When David Letterman announced his plans to retire in early April 2014, two things immediately became apparent to New York Times comedy critic Jason Zinoman. The first and most obvious of these was the massive, Letterman-shaped hole he’d leave behind just over a year later in May 2015, when his last Late Show aired on CBS. With varying degrees of success, former Colbert Report host Stephen Colbert has done his best to fill in the gaps, but Letterman’s absence remains palpable.
As Zinoman told us in conversation about his new book out today, Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night, the second sudden realization concerned the project’s necessity. “I started working on it” in 2013 or 2014, he recalled, “but I ultimately gave up on it. I don’t think I was quite ready to write it, yet.” When news of Letterman’s impending retirement reached Zinoman while visiting a playground with his daughter, however, he knew then he was ready to write the book.
“Someone’s going to write this book,” Zinoman later told Letterman’s representatives, who ultimately agreed to an interview. The Times‘ writer’s emphasis on writing about the late night giant’s legacy, he suspects, appealed to the 69-year-old host’s love for his son Harry and helped win him over.
Please don’t take offense to this, but when I first read the book, it was much shorter than I assumed it would be. Letterman is a much more focused biography, as opposed to the larger, epic volumes often written about famous figures. Did you ever want to write that kind of book, or was it always going to be this focused?
There’s two answers to that. One is more about my taste, and the other is about the process. I’m not a huge fan of the giant doorstop tome biographies. I mean, obviously, I’ve read many great ones, but that is not my preferred style of writing. I’m a believer in the old saying, “You leave them wanting more.” Again, it’s purely personal taste. I’m a lifelong journalist who has written for tight word counts at magazines and newspapers, so it also just may be the background I come from.
The second point, which is a process point, is that the book did not start as a biography. It remains, to some degree, a book that tries to be a mix of reporting and criticism. It’s all supported by a central argument, which is that this period during the NBC years — primarily in the ’80s, but also in the early ’90s — is both the foundation of David Letterman’s reputation, and also one of the greatest comedic legacies of the modern era. That was my argument, aesthetically. That’s what I followed while reporting and writing this book. I want to figure out how it got to be there.
Then as I got into it, I realized that to write about David Letterman’s work, you can’t not write about his life. A talk show host is a very peculiar thing. He comes on stage, looks directly at the camera and talks in the voice of David Letterman. He’s not playing a character. He’s not an actor. His relationship to the audience very much has to do with what the audience knows about him, so I felt like I couldn’t write a book only about his work. I had to write about how his work intersects with his life.
As I got deeper into the book, I realized nobody else had written about him in this way. I thought there’d be other biographies on him already. Since nobody else was doing it, I felt I had to make the book bigger in scope. I would need to look at the CBS years and consider his retirement. It grew into the biography, but I think it still has the DNA of the original idea for the book, which was something else entirely.