David Foster Wallace’s David Letterman Tribute

David Foster Wallace in Vulture:

David Letterman retires next Wednesday, which means for about a month now, the internet has been awash in a deluge of valentines. But for our money, the best tribute to Letterman's mind-bending cultural legacy might just be David Foster Wallace's “My Appearance,” a short story about a panicked guest waiting to step in front of the cameras, and remarkable now (among other reasons) for the way it showcases Dave at peak irony — when he hadn't mellowed yet or gotten lovably grandpa-grumpy, but was still so militantly ironic that a guest could be legitimately terrified of speaking a single earnest word in his presence. The story was first published in Playboy in 1988 (as “Late Night,” Wallace's first story in a major national magazine), and then again a year later in the collection Girl With Curious Hair. It appears here with the generous permission of that collection's publisher, W.W. Norton, and might just be the best thing ever written about television in America, period — by a writer who was famously obsessed with both.

David-letterman-81_w529_h352_2xI am a woman who appeared in public on “Late Night with David Letterman” on March 22, 1989. In the words of my husband Rudy, I am a woman whose face and attitudes are known to something over half of the measurable population of the United States, whose name is on lips and covers and screens. And whose heart’s heart is invisible, and unapproachably hidden. Which is what Rudy thought could save me from all this appearance implied. The week that surrounded March 22, 1989 was also the week David Letterman’s variety-and-talk show featured a series of videotaped skits on the private activities and pastimes of executives at NBC. My husband, whose name is better known inside the entertainment industry than out of it, was anxious: he knew and feared Letterman; he claimed to know for a fact that Letterman loved to savage female guests, that he was a misogynist. It was on Sunday that he told me to handle and be handled by Letterman. March 22 was to be Wednesday. On Monday, viewers accompanied David Letterman as he went deep-sea fishing with the president of NBC’s News Division. The executive, whom my husband had met and who had a pappus of hair sprouting from each red ear, owned a state-of-the-art boat and rod and reel, and apparently deep-sea fished without hooks. He and Letterman fastened bait to their lines with rubber bands. “He’s waiting for the poor old bastard to even think about saying holy mackerel,” Rudy grimaced, smoking. On Tuesday, Letterman perused NBC’s chief of Creative Development’s huge collection of refrigerator magnets. He said: “Is this entertainment ladies and gentleman? Or what?”

I had the bitterness of a Xanax on my tongue. We had Ramon haul out some videotapes of old “Late Night” editions, and watched them. “How do you feel?” my husband asked me. In slow motion, Letterman let drop from a rooftop twenty floors above a cement lot several bottles of champagne, some plump fruit, a plate-glass window, and what looked, for only a moment, like a live piglet. “The hokeyness of the whole thing is vital,” Rudy said as Letterman dropped a squealing piglet off what was obviously only a pretend rooftop in the studio; we saw something fall a long way from the original roof to hit cement and reveal itself to be a stuffed piglet. “But that doesn’t make him benign.” My husband got a glimpse of his image in our screening room’s black window and rearranged himself. “I don’t want you to think the hokeyness is real.”

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