The top 10 reasons David Letterman's heart bypass operation was a good thing

Published March 20, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

March 20, 2000

10. It proved that America's cynic laureate has a heart after all.

David Letterman has never been a warm and fuzzy kind of guy, which was great for his comedy -- nobody does crusty negativity as masterfully as Dave -- but maybe not so great for his emotional health. Letterman holds his audience at arm's length and jokily paints himself as a faintly pathetic recluse with no life outside work. In interviews, Letterman has explained that grouchiness and reserve both run in his family. His mother, he's fond of saying, is "the least demonstrative person on the planet," and it was her lack of humor and nonexistent boiling point that drove Letterman's father (who died at 57 of a heart attack) to make outrageously misanthropic jokes to try to get a rise out of her. Like father, like son.

On the Jan. 14 show, which had been taped the day before, 52-year-old Letterman made the surprising on-air announcement (to guest Regis Philbin, who seems to have replaced Johnny Carson as his father figure) that he was going into the hospital for an angiogram the next day; his doctors were concerned about his family history of heart disease. As Letterman revealed his health troubles, he couldn't resist a joke: His cholesterol level was 680, he told Philbin. It was typical Letterman, using humor as an avoidance mechanism. But this time, you could almost feel the terror behind his wisecracks.

9. No bypass, no comeback show.

On Feb. 21, a mere five weeks after undergoing an emergency quintuple -- ponder that a moment -- heart bypass operation to clear a blocked artery, Letterman returned to "Late Show" looking spectacularly fit and exclaiming, "Wait till you hear what happened to me!" Letterman delivered a killer monologue ("'Bypass surgery' is when doctors surgically create new blood flow to your heart; a 'bypass' is what happened to me when I didn't get 'The Tonight Show'"), then brought out his medical team and made a little thank-you speech to each member. ("Ladies and gentlemen, that woman at the end of the line gave me a bath!" he said, introducing one of his nurses.) Then, on the verge of tears, his voice cracking, he announced, "Five weeks ago today, these men and women right here saved my life." Even if he eventually regresses into Ol' Frosty, he'll never be able to take back that display of emotion. But then, he probably wouldn't want to.

Only slightly less revelatory: Dave introduced his handpicked musical guests, the Foo Fighters, as "my favorite band, playing my favorite song." The song was the titanically thrashing "Everlong." The old man has taste.

8. We got to show Dave how much we care.

I don't know about you, but I got kind of choked up myself during Letterman's comeback show when the camera panned to a nearby office building where somebody had written "Keep it pumping, Dave!" across a row of windows on an upper floor. And wasn't that sweet of the students at Letterman's alma mater, Indiana's Ball State University, to sign a gigantic get-well card for him made out of 100 poster boards fastened together accordion-style?

As a victim of creepy celebrity obsession (remember his stalker?), Letterman must have been immensely relieved that none of his fans had the bad taste to erect one of those eerily banal teddy bear, balloon and angel shrines outside the hospital in his honor. But even he looked genuinely grateful for, almost choked up about, the lengthy standing ovation the audience gave him when he returned to the show. And how about all those A-list pals (Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis and Robin Williams, to name a few) who rallied around Letterman in his hour of need, taping new segments for the "Late Show Backstage" reruns that aired during his recuperation? The last time celebrities stampeded like this to give a fellow star his props was when Carson retired. Somewhere in L.A., Jay Leno is contemplating elective surgery.

7. Tragedy + Time = Comedy

Heart surgery has given Letterman some primo new self-deprecating material. In his first week back, he joked about having to change his lifestyle, "and then it occurred to me -- I don't have a lifestyle." "Everywhere I go now, people refer to me as 'cardiac patient David Letterman,'" he complained. "I liked it better in the old days, when I was referred to as 'head case.'" Another comedic benefit of a heart bypass: Now when the audience greets a joke with silence, he clutches his chest with a worried look on his face and gets the sympathy laugh.

