Interview :David Letterman He's No Johnny Carson

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A. When I was a kid I never really went to movies. In my house, going to movies was pretty much equated with as big a waste of time as you could come by as a human. When I got to an age where I could appreciate comedians, it was guys like Jonathan Winters; he used to really make me laugh hard. At about 16 or 17, on Friday nights I could stay up late and watch the Steve Allen Show. And sometimes after school I used to watch Who Do You Trust? with Johnny Carson.

Q. You began your career in local TV. Did you enjoy that?

A. It was a great time. My first television job was while I was still in college, and I was hired against all odds by a station in Indianapolis. I started as a voice-over announcer doing station identifications. Then gradually, through vacation schedules and attrition, I got to do morning news once; got to host a kids' show once; ended up doing the weather and a late- night movie show. You just do everything you can. It was great fun because there was no pressure. I could pretty much do whatever I wanted, and nobody cared because I was always the fill-in guy. What you learn there is that television is the same at that level and at this level. In fact, here maybe a little lower.

Q. Do you miss doing stand-up comedy?

A. I don't think I was a good stand-up comedian. I could do the job. I learned the skills of making a roomful of drunks laugh. But I never really enjoyed it. I always felt like I was not enough. To me, when you go see a comic, you want to see a guy like ((slapstick comedian)) Gallagher. You want to see lights and props and balloons and fruit being smashed. You want to see something because you're spending something like 20 to 25 bucks. They came to see me, and all I really had was 30 minutes of jokes.

Q. Your first network TV job was on Mary Tyler Moore's short-lived variety show. Was that a good experience?

A. At the time it was the best experience and the worst experience I had had. I was living in one room on Sunset Boulevard, driving a '73 pickup truck. I'd get in my truck and drive to work every day -- which was Television City. In Hollywood! And one of my co-workers was Mary Tyler Moore! It was great, the American show-biz dream come true. It was also difficult because in each show there was a big dance number, and every Tuesday the wardrobe people would come around and fit you for, like, a Peter Pan suit to wear in the number. I always described it as: What's wrong with this picture? Well, Letterman has no business being there with Mary Tyler Moore, that's what's wrong with this picture.

Q. Would you like to do movies?

A. I have finally signed a deal with the Disney people. In actuality the deal is: if you ever want to do a movie, you'll do it for us. I have no ideas. But I just feel it's sort of an inevitability that one day I'll do a really bad movie.

Q. If NBC asked you to take over as host of the Tonight show when Johnny Carson retires, would you say yes?

A. I guess of course I would. But I think ultimately I would be happy just to be considered.

Q. You seem to really look up to Carson. Why?

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