Bill Zehme got to know David Letterman and Jay Leno when he profiled them in the early ’80s as their careers all took off. A decade later, Zehme was a feature writer for Esquire, perfectly positioned to go inside and get the scoop the late night wars waged between Letterman after Johnny Carson retired. He profiled Leno, wrote two features on Letterman (“Letterman Lets his Guard Down” and “Daveheart”) and for the coup de grace, Zehme was granted the only interview Carson gave in retirement. Put together, these pieces give an intimate look inside the fragile psyches of these men and their power struggle. Zehme, currently writing a massive biography of Carson, took some time to chat with us about these three comedy icons, how he secured their trust, and what makes them really tick.—Alex Belth
Alex Belth: How were you able to get access to David Letterman, Jay Leno and Johnny Carson, especially during the height of the Late Night wars?
Bill Zehme: It all began in ’82, the year Letterman started Late Night. Everything corresponds to my relationship with Letterman and Leno. Even in ’82, Letterman’s best foil on the air was Leno. Leno would come on once a month and Leno’s shots on Letterman were equivalent to [Don] Rickles on the Carson show. It was like, “Oh, my God, Leno’s on tonight.” People don’t remember that. Back in those days, Letterman’s regulars were like Sandra Bernhard and Terri Garr, definitely.
AB: Leno is featured in your first Letterman profile.
BZ: I’ve got this huge background with these guys, which is part of the reason Esquire brought me over from Rolling Stone [in 1994]. I did profile on Leno during a week he was guest hosting The Tonight Show for Johnny and afterwards he’d fly to Vegas to do a show, opening for the Mandrelle Sisters. He said, “Comedy comes first.” We’d fly back the same night and we did that all week. This is how I really learned that Leno is not really a human being. Just the endurance and the yeoman like nature he brought to it. Whereas Letterman was a tortured artist.
AB: Other than ambition, talent and drive what did they have in common?
BZ: It’s a common thread that talk show hosts come from under-appreciative mothers. Mom will not give them the time of day. Johnny couldn’t get his mother’s respect, Letterman was the same way. Leno made fun of the fact that this mother didn’t get what he did but that’s another way of saying his mother didn’t get what he did. I know Kimmel real well. I know his mom and she’s a nice lady. But Kimmel used to tell the story about how his mother used to play dead just to freak out the kids—him, his sister and his brother. Mom would just lay down and pretend she was dead and the kids would try to wake her up. Yes, moms have left an imprint on the best talk show hosts.
AB: Speaking of mom’s it was your mom who told you about a random family connection with Letterman.
BZ: His father and my grandfather were best friends in the flower industry. They were both these gentleman florists back in the day when men were florists—When men ruled the earth they were florists, too. I guess there were some wild nights with my grandfather and Ace Joe Letterman—Harry Joe Letterman. They’d be loaded and have these drunken lunches in the city. Letterman’s father would take the Illinois Central train back to Indiana. They were great drinking pals but elegant guys who wore a suit and tie to work. They were like the Mad Men of florists. My mother found a photograph of them that I gave to Letterman when I met him in 1982.
AB: Had you been a fan of his?
BZ: I knew about Letterman as a stand up. I knew anything that filtered through Carson. I believe he only did stand up once or twice before he was asked to be a guest host. Dave was a regular and became part of my world in the late Seventies when I was in college. Leno always said to me, “Oh, you’re a Dave guy.”
AB: Were you a Dave guy?
BZ: Always. Yeah, I was always a Dave guy. I got to know these guys as human beings. I helped Leno write his book, much to the chagrin of the Letterman people. I’d written this really tough piece in Esquire on Leno, who was finally winning but couldn’t be friends with Dave—was it all worth it? Leno wasn’t pissed at the piece, that’s when he asked me to help write his book, which I always thought of as keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer—not that I was his enemy, I just didn’t like what had happened at all.
AB: But you stayed on good terms with Letterman?
BZ: I helped Dave do these promos when he chose to go to CBS. Robert Morton—Morty, these used to call him, Dave’s producer—called me to interview Dave on camera for all the promos that were leading to the show’s debut. They didn’t tell me what to ask they just wanted me to humanize him, make him female-friendly. I was thrilled to talk to him about the scientific aspect of bagging groceries—Dave was very proud of his bagging skills. We explored his fascination with pants, not the article of clothing so much as the word. I asked him if he had a pair of lucky pants and that became a segment where Dave says, “The question is do I have a pair of lucky pants? Boy, CBS is getting their money’s worth today.” It’s one of my favorite memories, just making Dave giggle.
AB: Peter Lassally was another connection for you with Letterman, right?
BZ: Yes. Peter Lassally was Johnny’s longtime co-executive producer—they call him the host whisperer. He was the guy who took me under his wing and kind of helped ordained me in the eyes of all these late night guys. I sort of had a free pass. He allowed me to come in when Dave was about to leave NBC to go CBS in 1992. He’s the one who sort of opened up the floodgates, because I hadn’t seen Dave in a long time. I guess it had been about 10 years at that point and in the meantime I’d gotten to know Leno pretty well.