OK, the decaffeinated-coffee jingles are getting tired -- whenever he takes a reluctant sip from his mug of heart-healthy decaf, a peppy chorus sings, "De-caff-ein-ated coffee, it's useless, warm, brown water!" (It was funny the first 10 times.) But the Feb. 23 gag reel of TV coverage of Letterman's surgery was one of the two or three most hilarious bits in "Late Show" history. It started out with shots of actual newspaper headlines, progressed to mock ones ("Letterman has quintuplets!") and got progressively more insane, with star-studded segments filmed on the set of everything from "The X-Files" (David Duchovny as Mulder blames Letterman's heart trouble on a conspiracy orchestrated by "that overcaffeinated little monkey" Philbin) to "General Hospital" to "NYPD Blue" to "Jeopardy!" (Alex Trebek: "What David Letterman said as he was wheeled into emergency surgery." Contestant: "What is, 'Mommy, Mommy, I want my mommy, for the love of God, somebody please get my mommy'?")

6. You couldn't make up a better sweeps stunt.

Publicly, the suits at CBS were supportive of "Late Show" producer Rob Burnett's decision to not use guest hosts during Letterman's five weeks off. But in reality, Letterman's surgery and recuperation couldn't have come at a worse time for the show or the network. February sweeps were starting, and Letterman's ratings, buoyed by Hillary Rodham Clinton's appearance two nights before his surgery, had been steadily rising to within striking distance of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno." How could a Dave-less "Late Show" survive sweeps?

But a funny thing happened. Burnett's "Late Show Backstage" packages of reruns, juiced with newly shot reminiscences by guests like Seinfeld, Williams, Roberts, Dana Carvey and Sarah Jessica Parker, held their own against first-run "Leno" episodes. Letterman was on people's minds and his Feb. 21 comeback show scored a decisive ratings victory over "The Tonight Show," becoming the third-most-watched "Late Show" ever. There's only one problem: What will Letterman do for May sweeps?

5. It revitalized the concept of the guest host.

A long time ago, late-night talk show hosts weren't so paranoid about someone stealing their jobs. Carson was so sure of his place in viewers' hearts and of his value to NBC that he used to take actual vacations. And he worked only four nights a week! "The Tonight Show" didn't close up shop in Carson's absence, though; it went right on humming with guest hosts like Jerry Lewis, Joan Rivers, Garry Shandling, Bill Cosby and, yes, Letterman and Leno.

Now, competition for viewer loyalty is so fierce that Leno has been on the job for, like, eight years straight, and he has forced Letterman into the same Herculean schedule. But then, Leno probably remembers too well how the ratings for "The Tonight Show" jumped up when he subbed for Carson as the show's permanent guest host. Which is why Letterman's decision to hand over the show to guest hosts two nights a week until he's ready to return full throttle (possibly in a week) is such a rare and admirable act of late-night-TV courage. And watching Letterman's subs (Kathie Lee Gifford, Cosby, Carvey and Janeane Garofalo) recently reminded us of how guest hosts used to bring a scintillating element of the unknown to Carson's nights off from "The Tonight Show." For their sanity and ours, Letterman and Leno ought to start using guest hosts again to refresh everyone's interest and spice up the old late-night routine.

Not all of Letterman's subs worked out -- Carvey, with Jon Lovitz in the Ed McMahon seat, delivered a show of such dumb-ass sophomoric proportions, it made "Wayne's World" look like "Nightline." But Garofalo's turn on March 7 was absolutely brilliant. She made the show her own, but she did it in just the way Letterman might have done it in his upstart days. Claiming that Letterman and his staff wouldn't allow her to use any of his writers or touch any of his stuff, Garofalo conducted the show from a school desk plunked down directly in front of Letterman's set, which had been roped off with yellow police tape. Garofalo asked all her guests the same canned talk show questions -- "So, tell me about your new pay-per-view special" and "I heard you recently had a baby" -- whether or not they were appropriate. Garofalo's first guests, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross of HBO's "Mr. Show" fame, were devilish partners in put-on, running a clip of their "latest special," "Who Wants to Watch Two Multi-Millionaires Marry Each Other?" which they said was rejected by HBO. Disguised in a Kenny G. wig, Odenkirk also sat in with the band as "Bazille, master of the slide whistle."

