Web Only / Culture » September 21, 1988
The Big Shill
—George Orwell, in his essay “Mark Twain-The Licensed Jester”
If you were watching “Late Night with David Letterman” on the night of August 31, you saw a remarkable thing, something unprecedented in at least this viewer’s experience of the show: David Letterman not only lost his temper, but he lost his sense of humor. (Video below.) The object of Letterman’s wrath was Cleveland comic-book writer Harvey Pekar, who started out his segment of the show by insinuating that Letterman had scabbed during the recent writers’ strike, and then, after the commercial break, brought up his (Pekar’s) previous, controversial appearance on the show.
It ended with Pekar calling Letterman a shill for the General Electric Corporation, which owns NBC. It was at this point that Letterman’s justifiably famous wit failed him. Leaning forward and stabbing the desk with his forefinger, Letterman declared that: (a) what Pekar said was not true (i.e., he is not a shill for GE); and (b) that this was not the place to discuss it. A shouting match ensued, in which Letterman called Pekar a dork and slagged off his comic book. Then he cut abruptly to a commercial, after which Pekar was gone.
Stupid human tricks
Now, even Letterman would have to admit that this was dynamite television. Indeed, up until Pekar’s appearance that show had been usually lame: the jokes were bad, Letterman was grumpy and out of sorts, the Stupid Human Tricks were more stupid and less funny than usual.
After Pekar’s sudden departure Letterman tried to kill the extra time with a routine slated for the following evening, but the tension in the studio was palpable. Letterman was as rattled as I’ve ever seen him. He was still angry by the end of the show, and unless I miss my guess, hurt and insulted as well. In fact, Letterman’s rage at Pekar was one of the most revealing moments of television I’ve seen in years. But in order to explain why, I have to back up a bit.
First of all, you have to consider the difference between Pekar and Letterman. While both started out as marginal cult figures, Letterman has become, whether he acknowledges it or not, a bona fide major celebrity. Pekar, meanwhile, remains, and always will be, at the fringes of American popular culture. One of the leading figures in the recent development of adult comic books, Pekar is the author of American Splendor, each irregularly published issue of which consists of stories based on Pekar’s own experiences.
While some of the new comic book auteurs, such as Alan Moore and Frank Miller, devote themselves to deconstructing the myth of the superhero, Pekar has turned his own working-class life (last time I saw American Splendor he was still a file clerk at the V.A. hospital in Cleveland) into a kind of pop existentialist myth, with himself as introspective hero. Pekar writes about everything that happens to him: fights with his bosses at work, minor racial incidents in his neighborhood, conversations with his girlfriend, his private thoughts during a walk on a rainy day.
Angry and articulate
In his relentless fascination with his own reflections to the minutiae of everyday life, Pekar is reminiscent of Charles Bukowski or Henry Miller, though without their appetite for sex and alcohol; his closest contemporary is assembly-line worker/social critic Ben Hamper. Like Hamper, Pekar’s greatest strength is the tension between his ordinariness as a man and his extraordinary skill in chronicling it. He is thoughtful, articulate and, above all, angry, a rare and precious attribute in his age of yappie nihilism.
As a television personality, though, Pekar is a disaster. Pudgy, balding and wild-eyed, he comes across on Late Night as the sort of guy you see ranting on street corners. He was originally asked to appear because one of Letterman’s writers was a fan of American Splendor. He was asked to return, however, because on TV he comes across as, well, a dork, and unusually colorful and loud-mouthed dork at that.
It is a measure of Pekar’s acuity, however, that unlike the other oddballs who appear on Late Night, he understands why he’s there and tries to use it to his advantage. Specifically, a year ago Pekar arrive on the show with (as I recall) a file folder full of clippings about GE’s role as the largest defense contractor in the nation. (Pekar wrote about that night in The Village Voice and the latest issue of American Splendor.)
When Letterman’s staff found out what he wanted to talk about—namely the nuclear culpability of the Late Night’s parent company—they tried to talk him out of it. Their position was that Late Night is an apolitical comedy show and not the place to discuss nuclear weapons; if you want to argue politics, they said in effect, go on Meet the Press.
Pekar, however, is shrewd enough to know his place in the video universe: he’s a strange, angry man who has a snowball’s chance in hell of ever being on Meet the Press, but because he’s strange, he’s perfect for Letterman. And if that is to be his only TV forum, he might as well run with it.
Like a pit bull
That time Letterman kept his cool and easily undercut Pekar’s attempt at political education with a series of skillfully wielded wisecracks. This time, though, Pekar came out with his eye already on Letterman’s jugular. If he couldn’t engage Letterman on the issue of nuclear weapons, he would hit Dave where it hurt, by raising the issue of Letterman’s relationships with the company that owns his show. By the time he sat down next to Letterman’s desk, Pekar was already out of control, and like a pit bull he clamped onto Letterman and worried him until he drew blood. And, God bless him, he did it: Letterman lost his temper while Pekar sat there grinning.
And Letterman, God bless him, turned around and broadcast the entire exchange. Which brings us to the meat of the whole business: if he isn’t a shill for GE, then why was Letterman so pissed off? Pekar obviously struck a nerve. On the other hand, if he is a shill for GE, why broadcast the exchange at all?
