"Every Sunday at my house we had ... dinner early ... and watched The Ed Sullivan Show. Whether we wanted to or not. Whether we enjoyed it or not. That was my first lesson in show business. I don't think anybody in the house particularly enjoyed it. We just watched it. Maybe that's the purpose of television. You just turn it on and watch it whether you want to or not." - David Letterman
David Letterman was an entrenched figure of nineteen seventies variety television, appearing in awful sketches and playing the part of "celebrity" on countless game shows. He trudged through various smelters of TV that could very well be classified as crimes against humanity. A small sample of his resumé contains The Gong Show, The Starland Vocal Band's variety show, Battle of the Network Stars and a cornball NBC movie-of-the-week. Without this steady onslaught of garbage his story would be a lot less interesting. A famous comedian's novice career is often the most fascinating part of their biography.1 Letterman's early showbiz struggle included encounters with a non-believing Tom Snyder, an extremely intoxicated Ringo Starr and even one of those "very special" sitcom episodes... one that dealt with venereal disease.
This is the early David Letterman.
Like countless television personalities, David Letterman got his first taste of broadcasting in radio. Letterman attended Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana in September nineteen sixty-five, majoring in radio and television. He volunteered at campus station WBST, an outfit typical of campus radio productions: amateurish, overwrought with humming and hawing and full of substantial dead air. It could be relied on for horrible production values - but also great music. The station manager, John Eiden, was told by the university board of directors to "slick it up" and make it "professional," as they felt WBST was an embarrassment to the university's reputation. The station and all ten of its watts immediately switched to a classical music format. Letterman's slot was noon to three, five days a week. Once the station turned classical, programmers were paid just over a dollar an hour - a bribe - to ditch their soul records and stick to the new format. The genre was of little concern to David, he just enjoyed being there. "[My] radio program on WBST," he remembers, "that was just the best. That was my first outlet, my first place to just go and talk and I loved it." Letterman was eventually asked to sacrifice his position when a stuffy program manager took exception to his exaggerated Debussy introduction of "Claude De-booooosy's Clair de Looooooooon."
On the same campus, five kids were in charge of a pirate radio station, said to have been run out of a broom closet, although that sounds mighty apocryphal. Of the two stations, WAGO best reflected the late sixties sensibility. The five watt station played Motown and hippie rock - in essence "The Sound of Young America." Regardless of the era, neither WAGO, WBST or Ball State University were hotbeds of progressive politics. "All over the United States [except for Ball State]: protest," said David. "Kent State was not that far away ... I was hardly aware of the Vietnam War until a friend of mine flunked out and was drafted and was dead like that. One day, here's a guy ... the next day, he's gone. That got my attention." Listen to an excerpt from Letterman's WAGO radio show as broadcast on April 1, 1969 here.
Around the same time he had formed a comedy troupe called The Dirty Laundry Company with two fellow classmates, one of which was Janet from Three's Company, Joyce DeWitt. They wrote several sketches and performed (mostly for campus audiences) not more than thirty times. Their biggest gig was playing a local bank's Christmas party. Dave opened the show by trying his hand at stand-up for the first time, telling regional jokes he had written for the occasion. He bombed. Each member was paid thirty dollars and soon enough the troupe "died a natural death from lack of opportunity to perform." After graduation Letterman searched for a radio station that did not double as storage space for cleaning supplies. WERK was a commercial station in Muncie where he was hired as a temporary fill-in for the vacationing DJ Tom Cochrun. The Indianapolis area was not much for showbiz. Letterman's campus radio experience seemed to be enough of an audition for independent TV channel WLWI. It granted him every young child's dream - to be a station identification announcer. Letterman's radio gigs were just sidelines for the show-off that hoped to be in television. "When I was a kid I was aware of Arthur Godfrey's daytime [television] show and Garry Moore, and I found it fascinating to see these people sit at little desks and have these microphones in front of them and talk, and I thought, 'This is amazing,' and I sort of would pretend to be on TV or radio and thought, 'This would be great." With a coat of scraggly facial hair and beer on his breath, the college aged Letterman quickly moved up the ranks of irrelevant, local programming. He was a multi-purpose interviewer, part-time weatherman and the host of the local Late Late Show, the old movie slot seemingly on every regional television station in America. Titled Freeze Dried Movies, Letterman engaged in silly shenanigans similar to that of other Late Late Show hosts like Ghoulardi. "In between ... I'd goof around with a cast of regulars. We had a telethon to raise money for a washed-up fighter," he recalled. The second week on the air Letterman staged a special "tenth anniversary of Freeze Dried Movies." It was sponsored by a regional pizzeria.2
During the day it was weather. Some footage of Dave presenting it still exist and occasionally show up as gags on his show today. An average weather report included something like this:
WEATHERMAN DAVID: Nothing is going to happen to us as far as weather is concerned. It's going to be just like it was yesterday, and just like it was today, and it's going to be like that tomorrow and again on Tuesday, because nothing is going on.
