David Letterman and Howard Stern on the toxic toll of success

The Howard Stern factor_00015010
The Howard Stern factor_00015010

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(CNN)David Letterman and Howard Stern talk about Donald Trump, and what a great guest he was in his pre-presidential days, during "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction." But the most fascinating part of Letterman's latest one-on-one Netflix interview involves their conversation about success, and how both feel their driven commitment to it was toxic to their relationships.

It's an old story, and a familiar one. Yet it's still telling to hear Letterman, now 71, and Stern, 64, discuss their personal shortcomings so openly with the benefit of hindsight and the greater sense of introspection that their later years allow, albeit from the perch of nests incredibly well feathered by those careers.
Featuring two master broadcasters, the hour is a virtual master class on how to create television out of two guys just sitting there talking. But what really stands out are their shared experiences, and the almost confessional tone, which offers a sort of primer about how it's possible to be both rich and famous as well as selfish and miserable.
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"I don't know how my first wife could have been married to me at this point, because I was all in on my career," Stern says, recalling his first marriage and his consuming pursuit of radio stardom. "And that's not a way to be in a relationship. ... It's very hard to think of even your children's well-being in relationship to what I'm doing."
    Letterman cites a similar dynamic during his decades as a late-night host, saying, "I went through a version of the same thing where all I cared about was being on television, to the exclusion of everything else that I now realize is actually life."
    According to Letterman, the change only came when his son was born in 2003, a decade into his tenure hosting CBS' "Late Show." Until then, he said, his priorities were skewed toward "concentrating on this stupid television show."
    Despite their years as public figures, both men also express discomfort with that status, while Stern admits that he mastered hosting his show but at the same time didn't really know "how to function in the real world."
    For those who harbor certain images of celebrities, the interview ties into the whole "Tears of a clown" theme. It's a small but illuminating window into the darker side of celebrity -- the nagging doubts and internal turmoil experienced by so many of the people whose job is to amuse and entertainment us.
    Of course, Letterman's decision to return to work -- even in this low-key format -- speaks to a desire to continue to do what he does so well, unlike his mentor Johnny Carson, who basically abandoned the public eye after departing "The Tonight Show." Stern's installment is the last of the six episodes initially shot for this Netflix series, which kicked off in January with Barack Obama.
    For his part, Stern says he's uncertain what he'll do when his SiriusXM contract -- which he agreed to in 2015 -- expires in a few years. Yet his fans should derive some comfort from the greater serenity he exhibits, the product of age and, he says, lots of therapy. Whatever the cause, listening to them reminisce, the self-proclaimed King of All Media and former talk titan sound better equipped to face the "real world" than they were, apparently, during the height of their reigns.
    "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction -- Howard Stern" premieres May 31 on Netflix.