Garofalo's gig was smart, subversive and howlingly funny, and all of that reflects well on Letterman for having the guts to let her play on his turf. If he's considering hiring a permanent sub, Garofalo aced the audition.

4. There's nothing like forced bed rest to make you miss your lousy job.

Since he came back to the show Letterman seems so darned happy to be there, it's almost frightening. Maybe it's the medication.

3. Now that he has looked death in the face, he's fearless.

In the past, Letterman followed Carson's careful example when it came to politics -- ridicule everyone, but don't let viewers know who you're really for or against. But now, rejuvenated by his brush with mortality, Letterman is running his mouth like nobody's business. Example: He will not stop calling George W. Bush "a colossal boob." The day after Super Tuesday, Letterman announced, "I predict, in November, Al Gore will beat George W. Bush like a drum!" Later, he deconstructed a news clip of Bush, telling us to "start counting the eye blinks ... If they don't hook this guy up to a polygraph soon, something is wrong." Not that Letterman has been all that kind to Gore ("He's starting to use a little too much makeup ... he looks like Marv Albert") or John McCain; one night, he played an MSNBC clip of McCain being ambushed by Maria Shriver and sharply telling the Kennedy princess to get lost. Letterman ordered his director to play the tape over, cackling with delight. As long as Letterman remains on his post-surgical high, Bush and Gore haven't got a prayer.

2. It gave us a chance to think about Letterman's place in TV history.

To put it plainly, he's Carson's equal. Letterman doesn't just preside over a talk show; like Carson, he has created (with the help of his staff, of course) an hour of TV that feels like nothing else around it. "Late Show," like "Late Night" before it, is a mood and an attitude; it makes you feel part of a big in-joke going on at the expense of authority figures and "colossal boobs" everywhere.

And it isn't only viewers who are in on the joke; "Late Show" bestows reflected hipness on guests who may be dorky in their day jobs (Richard Simmons, Regis, Kathie Lee) but are sporting enough to play along with Dave (and woe to those guests who don't get it). Most guests are looser and funnier on "Late Show" than on "The Tonight Show," maybe because Letterman is so agile at drawing them into his "aw, let's cut the promo crap and say something bad about someone" universe. Letterman and his writers have managed to sustain a high note of smart mischief, lo these many years. Their unstated mission: to unmask the phony and the self-important and to drive them out into the harsh light of reality. And Letterman and his crew keep coming up with cheeky, but elegantly simple, methods of accomplishing this. The new "Barbara Walters Reaction Shot of the Night" is pure genius, as is the irresistible "Pat and Kenny Read Oprah Transcripts," in which two grizzled stagehands offer absurdly deadpan interpretations of actual dialogue from "Oprah."

Letterman will be remembered as the man who gave the late-night talk show a kick in the head, hipping things up with an ironic, askew sense of humor that owed more to "Saturday Night Live" and "Monty Python" than to Vegas and the Catskills. He must have felt pretty comfortable back then, hiding behind his armor of flipness, sadistically working on guests' nerves. But Letterman couldn't stay the carefree frat boy forever. The bitter business with NBC's passing him over for Leno forced him to take a more grown-up sort of revenge -- despite his frequent monologue jokes about CBS' ratings, he has been an exemplary team captain at his second network. He's still a pest when he wants to be, but age has brought out a graciousness in him that he wears as well as one of his suavely tailored suits. The David Letterman of 1985 was pretty cool, but he never would have inspired the good wishes showered upon the David Letterman of 2000. He has become TV's most beloved surly bastard.

And the No. 1 reason David Letterman's heart bypass operation was a good thing ...

1. He's not going to drop dead anytime soon.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

MORE FROM Joyce Millman

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