With late night talk show hosts trending more toward political comedy—and with viewers seemingly experiencing fatigue from cutesy gags meant to manufacture viral moments—David Letterman is back to give his take on how he would have handled interviewing President Donald Trump.
In a wide-ranging and fascinating interview with Vulture, Letterman was asked about the moment Jimmy Fallon tousled Trump’s hair, normalizing the then-candidate and causing an immediate backlash against the Tonight Show.
To be fair, Fallon isn’t trying to make political commentary, but it’s a far cry from the approach taken by Stephen Colbert, who has suddenly begun beating Fallon in the ratings, and Seth Meyers, who regularly focuses on politics. Letterman said his approach would not be close to what Fallon did.
“Jimmy got a fantastic viral clip out of that,” Letterman said. “… I don’t want to criticize Jimmy Fallon, but I can only tell you what I would have done in that situation: I would have gone to work on Trump. But the thing about it is, you don’t have to concoct a complicated satirical premise to joke about Donald Trump. It’s not, ‘Two guys walk into a bar …’”
Letterman has already proven his resilience in the face of Trump. During the 2016 campaign season, Letterman indirectly made news when Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton used a clip of him making fun of Trump to his face for a campaign ad.
“If I still had a show, people would have to come and take me off the stage. ‘Dave, that’s enough about Trump. We’ve run out of tape,’” said Letterman, who says he doesn’t watch any late-night TV. “It’s all I’d be talking about. I’d be exhausted.”
Letterman didn’t talk much politics early in his career, pointing to the Johnny Carson theory that he would not mention the Vietnam War and would only talk about the personalities surrounding it. But these days, Letterman said he’d feel an obligation to talk about Trump.
Thus, in the interview, Letterman let loose on Trump and those around him, including White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, Press Secretary Sean Spicer (“a boob who just got out of a cab”), policy adviser Stephen Miller (“wow, that guy is creepy”), and Vice President Mike Pence (“Jeez, Pence scared the hell out of me”).
Letterman has had a working relationship with Trump since the 1980s when Letterman called him “a joke of a wealthy guy.”
“We didn’t take him seriously,” Letterman said. “He’d sit down, and I would just start making fun of him. He never had any retort. He was big and doughy, and you could beat him up. He seemed to have a good time, and the audience loved it, and that was Donald Trump.”
“But Trump’s the president, and he can lie about anything from the time he wakes up to what he has for lunch and he’s still the president,” Letterman said. “I don’t get that. I’m tired of people being bewildered about everything he says: ‘I can’t believe he said that.’ We gotta stop that and instead figure out ways to protect ourselves from him. We know he’s crazy. We gotta take care of ourselves here now.”
As for how he would interview Trump now, Letterman said, “I would just start with a list. ‘You did this. You did that. Don’t you feel stupid for having done that, Don? And who’s this goon Steve Bannon, and why do you want a white supremacist as one of your advisers? Come on, Don, we both know you’re lying. Now, stop it.’ I think I would be in the position to give him a bit of a scolding, and he would have to sit there and take it. Yeah, I would like an hour with Donald Trump; an hour and a half.”
If that were to happen, it’d almost assuredly go viral.