David Letterman, retired from TV and sporting a dense white Gandalfesque beard, has a message for today’s comedians: “You have an obligation” to take on US president Donald Trump.
In a hilarious, rambling interview with New York Magazine, the late-night comedy legend talked about Trump, the current state of late-night TV, and the role that hosts should play in challenging those in power. Letterman said that if he could interview any living person right now, it would be Trump—a man he often teased as a guest on his Late Show.
“He was a joke of a wealthy guy,” Letterman said of Trump, before the businessman got into politics. “We didn’t take him seriously. He’d sit down, and I would just start making fun of him.”
Now, though, Letterman would give the president a piece of his mind:
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.
But as of 2015, Letterman’s been out of the late-night business, so he puts the onus on other comedians to do what he cannot.
In response to Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon tousling Trump’s hair during an interview, Letterman said that late-night hosts have an “obligation” to not go soft on the president when interviewing him. “I don’t want to criticize Jimmy Fallon,” he said, “but I can only tell you what I would have done in that situation: I would have gone to work on Trump.”
It’s unclear what tangible effects, if any, late-night “eviscerations” have on our politics, but Letterman still thinks comedy can help defend people against those perceived to be abusing their power:
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.
“Comedy’s one of the ways that we can protect ourselves,” he added.
For Letterman, Trump (whom he now calls “Trumpy”) is an easy target, but that doesn’t make the work of comedy any less important. In fact, that Trump is so easily triggered means that comedy has more political power now than ever. Citing Saturday Night Live‘s relentless lampooning of Trump and his cabinet members, Letterman commended the NBC sketch show for keeping the pressure on the president. (Indeed, Trump was reportedly rattled by the comedian Melissa McCarthy spoofing his press secretary, Sean Spicer.)
“The man has such thin skin,” Letterman said. Using an elaborate analogy about a swarm of insects at a baseball game, Letterman argued that satire has a vital role in that it keeps Trump distracted. “It’s distracting the batter,” he joked. “Eventually Trump’s going to take a fastball off the sternum and have to leave the game.”
The comedian’s criticism was not directed at only the president, however. He also went after vice president Mike Pence (“He only got elected because he looks like Bobby Knight“); chief strategist Steve Bannon (“Bannon looks like a guy who goes to lunch, gets drunk, and comes back to the office: ‘Steve, could you have just one drink?’ ‘Fuck you'”); press secretary Sean Spicer (“a boob who just got out of a cab and now here he is”); top advisor Stephen Miller (“Wow, that guy is creepy. He fell out of a truck”); and counselor Kellyanne Conway (“Boy, if this administration decides you need counseling—whoa”).