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  • Jonathan Hanst

Lessons from Late Night

Every now and then, I’ll go to the library without a clear idea of what book I want to get. I often end up in the biography section, searching for titles about people I’d like to learn more about. Recently, such a hunt resulted in me taking home “Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night” by Jason Zinoman, which I couldn’t read fast enough.


Growing up, David Letterman was one of the biggest influences on my sense of humor and wiseass perspective. Other stars in this constellation were Mad Magazine, Steve Martin and comedy classics like Ghostbusters and Animal House. As popular as Letterman was in his heyday, during the early years of “Late Night” on NBC, the show was often so odd and unpolished that it felt sort of like a secret club. Could that many people be staying up late to watch this?


Of course, millions were. And before long, Dave went from obscurity, to cult favorite, to bonafide celebrity.


But one major thing that struck me in “Late Night Giant” was that Letterman did not emerge fully formed. Far from it. He struggled to find his niche for years, even though many people in the comedy and television business recognized the talent he had. One job had Dave hosting a TV show that gave indications of what “Late Night” would become… but it aired in the morning. The crew around Letterman was new to the rigors of daily television, and Bob Stewart, a veteran producer, quit just 2 weeks before Dave went on the air. Due to low ratings, the show was eventually cancelled.

Another gig included a bit part on 70s sitcom classic “Mork and Mindy” opposite Robin Williams. Most performers would view this kind of exposure as a huge win. Not Dave. He hated it, and vowed to never repeat the experience. Doing scripted comedy wasn’t something that stimulated him creatively, so he kept pushing towards his goals. He idolized Johnny Carson, but to Letterman’s credit, he didn’t imitate the Tonight Show king. Dave had his own off kilter sense of humor, even if it took years to fully hone.


These experiences in Letterman’s trial and error period reminded me that large scale success requires time and patience. In this ‘instant gratification’ world of Amazon Prime and viral YouTube stars, we can trick ourselves into thinking that there’s an express lane to our dreams. But dreams take a lot of effort-- and stumbles and dead ends are part of the journey. If we’re not willing to dust ourselves off and meet each new day with enthusiasm, chances are we won’t climb to the heights we’re capable of.


Determination and consistent effort are key. Many people are so disheartened by failure that if they bump up against disappointment or embarrassment too often, they throw in the towel. I myself have been guilty of being so concerned with perfection that I waste a lot of time before putting something “out there.” Perfection might be something to strive for, but it’s also like the line on the horizon: visible, but not a place you can actually reach.

Our first efforts (and second, and third…) will never be as good as our fiftieth. But we’ll never get to fifty tries without going through forty nine others. It’s important to like the work, of course. This shouldn’t be torture. Your dreams should be something that keep you excited and motivated, because the path between here and there will be littered with obstacles. There will be failures and setbacks. Sometimes it will hurt and it might often be uncomfortable.


Though Zinoman’s book, I also learned that Letterman had a largely unknown collaborator for years who would significantly help him shape the humor of his shows. Her name was Merrill Markoe and Dave admits that without her, there wouldn’t have been a “Late Night” at all. To me, this proves that very few successful people get to the top on their own. Partnership and openness to outside ideas are essential.


I found “The Last Giant of Late Night” enormously entertaining and funny. It made me laugh out loud more often than any other book in recent memory. But it also taught me some good lessons. If you’re a Letterman fanatic like me, I highly recommend it.


If you’ve read a good biography lately, pass along the title in the comments.

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© 2020 by Jonathan Hanst