With controversy surrounding Chris Rock as host of the Oscars, it is a good time to reflect on the worst-ever Oscar host, David Letterman.
Simply put, Dave was awful as host of the Oscars. Dave does not do well in staged or scripted events because he is the most genuine person on television.
Very few details of Letterman's long-ago marriage or his subsequent relationships have been shared with his audience. While the details of his love life are closely guarded, the emotions are always on display. It doesn't matter if it is the love of his life, or a little lighthearted flirting with Teri Garr. One skit on the old NBC program had a husband complaining to his wife, "You're always sobbing." After the skit, Dave turned to bandleader Paul Schaeffer with a pained expression and remarked, "I've been in that movie." Dave's complex relationship with his mother (who appears every Thanksgiving) creates an awkward comic repartee in the same way that Larry Bud Melman did and various stagehands still do.
His very public feuds with other celebrities also stem from his unwillingness to hide his true emotions. How could Shirley MacLaine have expected to appear on David Letterman's show and not discuss her claims of past lives and extraterrestrials? He was even bold enough to broach the subject on a later program with her brother, Warren Beatty (Beatty thought the new age religion was weird, too). Dave is unable to hide his irritation with, or outright contempt for, certain guests. Likewise, his hurt feelings are on display whenever a celebrity expresses contempt for him. When Cher called him an a--hole, he was taken aback. That the feud was the subject of countless comedy routines did not hide the fact that his feelings were hurt. This pattern repeated itself when Oprah Winfrey recently refused to appear on the Late Show.
Whether it is joy over the birth of his son, or gratitude to the surgeons who successfully performed open heart surgery on him, Dave knows just the right mix of laughter and tears. His tribute to Johnny Carson was the best on television. Letterman's gift is most on display at times of tragedy.
Every comedian and talk show host borrowed a page from Dave in dealing with the aftermath of 9/11. He was at once able to express our sorrow, outrage, and cheer us up. David Letterman's bundle of genuine emotion is exactly what you need at a time of personal or national tragedy.
Which is why he will never be comfortable in a staged, scripted, and phony event like the Oscars.