Letterman's double play.
The double bill was almost too bad to be true: Al Gore and Pearl Jam. Getting two such high-level laughingstocks together on one stage seemed a Barnumesque feat, and the wizardry of the combination appeared to excite even David Letterman, who started off giddy on Friday's Late Show (CBS). "I was just talking to the audience about the show tonight," he explained, giggling, as the crowd cracked up. Then he said simply, "We have a wonderful program for you this evening"—and they all roared.
Al Gore and Pearl Jam. Pearl Gore. Al Jam. It was just funny.
The show's lousy skits and gags held my attention because I was genuinely nervous, worried that they might be the last regular television I saw before witnessing Gore's full and final meltdown. The truth is, I couldn't imagine that the tense, tick-y, onetime candidate—long since out of fighting shape—would be ready for late night, and I had spent the day picturing him unsteady, perspiring on a cocktail of psychoactive drugs, struggling with bland practiced jokes, and preaching annoyingly about Joined at the Heart, his new book (with Tipper) about "family."
Wow, was I wrong. Is it therapy? God? Family? Somehow Gore has bust out of his personality rut! After greeting Letterman, he jogged—with apparent ease and spontaneity—back to Paul Shaffer, whose hand he shook before taking his seat. In a black suit, he looked golden and only a little overweight. "I'm still teaching, at Fisk University," he said. "I'm a visiting professor—V.P. for short." He waited through the laugh, his face immobile, grinning at Letterman only as the applause died down. "It's a way of hanging on."
From there he coasted, neatly satirizing his own desperation. The immobile face has become his trick, his comeback. When asked how he felt now about the election, he affected a thousand-yard stare and held it, breaking only when Letterman said, "You scared the hell out of me." Could it be that Al Gore is ready to send up his reputation for demented body language and scary outbursts? I think so! When at last he spoke on the contested election, he spoke quietly, looking furtive, like a mental patient: "I'm completely over it, Dave." Later, he deadpanned, but tentatively: "I got the impression that the election was not handled well."
Eventually Gore was required to get serious, and he did discuss national security, his possibly candidacy, and the importance of "weaning ourselves from such an overdependence on foreign oil." But he didn't stay somber for long—and he pulled off at least one tonal twist. "The economy is not doing well. I'm very concerned about it. I was the first one laid off. … You don't forget something like that."
Unfortunately Pearl Jam, who went on in the show's last six minutes after Gore's show-stealing run, didn't fare nearly as well. Eddie Vedder, his hair blow-dried, came off stiff and sober; at the same time he struggled embarrassingly to summon the speedy, jumpy, losing-it energy required by the band's forgettable new single (from the album Riot Act). He was painful to watch. Where Gore's act seems to have been leavened and made more honest by his trials, Vedder still oozes insincerity—in the form of his sludgy, heavy, fake-angry music that seems entirely empty of emotional content.
So Pearl Jam is what it always was, and the band is still no fun to laugh at. Gore, however, has changed. As Letterman told him, "I think you've gotten funnier in two years." He has. This, of course, means nothing for pop music, and probably very little for the Democrats—but, for some reason, last Friday night, it seemed like exceptionally good news.
Virginia Heffernan is a television critic for The New York Times. Her book, The Underminer, which she wrote with Mike Albo, comes out in February.
Still © 2002 CBS. All rights reserved.