AB: So now how did you manage to get Carson? Because you were the only person he granted an interview for after he retired.
BZ: It was a long dance. If you ever want to succeed in our racket make sure you get to know the assistants of people very well. That’s what you want to do. That’s the key. Because they’re your pipeline to getting to the subject. In 1996, I hosted Later. Greg Kinner was off making “Sabrina” and they let all sort of weird people fill-in, like Michael Ian Black and Marc Maron. I did two shows. I had been one of three finalists to take over Later from Costas. I’d done a fake show on the set of The Tonight Show. Leno was the guest and Richard Lewis. Barry Manilow came in. I called in some favors to make a fake show.
AB: Who were the guests?
BZ: Sandra Bernhard one night and Steve Forbes, the son of Malcolm Forbes, was the guest on the other. The day after, I went to Carson’s offices to have lunch with a good friend of mine who was one of the assistants there—there were four people in the office at that point and I’d gotten to know all three of them pretty well other than Johnny. So I go to meet my friend for lunch and Carson is there. This is when he and I first meet. I hear his voice coming down the hallway, “I hear there’s a new late night talk show host in the building.” I can’t believe Johnny Carson is saying this to me. He’d heard that I’d filled in for Kinner the day before. It was a shocking way to meet him. Humbled before majesty. I remember he said, “Did you enjoy it?” And that was the weirdest question ever because it never occurred to me.
AB: Did you enjoy it?
BZ: I did and I didn’t. Kind of like everything I’ve ever written, pal. That’s exactly it. I hate the process always but it’s great when it’s over with.
AB: So did you approach Carson right there about writing about him?
BZ: No, you never put Johnny on the spot. You’re dealing with a very fragile piece of China there. He was still in the mode of saying “no” [to articles], four years after he was off the air. But in the years hence I started sending him notes occasionally. David Granger and Mark Warren were intent on me doing a Johnny piece [for Esquire], and I did too and I’d been circling Johnny for so long. I’m 100% convinced that he agreed to talk to me—not just another writer living in L.A.—because I’m from Chicago. He’s Mr. Nebraska, ultimately. I know that had everything to do with him being keen on me being the guy, his one and only inquisitor. He loved that I knew everything about Late Night via Dave and Jay and he knew that I know what he knew about Dave and Jay. He had gotten to know me as the guy Dave trusted.
AB: Did he have any response to the story?
BZ: He loved the piece. He wrote me this beautiful letter. I got it framed.
AB: And when did you start thinking of writing a full-scale book on Carson?
BZ: I’d gotten to know Carson’s nephew, Jeff Sobzing, who was running his company. He said if anyone should do it, it should be you. That’s what everybody in Johnny’s immediate camps said, other than his estranged final wife but that’s a whole other story.
AB: Is this your version of The Power Broker?
BZ: Yes, it’s a huge book. I’ve gone through so much of the material, it’s ridiculous. Now, thanks to Sobzing, I have access to all of the shows digitally. It’s mind-blowing, it’s overwhelming. You can never have too much information. But in this case, yes, you can. There’s always this nagging thought—what if I’m missing something? That makes me nuts.
AB: I can appreciate your position. There’s not realistically enough time to watch and analyze every episode ever but you live in fear of missing a great moment.
BZ: Johnny gave us his autobiography piecemeal—night, after night, after night. He would drop in little stories. This is what I did in this situation, what did you do? So I had to figure out, which guests brought out the best in Johnny Carson. Burt Convy, game show host, actor on shows like “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” comes to mind—somebody you’d never guess but a guy who was just a great conduit for Johnny. The best stuff came from Rickles because Rickles cuts to the quick. He would put Johnny on the fence about wherever he was in his marriages, you’d get great stuff there. And women—Angie Dickenson, great, cause they’d flirt. Susan Plichette. And I talked to those ladies because they knew him off camera too.
Have you seen that Antenna TV is replaying Carson episodes every night? To see Carson now—after Dave and Jay have left—you begin to see: Oh, my god, this world is so not here anymore. Carson never discounted the American attention span. The shows feel very slow if you’re used to new shows, but you realize, my god, they’re talking about things. The actors would go on there with nothing to promote—they’d go there between gigs. They’d come out because they were good guests for Johnny.
AB: And he always seemed to make them look so good in return.
BZ: Johnny was never entirely comfortable, ever. He was constantly fidgeting. At the same time he put guests immediately at ease. You could see that. He didn’t want anybody to be upset or intimidated. Johnny wanted everybody to look great. That’s why he was such a great host because he wanted everybody in the room to shine. It’s a weird discipline—everything is nuance.
[Photo Credit: Bernard Gotfryd, via Wikimedia Commons]