Inside Letterman's Head

David Letterman's vicious crack about Sarah Palin's daughter jogged my memory and sent me searching through Randall Jarrell's delightful Pictures from an Institution. I finally found:

If the bus companies could have conducted tours of Gertrude's head, it would have done more for ethical feeling than all the moralists since Kant.

How wonderful it would be if, for a modest fee, someone like "Hot Heads Tours Inc." could guide us through all the rooms (or caverns) in the minds of our so-called celebrities.

I imagine that a tour through Nancy Pelosi's brain would be mostly like Last Year at Marienbad -- an endless sequence of the same scenes, repeated over and over with variations, mixing up what really happened with what is falsely remembered and what one wished had happened. But there would always be the titillating possibility of opening a door and being suddenly confronted with Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate. This scariness would make Nancy's mind a popular item for Halloween tours; she'd be booked up for years in advance.

But let's get back to Mr. Letterman. His inane and nasty canards against the Palins must be partly forgiven because it's the only thing he knows how to do. He's a one-trick pony whose meager intellectual and professional credentials, in conjunction with his nondescript stage presence and 1960's derivative style, made him an unlikely choice for the Late Night Show in 1982. (However, he had the inexplicable patronage of Johnny Carson and that was enough.) What saved him from failure was saying nasty and outrageous things, like a warmed over version of Don Rickles.

His show is brightened by guest appearances that range from trivial to entertaining. But despite a large stable of writers, his own material is mediocre. When I sit through one of his "ten top" lists, I usually find myself laughing briefly at one or two, giving a grunt to a couple of others, and quickly forgetting the rest. His routines have the flavor of a third-rate stand up comedian, in a seedy nightclub at a late hour with a bored and drunk audience, who has run out of jokes and is forced to resort to insults. But since his insomniac audience eventually becomes bored again, he must keep increasing the shock value and the preposterousness of his lies.

We get a peep into his psyche when he tries to defend his insults. As Arthur Guiterman once said (in The Vizier's Apology), "the excuse can be worse than the crime."  When Sara Palin and her 14-year old daughter attended a baseball game in New York, Letterman commented thus:

"The toughest part of her visit was keeping Elliot Spitzer away from her daughter. That was tough....One awkward moment during the game. Maybe you heard about it. Maybe you saw it on one of the highlight reels. One awkward moment for Sarah Palin at the Yankee game. During the 7th inning her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez."

When denounced by Palin, his excuse was:

"We were, as we often do, making jokes about people in the news. These are not jokes made about her 14-year old daughter, I would never, never make jokes about raping or having sex of any description with a 14-year old girl. Am I guilty of poor taste? Yes. Did I suggest that it was OK for her 14-year old daughter to be having promiscuous sex? No."

He obviously doesn't realize what he's done wrong. This is a typical Letterman pattern. In the 1990's, he was persistently stalked by a poor schizophrenic woman who eventually committed suicide. Although he behaved rather decently by not pressing charges, he actually made jokes about her on his show. When chided for this, his excuse was "I never mentioned her by name."

These excuses have the pathetic childishness of "I had my fingers crossed behind my back so it wasn't a lie." We begin to see Letterman as an insecure and neglected ten-year old who has discovered that he can shock his teachers, make the little girls blush, and win the admiration of the other boys by chalking forbidden words on fences and saying outrageous and nasty things in class. Only in this day and age, they have to be very nasty to get the attention that the poor child still constantly craves.

On such cases, the blame does not lie so much with the little exhibitionist as with the other boys who egg him on. The same can be said of Letterman; by not protesting or tuning him out, his audience shares in the blame.

And that's about all there is to David Letterman. So his mind will never be on the Hot Heads Tours list -- it's too small. There's not enough room for a tour group.
David Letterman's vicious crack about Sarah Palin's daughter jogged my memory and sent me searching through Randall Jarrell's delightful Pictures from an Institution. I finally found:

If the bus companies could have conducted tours of Gertrude's head, it would have done more for ethical feeling than all the moralists since Kant.

How wonderful it would be if, for a modest fee, someone like "Hot Heads Tours Inc." could guide us through all the rooms (or caverns) in the minds of our so-called celebrities.

I imagine that a tour through Nancy Pelosi's brain would be mostly like Last Year at Marienbad -- an endless sequence of the same scenes, repeated over and over with variations, mixing up what really happened with what is falsely remembered and what one wished had happened. But there would always be the titillating possibility of opening a door and being suddenly confronted with Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate. This scariness would make Nancy's mind a popular item for Halloween tours; she'd be booked up for years in advance.

But let's get back to Mr. Letterman. His inane and nasty canards against the Palins must be partly forgiven because it's the only thing he knows how to do. He's a one-trick pony whose meager intellectual and professional credentials, in conjunction with his nondescript stage presence and 1960's derivative style, made him an unlikely choice for the Late Night Show in 1982. (However, he had the inexplicable patronage of Johnny Carson and that was enough.) What saved him from failure was saying nasty and outrageous things, like a warmed over version of Don Rickles.

His show is brightened by guest appearances that range from trivial to entertaining. But despite a large stable of writers, his own material is mediocre. When I sit through one of his "ten top" lists, I usually find myself laughing briefly at one or two, giving a grunt to a couple of others, and quickly forgetting the rest. His routines have the flavor of a third-rate stand up comedian, in a seedy nightclub at a late hour with a bored and drunk audience, who has run out of jokes and is forced to resort to insults. But since his insomniac audience eventually becomes bored again, he must keep increasing the shock value and the preposterousness of his lies.

We get a peep into his psyche when he tries to defend his insults. As Arthur Guiterman once said (in The Vizier's Apology), "the excuse can be worse than the crime."  When Sara Palin and her 14-year old daughter attended a baseball game in New York, Letterman commented thus:

"The toughest part of her visit was keeping Elliot Spitzer away from her daughter. That was tough....One awkward moment during the game. Maybe you heard about it. Maybe you saw it on one of the highlight reels. One awkward moment for Sarah Palin at the Yankee game. During the 7th inning her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez."

When denounced by Palin, his excuse was:

"We were, as we often do, making jokes about people in the news. These are not jokes made about her 14-year old daughter, I would never, never make jokes about raping or having sex of any description with a 14-year old girl. Am I guilty of poor taste? Yes. Did I suggest that it was OK for her 14-year old daughter to be having promiscuous sex? No."

He obviously doesn't realize what he's done wrong. This is a typical Letterman pattern. In the 1990's, he was persistently stalked by a poor schizophrenic woman who eventually committed suicide. Although he behaved rather decently by not pressing charges, he actually made jokes about her on his show. When chided for this, his excuse was "I never mentioned her by name."

These excuses have the pathetic childishness of "I had my fingers crossed behind my back so it wasn't a lie." We begin to see Letterman as an insecure and neglected ten-year old who has discovered that he can shock his teachers, make the little girls blush, and win the admiration of the other boys by chalking forbidden words on fences and saying outrageous and nasty things in class. Only in this day and age, they have to be very nasty to get the attention that the poor child still constantly craves.

On such cases, the blame does not lie so much with the little exhibitionist as with the other boys who egg him on. The same can be said of Letterman; by not protesting or tuning him out, his audience shares in the blame.

And that's about all there is to David Letterman. So his mind will never be on the Hot Heads Tours list -- it's too small. There's not enough room for a tour group.