickly learned the difference between a German using the word "show" and an American. Getting your way in the home of entertainment is so much harder than it is here that it's akin to a Mount Everest expedition compared to climbing the Zugspitze.
When Letterman arrived on the night program in 1982 at the age of 34, he had already suffered bad defeats. But maybe that was exactly the secret of his success: the talk show host learned from his flops what it means to be on stage. As a boy from Indianapolis, he interpreted the American dream in his own way.
His father, a florist, died early, and his mother, who was of German descent, later became part of his TV productions on occasions such as Thanksgiving. In high school, money was so tight that Letterman packed bags in a supermarket. A scholarship to Ball State University in Indiana enabled him to graduate in television and radio.
Soon after, he was making a name for himself on local radio and television stations, mainly because of his slightly odd behavior. Letterman predicted the weather for cities that didn't exist and predicted hailstones "the size of canned ham." In a state like Indiana, that was the height of eccentricity. In 1975 he had had enough of the provinces and went to Hollywood. First, he told jokes in a club where anyone could; However, he rarely reaped laughter.
But Letterman's dogged determination soon changed that. Standup comedian Jimmy Walker hired him as a gag writer for $150 a week. Soon after, the new man caught the eye of talent scouts on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show." Carson was at its peak then: Whether it was the Ratpack or Pelé - they all made a pilgrimage to him. The master granted guest appearances to young comedians in order to distinguish themselves. At the first meeting, Carson said Letterman wasn't quite there yet. Some formats with him, which quickly flew out of the program, proved that.
In 1978, however, Carson invited the offspring to his show – and even to his sofa afterwards. It was an accolade that Letterman calls the greatest moment of his life to this day. Carson's NBC network signed him to do a morning comedy show. The show's host earned two Emmys before they were canceled -- and in 1982 he finally got his coveted slot after Carson with "The Late Show."
The gap in his teeth, his anarchic gimmicks and his questions quickly got him into conversation. But after Carson's retirement in 1992, disappointment awaited. NBC decided to cast the nice Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, despite Carson's support for Letterman. He was so frustrated that he switched channels and made his talent available to CBS in New York. What followed was a nightly extravaganza loved by critics and intellectuals alike, though Leno mostly beat it in ratings as it went on.
In his 33 years on the air, Letterman has had, among other things, a Farah Fawcett who babbled outrageous crap to indicate her appearance on Playboy. And Madonna, who used the F-word excessively when not puffing on her fat cigar; Drew Barrymore and later Courtney Love jumped onto his desk and exposed his bare bosom with his back to the camera.
Then there was the absent-minded Joaquin Phoenix, whose sunglasses and messy-bearded appearance prompted Letterman to say, "Joaquin, thanks for not being there today." The actor later dismissed the bizarre appearance as self-mockery on another visit. And when Johnny Carson honored his ideal successor on his show, not only was the audience on the verge of frenzy, but so was the show host.
With Letterman, viewers could rest assured that anything could happen at any moment, and if it didn't, at least they'd overheard a halfway intelligent chat between the presenter and a real star; another difference to Germany, because it makes a difference whether you have - let's say - Charlize Theron or Alexa Hennig from Lange as a guest.
Letterman got personal three times. In January 2000 he had a quintuple bypass done. His first sentence after returning in front of the camera was: "Good evening, I had heart surgery - and a haircut." He brought his medical team to the show so that they could tell how fantastic the procedure had gone.
Things were less funny in 2009, when a blackmailer attacked Letterman, who had previously had affairs with several of his employees. Instead of remorsefully playing the sinner, after the perpetrator was arrested, he admitted everything and quickly switched to irony mode: "For heaven's sake, Dave has sex." The audience liked it - but it's hard to imagine him like that today would just get away with it.
But the pinnacle of it all remains the first show he hosted after the September 11, 2001 attacks. After that, even thinking about entertainment can seem absurd. Still, it was an important signal — "The show must go on" is a basic American tenet, and Letterman was the first to embrace it.
The viewers saw a man sitting behind his desk who got stuck several times, fought back tears and anyway didn't radiate a bit of the charisma that otherwise made him special. He thanked the firefighters and talked about provincial villages that collected money for the otherwise cynical New Yorkers.
When he spoke about the nature of courage, he surpassed himself: “It is said that courage defines every other aspect of human behavior. I'm told, 'Dave, you have to be brave now.' To tell you the truth, I'm not. But I pretend I am. And sometimes feigned courage is just as good as real courage.”
There is nothing to add. Except maybe that David Letterman currently has a show on Netflix. How could someone like him step out of the spotlight permanently?
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