On May 20, 2015, David Letterman ended his time hosting The Late Show on CBS, ending his more than three decades working in television. Before he was the host of The Late Show, however, he hosted NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman. One of his most infamous recurring guests on the show was comic book writer Harvey Pekar. From 1986 to 1988, Pekar appeared six times on Late Night Show before he was banned from the show. The ban did not hold, and Pekar appeared once more on Late Night Show in 1993 and one more time on The Late Show in 1994. What made these interactions so fascinating, and why was Pekar banned from Letterman’s show? Read on for the story of that famous late-night blow-up and why Letterman refused to release the footage of their 1988 fight more than a decade later.
Letterman invited Pekar on his show for the first time in 1986, and he appeared on the October 15 show with Tom Brokaw as the other guest. Pekar was hesitant about going on the show, but his wife Joyce Brabner convinced him it would be good publicity for his American Splendor anthology, which had just been released. In the video, it is clear that Pekar wasn’t comfortable with the talk show format from the start, saying he was prepared for “those Cleveland jokes.” At moments, Letterman is engaged with what Pekar is saying and compliments his work with his comic books, but most of the humor in the segment was aimed squarely at Pekar himself. He jokes, “I look bad compared to you?” while the audience roared.
These slights didn’t escape Harvey’s notice, as he recounted in an interview with the Los Angeles Times:
“On some of the shows, I was doing a deliberate self-parody, and now there’s a lot of people that think I’m some sort of maniac, you know? I think that’s unfortunate — I’d rather be liked than thought of as a crazy man, but with Letterman, I’ve been in a situation where you either lay down and let him insult you or you do something about it. Most people keep their mouth shut and let him dump on them. I don’t wanna do that.”
After that first show, he appeared several more times to plug American Splendor. Audiences enjoyed the strange but amusing dynamic between Letterman, a TV host familiar with the format of the late night programs, and Pekar, who found the conventions of the medium to be peculiarly contrived. His wife and fellow comic book writer Joyce Brabner did not entirely blame Letterman for this tension, however:
“I’d say Letterman really got painted into a corner, thwarting his opportunities to be creative,” she tells Comic Riffs. “People think the show gave Letterman an opportunity, but they don’t see the table with 10 guys in shorts wearing baseball caps pitching jokes for things for him to say. They don’t see the index cards that say: ‘Ask this first.’ It’s all spelled out for him, and everything is pre-interviews. He’s basically had to be this hand puppet, with everybody’s hands up his butt to tell him what to say and do.
“Harvey was a surprise to him,” Brabner continues, “and because Harvey was completely off the card, Letterman liked that, even though he was confused by it.”
One of the most relaxed moments of the whole segment is when Letterman suggests that he will hang out with Pekar after the show and eat the donuts that Pekar brought with him to the taping.
There was a clear turning point during his appearance on the July 31, 1987 show, when he appeared wearing a shirt that read, “On Strike Against NBC.” Around this time, he started using his appearances to talk out against General Electric, which owned NBC, and he seems more visibly annoyed by Letterman’s usual questions. When Letterman asks him how Cleveland is doing, Pekar scoffs that it is a “stupid question” and he knows it. He also calls talk show entertainment “simple-minded bulls—.”
When they come back from a commercial break, Pekar jumps right into GE, and Letterman calls his behavior “very bad manners” and tries to shut it down with jokes.
Things took a really dark turn during the August 31, 1988 appearance. Letterman loses his patience entirely, saying that Harvey was wrong in what he was saying and repeating that his show was “not the place” for this discussion.
Eventually, Letterman says that Harvey Pekar will not be asked back on the show again and starts really hitting beneath the belt. He calls American Splendor Pekar’s “little Mickey Mouse magazine” and “rainy day fun for boys and girls.” While the show maintains that Harvey was never officially banned as a guest, he did not appear again on the show until 1993. In that time, Pekar had been diagnosed with lymphoma and gone through treatment. Joyce Brabner had written a book about his cancer treatments called Our Cancer Year, but it wasn’t set to be published until 1994.
Maybe it was time and distance from the 1988 show, or Harvey’s cancer diagnosis or the fact that Letterman was on the home stretch at NBC anyways. Whatever the reason, Letterman and Pekar made up on the show, and Letterman invited him back one last time after he made the transition to The Late Show:
On the reunion show, Letterman was conciliatory. “We had a fight, a falling out, a misunderstanding,” he said. “All that’s behind us. I’m genuinely happy to see you back.”
“Really?” a bemused Pekar replied.
Oddly enough, that wasn’t the end of the story. In the early 2000s, directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini were working on a film about Harvey Pekar’s life and comic books titled American Splendor. The film would be a mix of documentary-style interviews and a narrative re-telling of his life. Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner, Toby Radloff, and several other prominent real-life people from the books appeared in the film, and Harvey and Joyce were also portrayed on screen by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis.
When the production tried to get the rights to use the Letterman interviews, they were “accommodating” to a point, as Robert Pulcini recounts in a 2003 interview with IGN:
Q: Was it difficult to get approval for the MTV clips or the NBC clips with David Letterman used in the film?
PULCINI: Actually, Letterman was… they were very accommodating. They usually don’t license their footage.
But, the episode where Harvey and David Letterman get it that fight, it was restricted immediately after broadcast, from what we understand, and we couldn’t get it. Although, we did have a copy of it, of like a bootleg copy.
Initially we tried editing with that footage. But nobody knew what was going on. They were screaming too much at each other and nobody understood it. And, we also felt that at that point in the story you’re kind of with the Paul Giamatti part because it’s a very interior sequence; he found a lump (cancer), his wife is away, and so we felt, dramatically, it was best to stay with him.
American Splendor mostly utilizes the audio and video from the original videos, but since they couldn’t get that 1988 interview, they had to recreate the interview in the film using actor Paul Giamatti.
Harvey Pekar passed away on July 12, 2010, and when Letterman was asked to comment, he only had glowing things to say about one of his most cantankerous guests:
“I loved Harvey. He was a wonderful guest. The kind you don’t see anymore. The only real problem with Harvey was my immaturity.”