Over the course of his 45 minutes with the media, he artfully dodged the hot topics of his "Late Show" 's first-ever ratings loss to Jay Leno's "The Tonight Show" last week in favor of laughs. Lots of laughs.
Of his much-criticized hosting of the Academy Awards telecast earlier this year: "I was so traumatized by that Oscar experience that I couldn't watch 'The Odd Couple' for a month," Letterman said, making a borderline obscure Oscar Madison joke. "At first when it happened, I thought, 'I'm out here in Hollywood and I've screwed up the Academy Awards,' and I'm thinking, 'I'll be arrested.' Or, 'What if they stop making films altogether? Oh, no!'
"So that was kind of unpleasant. And then -- and this is the way the human mind and personality works, the rationalization process takes over -- a couple of weeks later I thought, 'OK, face up to it. I screwed up the Academy Awards. I don't care.' And now I've come to feel I screwed up the Academy Awards and I couldn't be more proud."
Still, Letterman let slip a few telltale signs of what some have described as his obsessively self-critical nature and drive to be better, never believing he has achieved a level of quality he can be content with.
Little about Leno
For example, Letterman said he's never watched "The Tonight Show" since Leno took over hosting chores after Johnny Carson's retirement. Letterman had campaigned for the job, but lost out to his old friend Leno, which in no small part prompted Letterman to move his act to CBS, where he has dominated late night, all but one week, for nearly two years.
Another thing: Letterman has never read Bill Carter's book "The Late Shift," which chronicles the jockeying between Leno and Letterman for "The Tonight Show" gig.
"I have no interest in reading the book. I went through that," Letterman said. Now the book is about to be made into a movie for HBO, about which Letterman has this assessment: "My personal feeling here is, I think it's probably the single largest waste of film since my wedding photos."
Obsessed about role?
But, the question stands: Does he obsess about his performance?
"It's true," he allows. But a quick explanation follows: "We do a one-hour show, five nights a week. And if I just suck ... it troubles me because I feel that there's a huge responsibility incumbent on me -- not just financially, but we're trying to provide some kind of colorful, lively diversion for people at home each and every night. And if I can't do that, I think there's something wrong and I have to find out why I couldn't do it."
In an interesting peek behind the curtains of the talk show universe, "The Late Show" host said there was some discussion about how to handle upcoming guest Hugh Grant, who had been arrested, charged and sentenced for soliciting a prostitute in Hollywood.
"At the time he had his misfortune -- like it was an accident, he slipped in the tub and picked up a hooker, never seen anything like it -- we had a small decision to make because we had heard that Jay and 'The Tonight Show' had called Hugh and said, 'Look, we're not going to make jokes about this. We want you to honor the booking.' But we felt like, good heavens, we have to make jokes about this; we make jokes about virtually everything. So when he came out (on the show), I thanked him for being honorable enough, his arrest notwithstanding, to be on the show."
"The Late Show" 's methodology for success, Letterman half-joked, goes like this: "We like to get a good idea, do it two or three times and then just beat it to death."
And who can argue with success. Leno's recent victory of nabbing one out of nearly 100 weeks is nothing, in the grand scheme of things, for Letterman to get worried about. This year has, nonetheless, been a trying one for Letterman and his show. Longtime director Hal Gurnee, Letterman's director since the days of his first morning show 15 years ago, recently retired, and Rob Burnett, Letterman's former head writer, left the show to produce Bonnie Hunt's new sitcom (albeit for Letterman's own production company).
"I'm still having a good time of it," Letterman said, indicating he's not yet dreaming of moving on to other projects. "It's still the best fun I've had in my entire life and I'll keep doing it. The nice thing about television is, this is a decision you don't necessarily have to make for yourself." Ratings, he acknowledges, are the final arbiter of a TV performer's future.
And the TV star waves off criticisms that his brand of humor is too acerbic and biting for some mainstream tastes, and that he sometimes comes off as being cruel.
"I can't be concerned about that. If something comes to mind that I think might get a laugh, I'm going to say it. Obviously, I never intend to hurt anybody's feelings," he says, pausing to enter the humor mode, "but most of the time they've got it coming. You know what I mean?"
Letterman also said he continues to feel fortunate that he got his own show, since he wasn't really cut out for the life of a stand-up comedian.
"I would not have gone very far if the only way that I could have made a living was stand-up," he explained. "Some people have the constitution for it, and the iron will and the determination and find great satisfaction in that. ... Each and every time I was a nervous wreck. It comes down to the simple, 'Do they like me?' And if they didn't like me, it was right back up to the room and room-service Scotch."