Hunter S. Thompson’s Many Strange, Unpredictable Appearances on The David Letterman Show

An old quote from Joseph de Maistre gets thrown around a lot late­ly: Toute nation a le gou­verne­ment qu’elle mérite—“every nation gets the gov­ern­ment it deserves.” As a his­tor­i­cal claim it is impos­si­ble to ver­i­fy. But the apho­rism has an author­i­ta­tive ring, the unmis­tak­able sound of tru­ism.

What if we put it anoth­er way? Every age gets the jour­nal­ism it deserves. How does that sound?

I offer as exhib­it one Hunter S. Thomp­son. Only a gonzo time like the late 60s and 70s could have pro­duced the gonzo jour­nal­ist, just as only such a time could have nur­tured the jour­nal­is­tic writ­ing of Tom Wolfe, Ter­ry South­ern, Joan Did­ion, James Bald­win, etc.

Do we find our cur­rent crop of jour­nal­ists lack­ing in moral courage, right­eous fury, death-defy­ing risk-tak­ing, gal­lows humor, lit­er­ary reach, thor­ough­go­ing inde­pen­dence of thought? The fail­ing indus­try may be to blame, one might argue, and with good rea­son.

Or per­haps, with def­er­ence to de Maistre, we have not deserved bet­ter.

The New Jour­nal­ism from which Thomp­son emerged dis­pensed with any pre­tense to “polite neu­tral­i­ty,” as nov­el­ist Hari Kun­zru writes at the Lon­don Review of Books. And “no one took the voice of the jour­nal­ist fur­ther away from ‘neu­tral back­ground’ (or seemed less able to stop him­self from doing it) than Hunter S. Thomp­son.” He exem­pli­fied Esquire edi­tor Lee Eisen­berg’s descrip­tion of the six­ties New Jour­nal­ist as “a lib­er­at­ed army of one.”

Thompson’s “abil­i­ty to artic­u­late the under­cur­rent of ‘fear and loathing’ run­ning through America”—not as a cyn­i­cal spokesper­son, but as some­how both an embod­i­ment and a sur­pris­ing­ly lucid, moral­is­tic observer—“ultimately led to his adop­tion as a kind of sooth­say­ing holy fool for the coun­ter­cul­ture.” In his lat­er years, the leg­end turned his rep­u­ta­tion for excess into a kind of schtick. Or maybe it’s more accu­rate to say that the cul­ture changed but Hunter didn’t, for bet­ter or worse.

As Kun­zru points out, “lat­er in his career the ‘sto­ry’ as inde­pen­dent enti­ty was to dis­ap­pear almost entire­ly from his work, which became a frac­tured series of tales about Hunter (mad, bad and dan­ger­ous) and his behav­ior (inspired, errat­ic, para­noid).” While this shift (and his dai­ly diet) may have dulled his jour­nal­is­tic edge, it made him an ide­al late-night talk show guest, and such he remained, reli­ably, on the David Let­ter­man show for many years.

In the clips here, you can see many of those appear­ances, first, at the top, from 1987, then below it, from 1988. Fur­ther up, see Let­ter­man inter­view Thomp­son in an ‘87 episode inex­plic­a­bly con­duct­ed in a Times Square hotel room. The show was “a strange beast,” writes Vulture’s Ram­sey Ess. “For most of the episode it feels unruly, nerve-wrack­ing, and a lit­tle dan­ger­ous,” all adjec­tives Thomp­son could have trade­marked. Just above, Thomp­son meets Let­ter­man to dis­cuss his just-pub­lished The Rum Diary, the nov­el he worked on for forty years, “a hard-bit­ten sto­ry,” writes Kun­zru, “of love, jour­nal­ism and heavy drink­ing.”

All of Thompson’s appear­ances are unpre­dictable and slight­ly unnerv­ing, and become more so in lat­er years. “Thomp­son would become more dra­mat­ic and more twist­ed,” writes Jason Nawara. “What­ev­er led up to the moment Thomp­son stepped on stage was prob­a­bly far more aston­ish­ing (or ter­ri­fy­ing) than any­thing caught on cam­era. Why is his hand ban­daged? Why is he so para­noid? What is hap­pen­ing? When have you slept last, Hunter?” If late night tele­vi­sion has become safe and bor­ing, full of pan­der­ing pat­ter large­ly devoid of true sur­pris­es, per­haps it is because Hunter S. Thomp­son has passed on. And per­haps, as Nawara seems to sug­gest, every gen­er­a­tion gets the late-night TV it deserves.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read 11 Free Arti­cles by Hunter S. Thomp­son That Span His Gonzo Jour­nal­ist Career (1965–2005)

Hunter S. Thompson’s Deca­dent Dai­ly Break­fast: The “Psy­chic Anchor” of His Fre­net­ic Cre­ative Life

How Hunter S. Thomp­son Gave Birth to Gonzo Jour­nal­ism: Short Film Revis­its Thompson’s Sem­i­nal 1970 Piece on the Ken­tucky Der­by

Hunter S. Thomp­son Chill­ing­ly Pre­dicts the Future, Telling Studs Terkel About the Com­ing Revenge of the Eco­nom­i­cal­ly & Tech­no­log­i­cal­ly “Obso­lete” (1967)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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