Donald Trump certainly wasn’t the only topic of conversation when David Letterman spoke Friday evening at the New Yorker Festival, the magazine’s annual arts series of public talks. In a 90-minute talk with New Yorker articles editor Susan Morrison, the retired talk show host discussed everyone and everything from Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon to climate change, Spider-Man and whether he misses late-night TV.
For the record, No, he doesn’t. But it certainly misses him. Here’s a selection of quotes (edited and condensed) from an evening that made his nightly absence felt all the more keenly.
Late Night Political Humor: “In the beginning I followed Johnny Carson’s example – we’re just not gong to do political humor. When I started, a comic doing political humor was, Boy that Ronald Reagan sure is old isn’t he? Over the years, we all got far more knowledgable, far more sophisticated. Maybe it’s just a late maturation but you grasp what we’re talking about under the banner of politics. Because when you’re a kid, you don’t really know.”
Today’s Late Night Shows: “I have not seen them. Let me amend that, I was a guest years and years ago on the Jimmy Kimmel show, so when I was there I guess that counts as having watched it.”
Jimmy Fallon’s softball interview with Donald Trump: “I would have gone right after him. I’ve known Donald Trump for years…I would have felt confident and completely comfortable saying, What the hell is wrong with you? You need an appointment. Get yourself some therapy, get yourself a goddamn bag of, of..get a prescription.”
Viral Videos: “I don’t know how to do that. I just don’t know how to do that. All I knew was Johnny Carson, I knew Steve Allen and I taught myself how to do those kind of shows. I don’t even know how to get a clip on the internet…I don’t care about Justin Beiber getting a Slurpee from 7-Eleven.”
Hillary Clinton: “She’s always treated me very nicely, has always been very kind with me, very frank, very smart. So I have nothing but the highest regard for her. I hope when she’s elected she’ll be a good president. Let’s just say, she’s not been the perfect candidate, but who has been the perfect candidate?”
Bill Clinton: “I can remember the first time he was on the show, I was scared silly. He sat down and I asked him one question and the next thing I said was, Thanks for being here. I stopped worrying about Bill Clinton from that point on. The man can yak.”
Johnny Carson: “I’d sit at home watching the Tonight Show and a comedian would come on and (Carson) would say, Ladies and gentleman, here’s Lois Bromfield and you can see her at the Comedy Store. I found out that the Comedy Store was a place that nascent comedians could get up and do comedy, so there was clearly a connection between the Comedy Store and the Tonight Show. So that’s what pried me out of the comfort of Indianapolis and moved me to California. And it worked exactly the way I thought it would work. The first week I was there I started working at the Comedy Store. I moved in 1975 and in 1978 I was on the damned show. If someone had told me that in three years I’d be on the Tonight Show sitting there next to Johnny Carson… It was like being on a bus and you look over and holy crap it’s Abe Lincoln.”
Losing To Leno: “I never really talked about this with anybody, but I kept thinking that somebody would ask me to host the Tonight Show. I thought that’s how it would work. I didn’t know that what you needed to do was go to the network and say, Come on, when’s this gonna happen? So I didn’t. I think I sent the message that perhaps I wasn’t interested. I had numerous meetings with (NBC president) Brandon Tartikoff over and over and over again, and I can remember one in particular. He came in – because the ratings on the NBC show were tremendous for a late night show – and he came in and said, Anything else? And I said, No, everything’s great. And it occurred to me years and years later that that ‘anything else’ might have been the opening for ‘Yes, I’d like to host the Tonight Show.'”
Losing Viewers To Leno: “I was embarrassed by it…We didn’t know what happened, we just knew we’d lost our way. For a long time…I would blame the network, and I would get in furious fights with (CBS CEO) Les Moonves. We had a fight that lasted a full 24 hours, because I thought the problem was not me, the problem was the network. And then I gradually began to realize that the problem was me, and I made my peace with that. It was simply that a larger number of people liked watching Jay Leno more than they liked watching me.”
“When Jay started winning, it was just like, one night he wasn’t and the next night he was. We thought oh well, it’s anomalous. Well, it wasn’t. It went on like that forever, and that panicked us, or perhaps me because I was at the head of the thing. We lost our way for a while. It took a long time to settle back in and find out what we were doing. On occasion we would beat him in the ratings here and there, but not routinely. I felt bad for the network, I felt like I was failing the staff. I was embarrassed for my family. I got over it, but I still wish we could have been the Number 1 late night show.”