"People got disgusted and complained," Dave admits. "People said, 'Who is this punk and why is he making fun of relative humidity?" There was little room for advancement beyond meteorology. David left the TV station and took on yet another stint in radio. Indianapolis' WNTS hired Letterman to host a current affairs call-in show. However, he soon realized it was a poor fit, "I don't care about politics, I don't care about the world economy ... all I wanted to do was get home at the end of the day and drink beer ... I did it for a year and literally thought I was going to lose my mind ... this was the time of Watergate, and most of our callers thought homosexuals ... were behind it all." Eventually, perhaps while he was drunk, Letterman decided to move to Los Angeles. He was determined. He was ambitious. And he was honest. He acknowledged, "I knew I was going to fail."
Letterman moved to Hollywood in 1975, driving an old pick up truck and sporting a longer, dirtier red beard. Jay Leno described Letterman's appearance at the time esoterically, saying he resembled Dinty Moore from the comic strip Bringing Up Father. Dave did amateur spots at The Comedy Store run by Mitzi Shore. He quickly bonded with that nineteen seventies stand-up crowd that now seems oh-so-dated. The Comedy Store basketball team that Dave belonged to sounds like something out of a Richard Lamparski book. The line-up included Tom Dreesen, Tim Reid, Jimmy Walker and Johnny Witherspoon. He became very close friends with George Miller and Gary Mule Deer and booked them both on his show right into the zeroes when their television exposure had dried up.3 When Letterman arrived in Los Angeles he was duly impressed by the comedy of flashy dresser Jay Leno. "He was head and shoulders above anyone else," he said. "I patterned much of what I did on what I saw him do ... I suppose I'm an observational comic. I try to serve my own sense of humor, and if other people like it, fine. What I look for are the setups in life, and then I fill in the punch lines. Like one of my favorite jokes came right out of the National Enquirer ... there's this headline in the Enquirer that says, 'How to Lose Weight without Diet or Exercise.' So I think to myself, 'That leaves disease.' I've been doing that word for word for four years, and it never fails to get laughs." Letterman was living across the street from The Comedy Store after being hired as the club's weekend host. Letterman says, "Mitzi was a maternal influence. She had this place where we could all come, and be silly and make mistakes and have fun and go home with a waitress ... without Mitzi I don't know what I would have done." Letterman didn't indulge in the prevalent drug culture of the Store "but he took full advantage of the drink tickets Mitzi used to pass out to comedians at her club," wrote Richard Zoglin of Time.
Jimmy Walker and Freddie Prinze became the first of the Comedy Store clique to break big. Walker's new found fame and television overexposure ate up his stand-up material. Helen Gorman and Jerry Kushnick were Walker's managers and they hired Jay Leno and David Letterman to develop new material for Jimmy. The humbly named Ebony Genius Management signed the two to writing contracts and required each of them to come up with fifteen jokes a week at a rate of one hundred dollars per submission. Letterman remains astounded at the arrangement, "[They] wanted me to write jokes with a Black point of view [but Jimmy Walker] was the first Black person I had ever seen." Helen Gorman eventually became known best as Leno's psychotic manager Helen Kushnick, memorably immortalized by Kathy Bates in HBO's The Late Shift. The Walker-Leno-Letterman trifecta explains how a "very special episode" of Good Times, that Letterman worked on as a staff writer, came to be.
JIMMY WALKER IN CLINIC WAITING ROOM: Anyone sitting here?
JAY LENO IN A TOQUE: No. What're you here for?
LENO: A cold? That's funny. Everyone else is here for [venereal disease].
WALKER: That must have been some party!
LENO: No, man, these people don't know each other. Where you been? Out of the country? VD is an epidemic!
