NBC News’ Dateline finally aired David Letterman’s long-awaited first major television sit-down Friday night since he retired from the Late Show. And interviewer Tom Brokaw decided to begin with the elephant in the room. No, not Donald Trump (that would come later). Brokaw wanted to know “what’s living” in Letterman’s “mangy, manly” gray beard.
With just a handful of public appearances since his retirement—announcing a major donation to his alma mater Ball State University, cracking jokes with Jon Stewart and the Obamas at the USO’s 75th anniversary event—photos of Letterman’s new Santa Claus-inspired look caused speculation that something in the former late-night host may have snapped. But in his conversation with Brokaw, the legendary late-night host seemed saner and more grounded than ever.
“I always told myself, when the show goes away, I would stop shaving,” Letterman told Brokaw, explaining that he had to shave every day from age 20 until he was 68 and “got so sick and tired of it.” As for what his family thinks of the beard, Letterman says no one likes it and his 15-year-old son Harry finds it “creepy.” But if his team wins the Indianapolis 500, he said, the beard will be history.
Letterman did not hesitate to say “no” when Brokaw asked if he misses hosting his show every night. “I thought for sure I would,” he said, but after seeing successor Stephen Colbert’s first show, “an energy left me and I felt like, you know, that’s not my problem anymore. And I’ve kind of felt that way ever since.
“I’m happy for the guys—men and women—there should be more women,” Letterman added. “And I don’t know why they didn’t give my show to a woman. That would’ve been fine.” Letterman added that CBS did not consult him about his replacement, joking, “They were just happy I was going.”
Within a week of Letterman announcing his retirement in April 2014, CBS revealed that they had chosen Colbert as his replacement. Despite the dearth of women in late-night, it does not appear that there was any serious consideration given to putting a female comedian behind the Late Show desk.
For Letterman, the world of late-night TV feels like a distant memory, and not one he’s eager to revisit. “I couldn’t care less about late-night television,” he told Brokaw, pointedly. And that has remained true even during this insane election year, which has proven to be a gold mine for his former peers.
Asked about Trump, Letterman remarked, “Well, I understand that he’s repugnant to people. I don’t know whether he’s serious. I don’t know what his problem is. I don’t know if there’s pathology there. I don’t know any of that. But, you tell me, the men putting together the Constitution, witnessing this election, wouldn’t they have just said, ‘That’s part of the way we set it up. Good luck?’”
While he confirmed that he finds Trump “despicable,” Letterman said it just proves what he was always taught in school back home in Indiana: “‘The great thing about America is anybody can grow up to be president.’ Oh, jeez. I guess that might be true.”
As for what comes next, Letterman told Brokaw he would like to get involved in more charitable works, but he recoils at the idea of using his celebrity to do so.
“I always told my friends I would like to go to Somalia and unload sacks of rice out of the back end of a C-130,” he said. “I don’t want it to be ‘the David Letterman this.’ I’m not going to have a big fundraiser where people are, ‘Oh, you get to play miniature golf with Regis.’ We’re not going to do that.”
For now, he’s happy to spend his time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, threatening to fake his own death if his car didn’t win the 100th running of the Indy 500. Spoiler alert: He lost. That means the beard stays and it might be a long time before we see Letterman on television again.