Last night, searching for something to watch, I fell down a YouTube rabbit hole. I find that this is much easier to do with a smart app or Roku box attached to your television; the YouTube channel has an ingenious algorithm for the apps that I do not experience on my phone. It seems to understand my secret heart, and pulls up old flames and memories I see nowhere else. Often I find myself watching the late night talk shows from my formative period, especially Johnny Carson, who certainly perfected the genre with the high wire tension of his real Midwestern manners, a brutally sharp intellect, and his appreciation of comedic genius. This is not to mention his deep sadism toward women, with whom he never failed to wolfishly pressure with sexual innuendo, or questions about their marital status. Even as a child I noticed this leering quality of his as essentially American. Johnny was king for many years, and no matter the guest, they all played the game as he set it up, because for most of them they knew he could make or break their careers at his whim. Way back then I pretended to be appalled by his power but I never failed to watch; he was just so good at what he did, and it was all so very American.
So I watched a couple of long things: Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters exploding with one another during the promotion for Williams’ The Fisher King film, and then watching Shelley Winters (truly obnoxious) pour a cup of whiskey over Oliver Reed’s head (even worse) right after a station break because he was playing that ‘women in the kitchen’ game with Johnny. Both stars came off as terrible hogs for the limelight. But it was entertaining, with Johnny presiding, breaking the fourth wall now and then with an effective (if insincere) ‘well, what can I do?’ look toward us, his television audience. I will give him this – he was perfectly at ease with the camera.
This grew tiresome, however, and I next selected a long compilation of Eddie Murphy appearances on David Letterman’s old Late Night show on NBC. I never really pieced this together, but I disliked David back in the day too; he was just as Midwestern in his attitudes, Aw Shucks, a poison dagger underneath. He was tight, mean, small, rude, hateful, sexist, and also possessed a killer sense of humor. Of course I watched. The show was brilliant. It was the only heir to Carson; it had the same real American quality of glitter and grit, junk and fun. These shows were so us because they epitomized the permissiveness of such a rich and wonton place as the USA.
I was fixated watching this first appearance by Murphy on Late Night. The year was 1984, perhaps his most Imperial year: he was promoting Beverly Hills Cop, which was a massive runaway smash, and David was clearly nervous because Eddie was at the time perhaps the biggest star in the world. I remembered Eddie’s SNL years – looking skinny, tough, young, and well, average; it was his talent that got you. Watching him on Letterman was another thing entirely. He looked ravishing; he was wearing tight black leather pants (because he could), a beautiful and expensive gold watch, a handsome couture sweater that buttoned femininely at the shoulders, and a gold cross; he was young and lithe and gorgeous. He looked like money, and he had that invisible sheen that money bestows upon a person: utter relaxation is his presentation. But Eddie wasn’t relaxed. He was upset with Dave because Dave had never invited him to the show! He claimed that Late Night was the hippest thing going and he had never gotten the call. I would say that Letterman almost had the upper hand because Eddie’s feelings were really shy and a little raw; I can only guess that there are always doors that are closed to any of us at any level of success that suggest we haven’t made it, that we don’t deserve what we have, that actually, we don’t belong. It was fascinating to watch them play this out, with Dave (dishonestly, I believe) insisting that Eddie was just too big a star to even consider for the show, and Eddie cracking beautifully sincere jokes around the issue (“oh, ok. I guess now we are just going to stroke each other”). They talked about his films and his success, but all I could really see was the glow of fame surrounding Murphy, and the weird tension between the two stars over accepting one another. It was uncomfortable because David was embarrassed but still unkind, and Eddie was hurt. And yet the show went on, and Eddie entertained us, and they both cracked jokes, and it was as fresh as they day I first saw it, and had lost none of its tensions. It felt perfectly contemporary to me; no – it felt eternal. Because instead of nostalgia I felt myself reminded of some of the never-ending themes of America: fame, money, tension, race, and more fame, and more tension. I would say sex, but Letterman never allowed sex; unlike Carson he was not just locked down but an actual prude on his show. What was most astonishing about this episode, on YouTube in the wee hours right before I retired to bed last night, was not how good they both were at this moment in time, but that Eddie, the biggest star in the world, wouldn’t leave! Dave said goodnight to him, thanked him, and Eddie said wait a minute, you’re not going to show a clip? Don’t you always show a clip on this show? To which Dave went to break and half-heartedly complied, showing Eddie’s clip to an audience who hardly needed it because everyone in America had been to see the movie, and still Eddie wouldn’t leave, because Dave hadn’t satisfactorily answered his plea: why don’t you like me? I don’t think Dave had an answer for him; maybe there wasn’t really an answer. But there he was: Eddie Murphy on Late Night at the very pinnacle of a brilliant career, making Late Night go so much later, and then there was David Letterman, at a complete loss: backing away, backing away, backing away.