Letterman had quickly gained a reputation as the heckler tamer at The Comedy Store. Fellow comics loved to see Letterman get catcalled by drunks as his put-down artistry had no equal. The LA Times visited The Comedy Store and said in the October 22, 1976 edition that, "David Letterman proved to be the most daring of the evening, allowing himself to lose control through audience participation then recovering it all." The venue had become so popular that it was soon the place to go for a bit of star fucking. Tables were often occupied by celebrities like Burt Reynolds, Paul McCartney, Sammy Davis Jr. and Johnny Carson. Such an evening is talked about in the book I'm Dying up Here by William Knoedelseder (2009, Perseus Books). "Ringo Starr ... arriv[ed] so intoxicated that Mike Binder ... had to help him to a seat in the back. Starr was seated just as David Letterman took the stage, and the former Beatle began heckling him ... comics started filing into the room to watch the impending bloodshed ... it wasn't a fair fight. In the spotlight, Letterman couldn't see who the heckler was, so he showed no mercy, and Starr was too drunk to appreciate how badly Letterman was beating him up. Finally, one of the comics took pity and called out, 'Hey Dave, it's Ringo.' 'Oh, that makes sense,' Letterman shot back in the direction of Starr. 'You ruined your career and now you've come here to ruin mine."
Ebony Genius Entertainment booked Letterman to open for singer Leslie Uggams in Denver at a place called Turn of the Century. He was expected to do two sets a night for ten consecutive evenings. On opening night his first set went fine, but after the first show the club owner made an announcement. Everyone was welcome to remain for the second show. That might be fine for a singer, where an audience enjoys hearing songs they've heard before, but for Letterman it was unlikely he would get a second chorus of laughs. It was early in his career. He barely had thirty minutes of material in the first place. He took to the stage and performed the exact same bits for the exact same audience. He tried to spruce it up with some tired crowd work, asking, "Where you folks from?" This did not go well. A man at a table responded tersely, "Denver. He's from Denver. I'm from Denver. We're all from Denver. We're in Denver." Zoglin tells another story. "He spent a depressing three weeks at the Sahara Hotel in Lake Tahoe, opening for Helen Reddy. One night he got so few laughs that his twenty-five-minute set was over in fifteen ... a fan who had seen his show came up and said, 'Are you Dave Etterman?' The L in his name had fallen off the hotel marquee."
Jimmy Walker, now a household name with a household catchphrase, tried to get exposure for his comedy club chums. A television pilot was taped on June 11th, 1977 called Rising Star featuring some of the promising young comedians of the day. The performers along with Walker were David Letterman, Jay Leno, Adele Blue and a troupe called The Village Idiots. It also featured an incongruous "film salute to Red Skelton." Had it been picked up it would've been the very first television show devoted solely to stand-up comedy. Instead it was ignored. A very similar venture was picked up for syndication shortly thereafter with malaprop wizard Norm Crosby at the helm, featuring all the Comedy Store regulars.4 David was extremely busy in 1977, participating in some of the worst television ever conceived. The Jacksons, a variety program revolving around the Jackson Five5 was, of course, a showcase for their music, but also full of so-called comedy sketches. Nobody liked it and it was canceled after only twelve episodes. A similar feel permeated the four episodes of The Starland Vocal Band Show, which had Dave as a writer and in a handful of his own segments. It also featured Letterman's friend and stand-up contemporary Jeff Altman,6 PBS' much maligned piano playing mainstay Mark Russell and, remarkably, Peter Bergman and Phil Proctor of The Firesign Theater. Regardless, The Starland Vocal Band Show itself was far from delightful, afternoon or otherwise.
Dave was doing well with stand-up but didn't really have a passion for it. "I don't like the comedian image - the feeling that I'm the court jester who comes out after the banquet to make people laugh ... I don't go out there thinking, 'By God, I'm gonna get this crowd if I have to sweat out my three hundred dollar tuxedo." He was using stand-up the same way he had used radio. He wanted television. And he was getting it. But he was ready to do something of his own. In the meantime he appeared on every game show ever made. And every game show never made.
There was one daytime game show Letterman watched regularly as a child. Who Do You Trust? was hosted by Dave's future hero Johnny Carson. "There was one [episode where the guest] balanced a lawn mower on his chin ... and Carson made fun of him. I thought, 'What a great way to make a living!" David Letterman's very first television appearance upon arrival in Hollywood was on a game show called What Is It? featuring the husband and wife team of Allen Ludden and Betty White.7 They had met Letterman a couple years before at WNTS when they were passing through town on a promotional tour. They told him to look them up if he ever moved to Hollywood. He did just that and had his first of many, many spots to nowhere courtesy game show land. In 1977 producer Ron Greenberg scouted the L.A. comedy clubs for a new show called Throw Me a Line, alternately known as Word Grabbers. It went through several phases with endless pilots taped featuring what seemed like every two bit celebrity in Hollywood at the time. An initial pilot was taped in Manhattan hosted by Letterman's future Late Night announcer Bill Wendell. By the time of its L.A. try-out it was hosted by The Dating Game's Jim Lange and yet another pilot with popular Los Angeles disc jockey Lloyd Thaxton. The premise was that a host would give a straight line and a panel of celebrities would provide potential punchlines.8 In other versions of the pilot, the punchline concept was replaced with more general word play. Old timers on the panel included, at varying times, aging acts like Jan Murray and The Andrews Sisters, while unknowns like Jay Leno, David Letterman, George Miller, Tom Dreesen and Elayne Boosler were brought in to inject a youthful spin. Ron Greenberg liked them all except for Letterman and told Dreesen, "This guy doesn't get it. Find somebody else." During the Lloyd Thaxton version David intentionally said, "Thanks, Floyd" "Well, Boyd..." and "y'know, hemorrhoid." Old time comedy ham and professional game show panelist Jan Murray was impressed. "These kids are wonderful. What do you need us old farts for? You should shoot the show with them." The show never went beyond its pilot stage and the "kids" collected six dollars each for their time.
