...a book that does impressive triple duty as an acute portrait of stardom, an insightful chronicle of three rambunctious decades of pop-culture evolution, and a very brainy fan’s notes ... His big-picture commentary is so compressed and fluid that you often scarcely notice how casually he’s able to switch from micro to macro and back inside a single paragraph. As celebrity biographers go, he’s humane but not easily fooled. As a critic, he’s especially sharp and engaging when he’s breaking down Letterman’s trademark predilections.
…[a] lovingly detailed, deeply researched biography … In Zinoman’s description, Letterman was more an ironist than a radical, and his insurrection was carried out more often on the level of tone than that of substance. Still, his relentless urge to defy the expectations of both guests and audience, especially in his first decade in late night, proved an unusual and amazingly creative force within the soft-centered world he inhabited … The book also makes clear, though, why what could easily have turned into an arid exercise in knee-jerk assholism didn’t. Part of what made the show work was the friction that arose between Letterman and his guests, which often made for incredible TV. Audiences were refreshed by Letterman’s sometimes overt hostility toward celebrities, which came naturally to him, since he had a ‘sensitive ear for phoniness and canned talking points.’
The book, light on family history and heavy on Letterman's days at NBC, doesn't have the rich drama of Bill Carter's The Late Shift or the juicy gossip in Henry Pushkin's Johnny Carson. Instead, you get a blurry portrait of a relentless grouch ... for the most part, you're left not learning much more than what die-hard viewers already surmised by watching Late Show desk pieces or reading the March 6 issue of New York magazine in which reporter David Marchese got Letterman at his most unguarded.
A neurotic, prickly, intensely private man, Zinoman’s subject would be an unlikely one for a compelling biography, were it not for the fact that his on-air irreverence defined a generation: he ‘became the face of an ironic sensibility that permeated comedy, television, and popular culture’ … As Zinoman points out, Letterman’s show covered three distinct eras, from the skewed perspective on TV traditions of his earliest years to the fully committed inanity of the later 1980s, followed by a long, slow descent into a focus on the host’s own bizarre, bitter psyche.
Jason Zinoman, in his definitive and enjoyable biography, demystifies the host ... Zinoman walks the line between reportage and criticism, and shifts between historian, clinician and fan boy without grinding the clutch too much. His studious research is spiced by an enduring appreciation of Letterman’s work and salted by the cataloguing of the host’s less-savory traits and behavior ... Zinoman’s great achievement is rendering Letterman as utterly human, even subhuman at times, and charting his show as an irregular comic pilgrimage — if not toward comic excellence than at least toward comic insolence.
...Zinoman opens the door to a more thorough examination of Letterman’s collaborative (and often painfully remote) creative process with his staff and writers, particularly Merrill Markoe, the co-creator of Late Night with David Letterman, who also had a decade-long romantic relationship with the host. What emerges in fresh detail and with considerable access is a man in full pursuit of his dreams yet deeply troubled by some of the success that came with it.
Comedy aficionados will savor the numerous behind-the-scene stories and tales of how Letterman evolved from an acquired taste to a mainstream star ... Zinoman’s ambitious work succeeds in capturing Letterman’s cultural impact while unearthing the human being behind the frequently inscrutable television icon.