May 04, 1989 12:00 PM

David Letterman peered out the window and smiled. Seven stories below, in Rockefeller Center, Today host Bryant Gumbel, a frequent target of Letterman’s japes, was doing a live interview. As his camera looked on, Letterman picked up a bullhorn, leaned out the window and yelled, “My name is Larry Grossman. I am the president of NBC News and I’m not wearing any pants.” The studio audience howled, Letterman chortled, and Gumbel fumed.

For seven years the star of Late Night with David Letterman has kept his viewers and himself amused by setting such teensy tornadoes atwirl in TV’s teapot. Detached, ironic, a tad contemptuous of the medium that employs him and the public it entertains, he is that most ambivalent of society’s creatures: a gadfly who stings to please. At his worst he comes off as a superannuated sophomore with an attitude and a budget. At his best he deftly trims the fat off some of the famous blubberheads we have empedes-taled as culture heroes. He is the greatest boon to insomniacs since the all-night diner and, for those already asleep, the sharpest spur to the purchase of a VCR since blue movies.

Though laudably ready at all times to nip any hand rash enough to feed him, Letterman also keeps a special hard place in his heart for those beset by oddness. With mocking fanfare, he has trotted out Doormen of the Year, a woman who dresses up parrots to look like Cyndi Lauper, an old lady who saves snowballs from each winter and a woman who claims to have shopped on Venus (she bought clothes). He has talked Teri Garr into showering in his office (barely off-camera) and Ted Koppel into balancing a dog biscuit on his nose. He has unleashed the Monkeycam. “After all,” he likes to say, “it’s only television.”

And perhaps only television could have bred an entire generation as eager as he to ridicule a book by its cover. “In high school, I was never with smart kids,” Letterman once said. “I was never with good-looking kids and I was never with great athletes. There was a small pocket of people I hung out with, and all we did was make fun of good-looking people, smart kids and great athletes.” Now Letterman mass-markets irony to America’s young. Millions of them, force-fed lifelong on TV’s rich diet of good-looking, smart, athletic role models, watch him nightly. For them, as Spy magazine recently noted, Letterman is “a god.”

All he ever wanted to be was a talk show host. “I can’t sing, dance or act,” Letterman, 41, has said. “What else could I be?” That revelation came to him in his heartland hometown of Indianapolis, where Dave grew to his majority as the middle son of a Presbyterian church secretary and a florist. After graduating from Indiana’s Ball State University, he set out on his quest. He hosted a kiddie show and late movies and forecast the weather—once predicting “hail the size of canned hams”—for an Indianapolis TV station. In 1975 he headed for Los Angeles, taking along a wife and two cats. Three years later he had shed wife and cats, honed his skills at the Comedy Store—and bombed on TV. Several pilots failed, and Mary, a series with Mary Tyler Moore (who didn’t know what to make of him), was quickly canceled. Mary did, however, get him a shot on The Tonight Show. Bull’s-eye. Letterman eventually subbed for Johnny Carson 29 times, and NBC handed him his own time slot—a morning one. The David Letterman Show lasted 13 weeks in 1980, proving only that Letterman doesn’t go down well when the sun is up. Then, on Feb. 1, 1982, he found his home.

He sometimes calls it a clubhouse. And on his show—except, of course, for Larry “Bud” Mel-man—even the audience has to know what’s out in order to be in. All his sight gags and references are acutely generational. “Hey, processed-food lovers!” was his opening for a recent bit on individually wrapped cornflakes. For sophisticated drivers bored with Garfield, Letter-man demonstrated an alternative: the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn suction-cup car-window toy. He interrupts visiting stars when they get boring. Home movies are welcome, but official film clips barely tolerated—Letterman has even altered reruns of his own shows, dubbing cartoon voices over those of the guests. In place of an amiable sidekick to laugh on cue, balding, bespectacled “camp” follower Paul Schaffer leads the World’s Most Dangerous Band and turns upon the times a faux jaded eye. Letterman, in short, has created the sharpest, funniest, most unpredictable—and perhaps most important—entertainment TV now offers. He throws real pencils through fake windows.

Off-camera Dave’s life would seem excruciatingly boring to anyone without a profound need to believe it can’t be. He doesn’t smoke (except, he says, for “1,800-2,200 cigars a day”), drink, touch caffeine, vote, go to movies or care much for children. He jogs five miles a day, plays softball and hates to leave his Connecticut home or his NBC office. Though he hides it from the public, he retains a basic Indianan niceness. How many other TV bigs make stars of their stagehands or send handwritten notes of thanks? He has said the only career move that appeals to him is succeeding Carson, his mentor, producer and fellow Midwesterner, on The Tonight Show. He also has talked of becoming a carpenter. Did he mean it? Hard to tell. With Letterman, it’s always hard to tell. It’s even hard to tell if that’s the secret of his success.

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