Interview :David Letterman He's No Johnny Carson

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When his late-night show debuted on NBC in 1982, David Letterman was a young stand-up comic known mainly for occasional stints as a Tonight show guest host. Now, as his own show prepares to celebrate its seventh anniversary, Letterman has established himself as the medium's most inventive * and influential comic. Like Saturday Night Live in the '70s, Late Night with David Letterman has defined the cutting edge of TV comedy in the '80s: hip, irreverent, self-parodying, both scornful of and fascinated by the cliches of show business. Sitting in his Rockefeller Center office recently after a late- afternoon taping of his show, Letterman talked about his career and his comedy with associate editor Richard Zoglin.

Q. When you started this show, you were sort of TV's avant-garde, and now you're almost the king of the mountain. You're the guy people are trying to knock off, or copy. Does that make you uncomfortable?

A. Well, I think your assessment, while flattering, is largely inaccurate. I wouldn't say we're the king of the mountain. And I'm not sure we were ever avant-garde. I think it's true that in the early days we felt like we had to establish ourselves as being different, so maybe it was easier for us to do odd things and take more chances. I think the grind of doing a show every night makes you more inclined to say "Well, we did that once before, we can do it again." A certain kind of inertia takes over. But I think what has come over the years is a more consistent spirit. We have more confidence now in what we do. Whereas before it was like rolling a hand grenade into a hen house -- you just waited to see where the feathers would land. You know, that's not a bad idea, rolling a hand grenade into . . . nah.

Q. What things on the show really make you laugh?

A. I like having a camera in different locations and being able to talk with people there. And I always love it when the "civilians" are able to do something that gets a huge laugh. I like it sometimes when things just don't work, and you're overwhelmed with this hopeless, giddy attitude. I liked a couple of months ago when, for no reason, we just made waffles, as an adjunct activity to the show. I liked having a show and then, every few minutes, seeing if the waffles were done. I don't know why exactly. When somebody came up with the idea -- "Well, we could make waffles" -- you thought, "Why would we make waffles?" But it's the Why-would-we-make-waffles? attitude that I think made it fun to do.

Q. In cases like that, you seem to be parodying the talk show itself: This is how mundane we can get. We can make waffles, and people will think it's entertainment. Are you satirizing TV?

A. It was never our intention to satirize or parody a talk show. It's just & that we have an hour of TV to do each night, and it's got to be a talk show, so what can we do inside that framework that would make us laugh? It's just goofy, silly additional behavior. We never said, "What we want to do here is construct a mirror of the American talk show and hold that up to the viewer." We never really set out to show people a parody of a talk show. I mean, it is a talk show.

Q. You seem to have got better at doing interviews than at the beginning.

A. Well, you'd almost have to, wouldn't you?

Q. Did you have a problem with your own performance?

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