AN AMERICAN VIEW

America’s addiction with celebrity status

Notoriety is the angel dust of the blitzed-out and bored. We all want to be like David Letterman, like Jay Leno, like Demi Moore, like Roseanne.

FRED BRUNING December 4 1995
AN AMERICAN VIEW

America’s addiction with celebrity status

Notoriety is the angel dust of the blitzed-out and bored. We all want to be like David Letterman, like Jay Leno, like Demi Moore, like Roseanne.

FRED BRUNING December 4 1995

America’s addiction with celebrity status

AN AMERICAN VIEW

FRED BRUNING

Notoriety is the angel dust of the blitzed-out and bored. We all want to be like David Letterman, like Jay Leno, like Demi Moore, like Roseanne.

It seems only yesterday that Americans were mesmerized by the grand-scale human drama attending the future of television talk-show host David Letterman. Would he succeed Johnny Carson on NBC’s The Tonight Show when the old master called it quits? Would Letterman be edged out by Jay Leno even though Leno hardly seemed capable of lighting Letterman’s cigars? If Leno prevailed, would Letterman flee to CBS? Would Dave’s famous eggshell ego at last implode? In those exciting days of 1992, vast reportage and numerous front page headlines were devoted to the matter of Dave and Jay. For Americans, it was stuff of enormous consequence. Not until the O. J. Simpson trial would U.S. citizens experience a defining moment of equal magnitude.

As most everyone knows, Letterman finally brought his unglued brand of humor to CBS—the Top 10 list read in reverse, the “bear” who roamed the streets of midtown Manhattan asking for a hug, the canned hams bestowed upon lucky members of the audience, Dave’s mother reporting live from the Winter Olympics—and ratings zoomed. Operating out of the old Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway, Letterman was New York’s latest cockeyed sensation—loony, exhilarating and complicated as the big town that so ardently embraced him. Letterman still was neurotic and charmingly bedeviled by selfdoubt, but his hang-ups made him seem all the more original and irresistible. Jay who?

But in television, as in life, your numbers always can slip. With the network TV scene undergoing realignment, CBS found itself with weaker member stations and compounded its difficulties by juggling the lineup of evening shows that helped deliver viewers to Letterman. Meanwhile, Leno proved smart enough to copy the geek chic style perfected by Dave, book the best celebrities (i.e. Hugh Grant after the actor’s

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

arrest for soliciting a hooker in Los Angeles) and introduce breakthrough acts like the Dancing Itos, a troupe of hoofers in judicial robes sometimes joined by a Marcia Clark look-alike. Add to all this that Letterman bombed as Academy Awards emcee—yish, such material—and then came the cruncher. After 90 weeks of Letterman supremacy, Leno recently pulled ahead.

David Letterman makes $19 million annually so we need not sweat his welfare. Besides, television ratings are as subject to change as a politician’s view on abortion and—who knows?—Dave already could be on the rebound. In any event, Letterman asks no sympathy. “I just need to keep my mouth shut and let the work speak for itself,” he told The New York Times. Then, ignoring his own advice, Letterman took a poke at CBS, his employer. “If this network were an airline, I wouldn’t fly it to Buffalo,” he told the Times. It was just like Dave to ask the reporter to please not print the quote (“They’ll kill me”) and then tweak CBS in similar manner during a subsequent television interview.

Letterman is floundering, no matter what his audience share. He talks about moving

the show to California and hints he might retire after his contract expires in four years. His ups and downs are dutifully reported in the papers and on TV, but something is different. A few years ago, the story was red hot. Now it’s medium cool. Loyal followers might argue, but Letterman no longer ranks in importance with the president of the United States or winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Listen, it happens.

Though fame has obvious perils—there is bound to be a comeuppance sooner or later—none seem sufficient to deter our starryeyed nation. Look at daytime TV talk shows where ordinary people discuss their personal lives in detail that might cause a priest to keel over in the confessional. (Behold the wife who made love to the appliance repairman while her hubby caught the scene on videotape! Behold the hubby who now wants to sell aforementioned tape to the highest bidder!) Conservatives like former education secretary William Bennett denounce the shows as retrograde, but the problem isn’t sleazy subject matter. It’s the instinct on the part of so many to go public—to be famous even fleetingly, and at all costs.

Notoriety is America’s drug of choice, the angel dust of the blitzed-out and bored. Addiction occurs instantly and is not quickly reversed. We all want to be like Dave, like Jay, like Demi Moore, like Julia Roberts, like Roseanne. We want their bucks and their influence and their ability to be recognized on the spot by cabdrivers and head waiters. And if we don’t have the talent or the looks or the luck, hey, we’ll settle for a few minutes on national TV recalling those naughty times we pranced around the bedroom in our sister’s underwear. If it plays, why not?

In a time when not much seems substantive and enduring, a quick hit of pseudo celebrity is a tempting prospect. If the economy stinks, and your credit card is maxed out, and the company is downsizing, and the bozos in Washington have shut down the government because they can’t agree on a budget package, where does that leave you? It leaves you on the couch watching Leeza or Montel or Ricki and thinking, wow, maybe I ought to get up there and spill my guts and take a bow. The little guy likes applause as much as Letterman.

But ovations fade soon enough, and even the greatest performer is left to ponder the fleeting nature of glory. In Letterman’s comments, you get a hint that he has gauged the limits of stardom—that, far more than his fans, Letterman understands he is not really a bulwark of American culture or even the stuff of front page coverage. Speaking to the Times, Letterman said, “I was never satisfied that I was exactly what this country wanted and needed.” At another point he remarked: “I know people sometimes say, ‘Look at this moron. He’s not enjoying himself.’ ” Letterman is no moron. He is wary of his own celebrity and perhaps wary of his admirers, too. Maybe he thinks the American people expect too much of him. More terrifying, maybe he thinks they expect too little.