David Letterman: New Dave Dawning

After 11 years, David Letterman is the man of the hour in late night. Now if he can only learn to enjoy it.

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Letterman treats his Midwestern roots with a mixture of ironic detachment % and affection. He visits his mother a couple of times a year; the last time was after this year's Indy 500. Letterman says he was tickled by the experience. He called the house at 7 p.m. and came by after dinner. "I got there at 8:30, and Mom says to me ((affecting her quiet, church-lady voice)), 'David, would you like some strawberry pie?' I go into the kitchen, and there's a brand-new, fresh-baked strawberry pie. I said, 'When did you make this?' She said, 'I started right after I got off the phone with you.' It was just the cutest. I was so touched. Isn't that motherhood? She gets off the phone, drops what she's doing and bakes a pie."

Letterman's father, a florist who died when David was 27, was a "polar opposite. When he would walk through a room, lamps would rattle. He was funny and energetic and a goofball, screaming and hollering, making corny jokes. Then when he died, the focus shifted obviously to my mother, and none of us realized how quiet and undemonstrative she was. It took some re-getting used to. My first 27 years, I'm living in a fraternity house. It was all thunder and lightning. And with my mom now, it's kind of a gentle spring rain."

Letterman married his college sweetheart and moved with her to California, where they divorced after nine years. Friends say he was rarely without a steady girlfriend thereafter, though Letterman gets a troubled look whenever the subject of female relationships comes up. "Every relationship that's failed in my life has been my fault," he says.

His closest male friends are mostly comedians he met on the club circuit in Los Angeles. Even they concede that Letterman reveals little about himself. George Miller, who lived in the same apartment building as Letterman, across the street from the Comedy Store, recalls taking him along on his first three or four guest appearances on the Tonight Show. When Letterman was invited for his first Tonight gig, however, "I found out about it from Merrill," says Miller. "I was a little ticked off. But it's just because he's so private."

For all his guardedness, Letterman can be generous and loyal to friends. In 1979 Miller was among several comics who boycotted the Comedy Store in a labor dispute. Letterman, who by this time was guest-hosting the Tonight Show, kept performing there because he needed to try out material. Miller showed up one night to watch his friend, but the club's owner called the police and had him thrown out. "After Dave heard what had happened, he never worked another show there," says Miller. "That was quite a sacrifice."

Letterman's standards and sense of propriety are apparent as well in his choice of material. Writers say he often rejects jokes that stray too close to tragic news events or real-life misfortune. Rob Burnett recalls Letterman turned down a gag for a segment called Charts and Graphs -- "Dyslexics' Favorite Beatles," featuring names like ULAP and OGNRI; the host said it made fun of a serious disability. Comedian Jeff Altman, another Letterman pal from the Comedy Store days, remembers a guest appearance on Late Night in which he made a lewd crack that included the word "genitals." Letterman didn't laugh, and Altman complained about it later at dinner. "I said, 'You could have helped me out a little there.' Dave said, "Maybe you shouldn't have said that on TV.' "

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