Letterman, Carson stayed men of mystery

Private personalities are a refreshing break from today's over-sharing

Amid playful joking and heartfelt expressions of admiration, there’s an interesting undercurrent to the David Letterman tribute during the Kennedy Center Honors, which CBS is airing Dec. 26.

Jimmy Kimmel, Alec Baldwin, Ray Romano and Tina Fey all make their appreciation of Letterman clear — as Romano puts it, “What Johnny Carson was for you, you are for the rest of all of us” — but also banter about how despite all the time they’ve spent in his presence, none of them feel like they really know him.

Certainly, there is a bit of mystery surrounding the latenight host even after 30 years in the spotlight, just as there was with Carson. Despite being among the most recognizable people in America, both men earned a reputation for being enigmatic and private, almost to a fault.

What’s interesting, and appears to have been lost in the current age, is how that reticence and reserve only enhanced their stardom. It’s a lesson many who have achieved fame or notoriety in the social-media age should consider taking to heart.

An entire class of TV stars, after all, sprouted in what amounts to a geological blink, relying almost entirely on their willingness to display every beat of their existence (or at least create the impression of doing so) before our prying eyes. “Jersey Shore” might have ended, but no one should be naïve enough to think they’ll fade from view, in the same way the Kardashians are resigned to have their lives and (usually fleeting) loves shared with the world, or the small part of it who choose to give a damn.

Then there’s social media, and especially Twitter, which has provided high-profile talent a direct conduit to fans, delivering their unfiltered (and occasionally ill-advised) musings. By creating an open megaphone to the public, without handlers or PR teams to intervene or correct misspellings, it’s the very essence of knocking the gods off Mt. Olympus and revealing their mortal flaws.

Letterman, however, is part of the increasingly rare breed standing apart from such wholesale self-disclosure. Indeed, he frequently appears to approach bantering with other celebrities as a necessary evil — the price he pays for his inability to deliver a full solo hour of comedy every night.

Even Jay Leno, with his more genial Everyman attitude on “The Tonight Show,” maintains a certain distance — the wacky neighbor who’s pleasant enough, but always seems to be fooling around with that car collection of is.

If there’s a difference, it’s Leno looks as if he wants to be liked and come across as Mr. Nice Guy, while Letterman doesn’t appear to care or mind being perceived as a bit of a prick.

Admittedly, the whole tortured-genius routine can wear thin, but in the bigger scheme of things — and in contrast to the tendency toward over-sharing — it’s not all bad.

Contemplating this notion of stars maintaining an arm’s-length relationship with the audience recalls an exchange in the movie “My Favorite Year,” when the young writer tells the aging Errol Flynn-like movie star, named Alan Swann, he doesn’t want to hear about his idol’s personal foibles or fears.

“Don’t tell me this is you life-size,” he says. “I can’t use you life-size. I need Alan Swanns as big as I can get them.”

Last week, in advance of the Kennedy Center telecast, Letterman sat for a rare interview with Charlie Rose for “CBS This Morning.” As part of the candid chat he discussed dealing with depression, late-in-life fatherhood, his relationship with Carson, and the prospect of being able to deal, eventually, with not being on TV anymore, in the way Johnny walked away from “The Tonight Show” and enhanced his legend by actually staying retired.

Like Carson, he said, “I know I would miss it.  But I’d find other things to do.”

The comments were thoughtful, even humanizing. And oddly, as someone who’s had a one-sided relationship with Dave for more than 30 years, I’d sort of rather not know the host isn’t as big or distant as he looks when viewed through the TV.