Letterman scored a gig as host of a game show pilot called The Riddlers (1977) featuring Michael McKean, JoAnne Worley, Joyce Bulifant, Debra Lee Scott and Robert Urich. It was produced by Bob Stewart, a veteran of game show production since the early nineteen fifties. Bulifant and Worley seemed to make a living appearing on game shows and never turned down the chance to help out with ill-conceived pilots. Letterman seemed destined for the same fate at this time. His wit shone through in The Riddlers pilot and at times as the weak program plodded along he can be seen rolling his eyes - not unlike a moment in the Word Grabbers pilot in which he is seen checking his watch. September 1978, Letterman was a panelist on yet more nauseating game show garbage. TV Critic Mike Drew gave a recap the day after the latest one aired:
This One's Just Trashy
Another show with titillation on its mind, "The Love Experts," consists of four TV panelists (out of work actors) sitting around making double entendres and giggling. Oh come on, you're saying, there must be more to it than that. Since you insist, in each show three attractive people with a "love problem" ask for help. Monday's dilemmas included a coed whose female roommate kept getting in the way of romance and an airline steward bothered by lecherous stewardesses (some guys have all the luck). Chortling it up over all of this were panelists Elaine Joyce, Geoff Edwards, David Letterman and June Lockhart. June Lockhart? Lassie's mommy? The very same, looking pretty uncomfortable amid all the smirking exhibitionism from contestants and the audience. The audience? Yup, after the contestants seek a grand prize for the most "creative" problem, the audience gets its turn. Monday, a man stood up to ask if he should continue his affair with a co-worker's wife. When he got home, I'll bet he had an answer. Bill Cullen, who's been hosting game shows since the Boer War or so, tries to retain some dignity as the emcee here. But it's as hard to look dignified on "The Love Experts" as it is on its 10 pm predecessor, The Gong Show.
- Mike Drew, The Milwaukee Journal, September 13, 1978
During this period he occasionally appeared on game shows that were actually successful such as The Gong Show where he did stand-up and appeared as a celebrity judge. He also played along with friend Allen Ludden on Password Plus (five times), yammered away on The Hollywood Squares (three times), a one-off on The Liar's Club (another Allen Ludden - Betty White favor) and tolerated Dick Clark on the 20,000 Pyramid (seven times - all directed by Bob Stewart). His last game show experience was an end-of-the-decade pilot called Decisions, Decisions again produced by his future nemesis Bob Stewart and (surprise, surprise) featuring Joyce Bulifant as his fellow celebrity.
Letterman may have stunk on TV but he was firmly established as a unique act at The Comedy Store and big names took notice. When Richard Pryor's confidant, writer, and fellow stand-up Paul Mooney was unavailable, Pryor would specifically ask for Letterman to be used as his opening act. Letterman left Ebony Genius Management after being courted by the powerhouse agency of Rollins-Joffe, representatives for Woody Allen and other giants. Their clout did wonders. He was immediately making a steady income providing material for Bob Hope, Paul Lynde, John Denver and other odd combinations. Rollins-Joffe arranged meetings with NBC in which they bargained with Carson's folk to book Letterman for three stand-up appearances on The Tonight Show including a guarantee that Letterman would be waved over to the panel by Carson after his first set. An unprecedented arrangement. Letterman would have his stand-up debut on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on November 26, 1978. However, Rollins-Joffe failed to keep Letterman from participating in one of those crazy Battle of the Network Stars specials.
Letterman taped a pilot that was supposed to be a spoof of 60 Minutes called Peeping Times. "The week before we started shooting," Dave remembers, "I get a call from a secretary who says, 'We've been trying to get hold of your agent but we can't reach him, so we're just going to tell you - you've got to get your teeth fixed.' I fought it but finally they said you can get inserts. Which was fine except that when I wore them, I couldn't speak properly." It was just as well he didn't invest in the dental procedure as the show never went beyond the initial episode.