Any Consolation In Being The Thinking Man’s Host? “Actually, if you take a look at some of our shows, you didn’t have to think too hard.”
Moving To CBS: “I got a letter from (NBC exec) Don Ohlmeyer, who was running the network at the time, a guy who I admired and had gotten along with pretty well, and he said, You can’t do stupid pet tricks and can’t do stupid human tricks (on CBS), couldn’t do a CBS mailbag. And I’ll never forget that in Don Ohlmeyer’s signature, in the ‘O’ he put a little smiley face. And I thought, How can I possibly take this seriously? The guy put a little puppet in his signature.”
Pushed Or Jumped? “The last year of my contract was one year. I wanted it one year and my friend Les Moonves agreed that it would be one year. I said, look if at any time between now and then you want to make a change, just let me know. So it was mutual. No, I was not fired.”
Paul Shaffer: “We did 6,000 shows together, and he was the most important part of my life for every one of those 6,000 shows. Whether the show was good, not good, mediocre, ugly, awful, Paul Shaffer, you can count on him and the fantastic music. The thing that I miss most, other than the friends that I worked with, is not having the great privilege of live music every night.”
Why White Socks? “This is the most frequently asked question, and I don’t mean to embarrass anyone, but lets take a good look at these socks. Seriously, what color are these socks? They’re gray. So kill me, I got a deal at Target.”
Guest Relations: I was from old school Johnny Carson. I never talked to a guest before the show because I wanted that first reaction to be the first reaction. I think a lot of the guests might have thought that was selfish and rude – and yeah that too – but it created an energy and had pretty good results.”
His Memorable Return After 9/11: My family and I had been in Montana and we watched all of it on television, and as a result I had quite a lot of time to think about what I was going to say. My inspiration for the remarks came from Rudolph Giuliani. This was the old Rudolph Giuliani. I honestly just had to kinda talk my way through it. And then Dan Rather was there and I just remember Dan Rather grabbing my arm and he started to cry and I just thought, Oh my god. And then Regis (Philbin) was on the show, and I started to make fun of Regis, and for seven or eight minutes, the world for me kind of righted itself, because I could make jokes about Regis.”
His Legacy: “It’s like, if you’re working at an automotive factory and you’re building cars and let’s say you build 800 a day. You don’t go home and look at all the cars on the highway and say, By god I built all those. You just looked at one car at a time.”
Years of Living Dangerously (Letterman appears on the October 30 episode of the National Geographic Channel’s documentary series about climate change, in which he travels to India to investigate the country’s inadequate energy grid): “I was contacted by these people and they said, Would you like to do a segment? I remember when President Obama was running and he said something that’s kind of cliche but it stuck with me: He said, What are we going to tell our kids when they say wait a minute, you knew the climate was changing and you did nothing about it? I thought by God, I got a kid and I want to be able to tell him I did something.
“I saw poverty like I’ve never seen before. It was quite an awakening experience, from simple thoughts to moments of great depression…I was so touched by this experience. I haven’t seen it yet and I don’t know if it’s any good, I want it to be good and would love to do more things like this, because selfishly the education is phenomenal, and if it translates to somebody else giving thought to this problem or any other problem, I’m all for it…We just can’t leave the planet a smoldering cinder for other people.”
His Life Today: “Most of the day I just sit around and wait for Ellen to come on.”
No, Seriously: “I do a lot of stuff. The family and I did a great deal of traveling this summer and it was delightful. We were in Montana for about six weeks, in Martha’s Vineyard for about six weeks, went to Japan for two weeks. And it was fun.”
Any TV Or Movie Offers? “Yes, I have had offers, but what I get is people saying, What would you like to do, and I say, I did what I’d like to do. I get offers for cameo work, like somebody was doing Spider-Man and they said would you like to be a street vendor in Spider-Man? I don’t think there is a device that’s invented that is capable of measuring the amount of time it took for me to hang up the phone.”
Do You Miss It? “You know, I don’t miss it. It’s for younger people…I’ve had a lovely time here this evening, and this is all I need.”
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.