Sunday, August 17, 2008

Another Harvey Pekar article

Here's another one that was struck from the book. It's another on Pekar's relationship with Letterman, this time after he had cancer and just before Our Cancer Year about to come out.

Harvey Pekar / Letterman
By Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner / 1994

From, June 3, 1994. Reprinted with permission of Harvey Pekar.

As promised: Harvey wrote the following article for the Boston Herald. I'm posting my own notes, too. -- Joyce

On the Late Show With David Letterman
by Harvey Pekar

Yeah, that was me you saw on David Letterman's May 16 show, announcing to a guy I work with that he owed me ten bucks for mentioning his name on national TV, telling Dave I was getting twenty five more for wearing a T-shirt with a Cleveland Free Times logo on it. Nickel and diming, but it adds up.

I've made a cottage industry out of Dave's program-- appearing on it eight times, six during a two year period, then writing about my experiences for various newspapers. For this I've received, by my standards, decent money. My standards are those of someone who has been a file clerk for the Cleveland VA hospital since 1966.

Steve O'Donnell, once Letterman's head writer and another Clevelander, got me on Late Night in October 1986, because he liked my autobiographical comic book series American Splendor.

I did a self-parody of a working stiff on the show and Dave was so impressed that he had me on again in January, March, July and November of 1987, and, after a six month's writers' strike, August of 1988. However, our relationship soured.

Dave was happy to have me come on like a rust belt "dese an' doser" but I tired of it and brought politics into the act by talking about the conflict of interest involved in the chronically corrupt and extremely powerful General Electric corporation's ownership of NBC, Letterman's employer at the time. GE has been convicted numerous times of violating anti-trust laws. They get caught, pay the fine and do it again, a profitable policy.

They are also a huge arms manufacturer and, by owning NBC, are in a position to influence public opinion regarding weapons sales. Obviously, they shouldn't be allowed to own a major TV news source.

When GE was being sued for over a billion dollars in 1987 by three Ohio utility companies for selling them a nuclear reactor GE's own engineers and scientists considered defective, NBC didn't mention the story for months, and then only under pressure, and they didn't pursue it.

Meanwhile, I saw Dave making personal cracks about Robert Wright, the GE-installed NBC president, and thought he'd dig it if I joined in the fun by bringing up GE's long criminal record. Was I ever wrong.

The first time I mentioned the issue Dave switched to a commercial, after which he brought someone else on. When I wouldn't stop ragging on GE during a July '87 show, we got into a spirited on the air argument, which, however, the audience enjoyed.

As far as I'm concerned that should be enough for Dave. He considers Late Night/Late Show (the CBS version) a comedy program in a talk show format. We got laughs while we were squabbling about GE, but he still wasn't satisfied. He only wants light weight comedy and avoids serious political or social issues like the plague (AIDS, for example, is never mentioned).

Dave is bright and talented, but seriously interested in nothing but beating Jay Leno in the ratings. He deserves a kick in the butt for his anti-intellectualism. Make anything but a quick reference to a heavy issue and he's nervous. "This isn't Meet the Press," Letterman staffers tell you. "Don't stay on any subject too long, don't get serious about anything."

Dave is so contradictory. He makes all this money but lives modestly and could get along with far less. Money is just a success symbol to him. He despises show biz phoniness and stupidity, but interviews vacuous movie and TV stars night after night so that he can appear on Time Magazine covers. It's hard to believe he doesn't realize that having the most popular late night talk show means nothing if it stinks. Does he really believe he's doing anything creative by interviewing talentless celebrities, being increasingly nice to people he doesn't respect so he can please his closer-to-prime time audience?

Disgusted with the scene, I decided to end my TV career by goading Dave into a nasty argument during his August, '88 show. It was so ugly I figured I would never be asked back. Amazingly, a year later, his people invited me to return. I refused. The next year they asked again, but that's when I was a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I couldn't have gone back if I'd wanted.