It is something like this question that is at the heart of Letterman’s tantalizing equivocal appeal. As I wrote in these pages two years ago (In These Times, Feb. 26, 1986), Letterman is the quintessential video modernist: nobody—not Monty Python, not SCTV, not the video avant garde—has done more to deflate before a mass audience the hypocrisy, sentimentalism and sheer, relentless tackiness of commercial television. Letterman’s contempt for trash culture seems genuine: unlike the SCTV crowd, he doesn’t even secretly love the stuff he lampoons. Which can only lead you to wonder what Letterman thinks of himself. The man makes six figures a year working in a medium he sneers at; is he laughing at himself all the way to the bank?
This is why the exchange with Pekar is revealing. Letterman makes a great many jokes at the expense of GE, calling their products shoddy and their executives pinheads, but this is only the bravado of the office smartass lipping off at the water cooler. As his reaction to Pekar’s attack indicates, Letterman has become, in Orwell’s phrase, a licensed jester. When push comes to shove, Letterman’s analysis of television extends only to its content; what he chooses to ignore is the institutional context of television.
In other words, there is a reason commercial television is bad, but that reason is, bluntly, that television is owned by corporations that make a lot of money off of it. Television is fundamentally a medium for advertising; from the point of view of the corporate pinheads at GE, the commercials are the most important thing on the air. Everything else is filler, a lowest-common-denominator come-on to get people to stay tuned long enough to watch the ads.
And now, these messages
Okay, this is perilously close to vulgar Marxism, and it begs the question of whether people who make the programs in between the commercials are shills or well-meaning artists doing their best in a difficult situation. After all, they might say, the idea of the writer and artist as an independent voice, a moral free agent, is only as old as the Enlightenment; before that, great writers and artists were often beholden to patrons, some of whom were even more capricious and arbitrary than General Electric.
More specifically, great satirists, whose ranks Letterman has the potential to join, can often speak only from unassailable positions of authority. Take the greatest satirist of all, Jonathan Swift, as a paradigm case: he was Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin when he wrote Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal.” Had a lowly, Catholic Irish peasant—the Harvey Pekar of his time, say—so much as cracked wise to a British soldier, he’d have been flogged or strung up. While Letterman is a long way from being a peasant, he is also a long way from possessing the clout to say any damn thing he wants on the air. Only someone with nothing to lose, such as Harvey Pekar, can get away with that.
Which brings me to what you might call Letterman’s Dilemma, or even if you wanna get Shakespearean about it, the Tragedy of Letterman (Prince of Late Night). It is the dilemma faced by every artist who wants to create popular art in late 20th-century America. The dilemma is founded on the assumption that any person of intelligence and sensitivity is eventually going to run up against the fact that something has gone wrong in American life. Whether you come at it as a conservative (the family is falling apart, our kids learn nothing at school, drugs are destroying our value) or as a progressive (communities are falling apart, people are denied jobs and opportunities, commodity fetishism is destroying our culture), something’s obviously haywire.
Popular artists, then faced with the corporate control of the popular media, have a choice: like Harvey Pekar, they can say exactly what they think about the times in which we live and thus remain at the margins of culture, at best only a cult figure, or, like Letterman, they can swallow their reservations and move to the spot-lit center of the culture, while remaining at the margins of the discourse about what is really going on.
Postmodern geek show
This has ever been the dilemma of the sponsored artist throughout history, but even as recently as, say, 20 years ago, most TV performers swallowed the hook without much difficulty. (Tommy Smothers is the only counterexample who springs to mind). I doubt that Johnny Carson loses any sleep over it any more, if he ever did.
But Letterman, whether he likes it or not, is, like a large part of his audience, a child of the ‘60s, and in spite of his grumpy nihilism, the traces of ‘60s anger and commitment trail after him like wisps of tear gas from Grand Park. I think that at least subconsciously Letterman understands this, just as Pekar does. Letterman’s appeal to his generation resides largely, in fact, in our fascination with his curdled innocence. Late Night at its worst—which is also often its most riveting—is a kind if postmodern geek show, a theater of cruelty, in which Letterman brings us marginal figures like Harvey Pekar in order to laugh at them, but also to exorcise, through bitter laughter, that same iconoclastic part of our generation’s divided soul.
In the end, Letterman’s refusal to discuss in public his relationship with GE, and indeed his refusal to discuss his private life at all in any medium, may be taken as an admirable example of celebrity reticence. On the other hand, it also recalls Orwell’s conclusion about Mark Twain, America’s first licensed jester: “Significantly, [Twain] starts his autobiography by remarking that man’s inner life is indescribable. We don’t know what he would have said…but we may guess that it would have wracked his reputation and reduced his income to reasonable proportions.”
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James Hynes is the author of three novels, Kings of Infinite Space, The Lecturer's Tale, and The Wild Colonial Boy, and a book of novellas, Publish and Perish. His reviews and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Boston Review and Salon, among other places. He wrote about television for In These Times in the 1980s, and his website can be found here.