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Publisher's Summary

New York Times comedy critic Jason Zinoman delivers the definitive story of the life and artistic legacy of David Letterman, the greatest television talk show host of all time and the signature comedic voice of a generation.

In a career spanning more than 30 years, David Letterman redefined the modern talk show with an ironic comic style that transcended traditional television. While he remains one of the most famous stars in America, he is a remote, even reclusive figure whose career is widely misunderstood. In Letterman, Jason Zinoman, the first comedy critic in the history of the New York Times, mixes groundbreaking reporting with unprecedented access and probing critical analysis to explain the unique entertainer's titanic legacy. Moving from his early days in Indiana to his retirement, Zinoman goes behind the scenes of Letterman's television career to illuminate the origins of his revolutionary comedy, its overlooked influences, and how his work intersects with and reveals his famously eccentric personality.

Zinoman argues that Letterman had three great artistic periods, each distinct and part of his evolution. As he examines key broadcasting moments - "Stupid Pet Tricks" and other captivating segments that defined Late Night with David Letterman - he illuminates Letterman's relationship to his writers and, in particular, the show's cocreator, Merrill Markoe, with whom Letterman shared a long professional and personal connection.

To understand popular culture today, it's necessary to understand David Letterman. With this revealing biography, Zinoman offers a perceptive analysis of the man and the artist whose ironic voice and caustic meta-humor was critical to an entire generation of comedians and viewers - and whose singular style ushered in new tropes that have become clichés in comedy today.

©2017 Jason Zinoman (P)2017 HarperCollins Publishers

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Fails to Capture What Made Letterman Great

While the book does a nice job of chronicling the various stages of Letterman's career, it fails to capture what made his show - at times - great. His personal demons and self loathing are chronicled in excessive detail while the skits and interviews are presented humorlessly. A reader who never watched his show would have no understanding why this apparently bitter, often cruel, man made it 30+ years on late night. It was depressing.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Reminder of Letterman's Absurdist Genius

Before and surpassing all current late-night hosts, Letterman innovated in countless ways (remote shoots, absurdist pranks such as dropping watermelons off buildings or putting a guy on the streets of NYC in a bear suit, using show staff as recurring characters, top-ten-style jokes) that today's hosts copy. What is missing is Letterman's sarcastic, ironic, hilarious detachment from the nonsense that surrounded him. The pleasures of this book are found in a briskly paced, satisfying recounting of the changing role that Letterman played in the show over the years, also including interesting stories of his youthful creative efforts. Zinoman describes Letterman's on-air personality as paradigmatic of the era. It is fun to be reminded of Dave's hilarious obsessions and routines: Larry "Bud" Melman, Connie Chung, Stupid Pet Tricks. It also convincingly explains the changes as the show became massive and softened in later years, factoring in his subject's shortcomings as well as his genius. There was no mention of Alan Coulter, "TV's Uncle Jerry," Tony the cue-card boy, or dog poetry, but you can't fit everything in. Overall a great listen, well-read.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Great cover photo. Book a total waste of my time.

I can't believe I wasted my time listening to this,
it's my own fault. this author has cobbled together 4 or 5 ideas and driven them ALL right into the ground. This would have been a good NY Magazine article. it is a dreadful waste a book and a huge waste of YOUR MONEY AND TIME

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Completely negative book

One side hack biography. This is not well written. Actually boring. I never stop a book before the end but I did with this one

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

I enjoyed the honesty of this book

For those of us that enjoyed watching David Letterman over the years, this was filled with some of the nice and some of the not so nice things about David Letterman. I enjoyed this book because of it's honest telling of David's life and career.

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Author mainly shares the gloomy side of Dave’s life.

Very gloomy and depressing. The author makes it sound like David Letterman hated every minute of his life and his show and never had any fun. I think it could have been a little more balanced.

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too long for the materials

too long and repeated many facts many times
If you took 3 hours out it would be much better

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

A life

Tremendously enjoyable vivisection of the work of a lifetime, and balanced examination of the humanity behind a cypher. The narration is competent, but doesn't sound like the voice of the author, but rather the voice of someone reading a book well, for which the gravitas works, but the tone of resignation is sometimes off.

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Excellent.

Great narration. Well researched. Insightful and occasionally poignant. Doesn't dwell unnecessarily on childhood like many biographies. Superb read overall.

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    4 out of 5 stars
  • Jacklyn
  • WALNUT CREEK, CA, United States
  • 08-29-17

Scant Insight

My disappointment is that there just isn't enough of "David" himself in the story. That part of David he refuses to share, the vulnerable self we get to glimpse occasionally, has eluded us once again. While I do appreciate Zinoman's knowledge and insight, I still want the voice of David that apologized to his wife on national television, the one who grieved with us after 9/11, the one who knows when he's being a jerk and wants to do better, the one who will book an expert to explain a confusing time or major event (without laughs)......

Unfortunately for all of us diehard Letterman fans, David does not understood how much we admire and appreciate his imperfect intelligent funny self.

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  • Booklover
  • 08-29-17

Intelligent, insightful

Very well written by an author who knows his stuff. Fascinating insights into not only Letterman but his teams/colleagues/writers etc, and the evolution of comedy (lots of stars mentioned in this), as well as talk shows in the US in the 1970s to today. Love these types of cultural histories.

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    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Dominic
  • 05-23-17

Great if you're a fan of the show

If you want to know the background of the top ten list and other quirks of the show - this is for you.

If you were looking for something more about Letterman the man himself it's not so much here