On the occasion of David Letterman’s retirement from late night television, I want to commemorate Letterman’s contribution in fostering a postmodern sensibility in contemporary comedy, especially one aimed at exposing the machinery of show business promotion, by revisiting a famous movie-related publicity stunt from The Late Show. On February 11, 2009, the actor Joaquin Phoenix appeared on The Late Show, ostensibly to promote his then-latest movie, Two Lovers (James Gray 2009). Rather than the clean-shaven leading man depicted on the movie poster,
Phoenix showed up wearing sunglasses and sporting uncombed hair and a bushy beard. What followed was a strange and hilarious interview, or attempted interview, as Phoenix only half responded to Letterman’s questions in a detached monotone, intimating that he was quitting acting to take up a career as a hip-hop artist. Letterman responded with characteristic bemusement, ridicule, and his quick wit:
Speculation immediately began about whether Phoenix’s appearance was all an act. After all, this was the David Letterman show. His groundbreaking Late Night show in the 1980s took advantage of the age of the VCR and the proliferation of cable television to challenge all the conventions of the standard television talk show. He combined the looks of a Midwestern high school social studies teacher with the subversive streak of a performance artist. It would be just like Letterman to be in on an elaborate con with Phoenix, one making fun of the predictability and cynicism of the standard talk show appearance, where the host and guest pretended to make amusing small talk, even though the main point was to sell a movie.
Here’s a clip that predates even Late Night. In 1980, Letterman had a morning show on NBC. On June 24, the brilliant and equally subversive Andy Kaufman showed up, looking even more disheveled than Phoenix. Letterman begins in the usual way, by asking Kaufman about his work on the then-popular sitcom Taxi, only to have the interview move in a very different, even surreal direction:
It seemed likely that Phoenix’s appearance over almost thirty years later, when Letterman’s reputation for blurring the lines between parody and sincerity had become his trademark, must be something along the same lines. And in fact, the next year the mockumentary movie I’m Still Here appeared, starring Phoenix “playing” himself as a famous actor giving up his main career to become a hip hop musician, proving that his Late Show appearance may have been as much publicity stunt as performance art. Or maybe these aren’t really two separate things. Part of Letterman’s comic genius has to do with troubling the distinction between making a movie and promoting a movie, between the two parts of the phrase “show business.”
Throughout his late night career, Letterman constantly reminded his audiences that his television program was a part of a giant corporate enterprise. In fact, his career corresponded with the screen age of the growing conglomeration and acquisition of media companies by a few megacorporations. When the formerly stand-alone RCA corporation was acquired by General Electric in 1985, Letterman responded with a classic piece of guerilla comedy, one that the documentarian Michael Moore would imitate in his own classic Roger and Me just three years later:
Some thirty years later, we can see GE swallowing up RCA as the beginnings of a media conglomeration landslide. A movie like Avengers: Age of Ultron can be seen as much as a gigantic corporate sales campaign as a stand-alone work of art; more to the point, and maybe more to the point being made by Phoenix and Letterman, the distinction between gigantic corporate sales campaign and work of art may itself simply be a part of movie marketing, a way to preserve an illusion that a difference exists between making a movie and selling a movie. Even as he became himself a wealthy part of the CBS Corporation conglomerate, David Letterman would have none of it. He never stopped taking advantage of every opportunity to bite that hand that fed him.