In early 1993, in remission for some time, I was offered another invitation. They were paying $600, covering airfare for two, a limo and our hotel costs. This was too good to be ignored so I made an appearance, got some laughs and went home.

The show is still nowhere. Occasionally, I've seen Letterman do fine satire, but that's pretty much behind him now that he's trying to impress Peoria.

Dave raps with giddy stars and starlets five nights a week, gets in his car and races home, dodging fans. But, I'll take his money. What else is he good for?

Here's Joyce's version of the same event...

We don't watch Letterman unless Harvey's on the show. Someone usually tapes it for us at home. We sometimes stay up to watch Harvey when we're in New York and the show is aired later that same night. Doing LS/DL is a lot like being 11 years old and visiting relatives you don't care to know once or twice each year. One meets vaguely familiar people who ask the same questions and say the same things. You have nothing in common but, on the way over, you've been drilled in what/what not to talk about.

You show up because they always hand out money and terrible gifts that can be brought back to the store. For some reason, there is also a pumped and primed audience-- we always hear them practice laughing—but it's all over in only a few minutes and you don't have to swallow meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

Instead of exchanging ugly shirts and sweaters for department store refunds, Harvey collects bags full of whatever books and CDs people send Letterman and unloads them at used book and record stores for extra cash.

Sometimes Joyce trades DL merchandise, weird souvenirs, backstage passes or tickets for computer supplies and materials needed by the kids she's writing her own comic books with, usually by chatting up readers on Usenet. Harvey writes about Letterman in his own autobiographical comic book series American Splendor, so he always has something to promote on the show-- a comic book about the last show. I forget what you call that kind of self-contained economic system. Maybe it's just plain television.

We used to think the Letterman show was a talk show, until its various producers explained "It's a comedy show that looks like a talk show. No one talks." We're not supposed to tell you which casual throwaway lines, lightning quick put downs, leading questions, canny insights and spontaneous discussions were mapped out ahead of time on those blue index cards Dave holds. Afterwards, the cards are carefully collected and unused banter gets stored by writers for later use.

Every so often Harvey and Dave say something unexpected to each other. That's called "a real moment" and often excites sophisticated people with lots of excuses for watching the show, as in "I only turned it on because Harvey..." After the show, everyone's a critic, evenly divided between those certain Harvey missed some wonderful opportunity to talk about comics as an adult art form-- or his chance to promote tourism in and around the city of Cleveland (where we live)-- and those who see Harvey as ugly little David up against smugly mugging Goliath. Or Mammon.

It's nothing more than meatloaf and potatos, served up by someone we think really does read Harvey's comics, since they made such a big deal about it last time: "Dave wants his own copy. He's decided to hold the comic book on camera." There's not much they can talk (not talk) about. Letterman knows Harvey's been sidelined by cancer and reconstructive surgery but that's not to be mentioned at the table.

"It bums people out," we're told. "Not when people tell the truth," we argue, convinced there's at least one guy out there going through chemotherapy with a really bad attitude, scared he won't get well because he hasn't turned his non-Hodgkins lymphoma into an opportunity for personal growth. On TV we're shown serene "before" pictures of Jackie O.

Harvey's scowling face is what "after" that same cancer sometimes looks like-- ragged hairline, bushy eyebrows and all. It grows back, you see. Not everyone dies.

Who's scamming who? LS/DL wanted Harvey to be red-faced and rude, to add a touch of color to beige and blonde Heather Locklear. If she didn't show, Harvey expected to be bumped. I'm Harvey's entourage. His wife.

So, they sat me next to 5 women, all wearing the same perfectly bleached and bell shaped hairdo and anxiously watching HL on the monitor backstage. One turned and trilled to the rest "Her makeup looks so good!" Then, all the Heathers sighed.

Being Heather is their job, just like being Dave is a job. Being Harvey Pekar, a very minor cult figure who writes himself into comics and sometimes turns up on TV is, well... Easy on the meatloaf. Who knows what that stuff is made of?

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