Although the show is touted as a take-off on all news magazines, the resemblance to CBS' hit 60 Minutes is clear. Alan Oppenheimer as anchorman Miles Rathbourne and David Letterman as co-anchor Dan Cochran are the counterparts of Mike Wallace and Morley Safer. A third correspondent is on assignment, but his chair is there. Among the reports is an interview with a border guard, who is extolling the job he and his co-workers are doing to prevent illegal aliens from slipping into the U.S. as he goes on and on ... many illegal aliens [are] seen tiptoeing across the border. This sort of zaniness seems to fall somewhere between NBC's Saturday Night Live and long defunct, but much-lamented That Was The Week That Was, which first brought David Frost to the attention of U.S. audiences. Frost, in fact, is the man behind Peeping Times ... The pilot hour is part of his new deal with NBC, which also calls for a series of six weekly live interview shows to be done in prime-time beginning in May.
-Sherry Woods, The Miami News, January 25, 1978
A flurry of television filled the next twenty-four months. David's stand-up act was showcased nationally for the first time not just on Johnny Carson but also on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, a heavily edited assortment of popular rock bands and comedians aimed at a demographic of pot smoking long hairs.9 He played Vegas as Lola Falana's opening act. Letterman flew to Canada at the end of 1978 for a stand-up tour and to appear on Canadian programs The Alan Hamel Show and Peter Gzowski's 90 Minutes Live. March 19th, 1979, NBC aired a movie-of-the-week called Fast Friends. In the picture David played an aspiring stand-up comic that replaces a reigning egomaniac of a talk show host played by Dick Shawn. Shawn's character was similar to Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer (1964) or Mickey Rooney in The Comedian. Fast Friends was not a good movie. A thorough check of the talent involved more or less explains why. Filmmaker Steven Hilliard Stern worked in a ready-made paint-by-numbers fashion. His repertoire included winners like B.S. I Love You (1970), Camp Grizzly (1980), Portrait of an Escort (1980), Portrait of a Show Girl (1982) and 1983's Still the Beaver (despite what you're thinking, Beaver was not in the same genre as Portrait of an Escort, but instead a Leave it to Beaver reunion film). Fast Friends cinematographer Howard Schwartz inexplicably moonlighted as a mover and a shaker in the halls of Filmation and stunt co-ordinator Buck McDancer's previous job was doing stunts for TV's Rhoda (what the?).
Letterman went to CBS for a lousy venture called Mary, a new variety show starring Mary Tyler Moore. Letterman was excited by the prospect of working with a woman he had admired for years on Carl Reiner's classic Dick Van Dyke Show. The cast included an unknown and awful young comedian named Michael Keaton. "It was pretty exciting, having heard about [CBS'] Television City all my life, to be going to work there. I had a name badge with a picture on it and an ID number, and I could eat in the CBS commissary. I could talk to Mary Tyler Moore anytime I wanted. I could do almost anything. I could share fruit with her if I wanted to ... But the hard part was that I had to sing and dance and dress up in costumes. That was tough. I knew my limitations, but this really brought them home. You know, it was, 'You're not a singer. You're not a dancer. You're not an actor. Get out of here. What are you doing? Get away from Mary. That's her fruit. Don't try and eat her fruit." David should have tried to eat her fruit when he had the chance, as the show was canceled after three weeks. Letterman's girlfriend and eventual head writer, Merrill Markoe, worked with Dave for the first time on the series and remembers, "It was canceled after three of four episodes, even though 60 Minutes was the lead-in ... The show was an uncomfortable combination of old showbiz-style variety mixed with a miscalculated attempt to include some of that wacky, absurdist comic sensibility that the kids liked so much from that new program Saturday Night Live. For example, the Mary show did a parody of the Village People song 'Macho Man' that had Dave and Michael Keaton dressed in L.L. Bean-catalog outfits, in a setting that was made to look like a scene from Deliverance. I forget where the comedy was supposed to be in all this. I do know the powers-that-be didn't realize that 'Macho Man' was a gay anthem. I also remember vividly that Dave was in real agony about this bit of levity." Letterman concluded, "[It] made me retch."
MARY IS IN TV TROUBLE
It's enough to make you cry. After five fabulous years with Dick Van Dyke and seven equally enjoyable ones with her own show, Mary Tyler Moore is in trouble. Deep trouble ... Apparently Mary and husband Grant Tinker are well aware they have a dog on their hands, because they've gone into hiding ... As for Jim Hampton, Judy Kahan, Michael Keaton, Swoosie Kurtz and David Letterman, they should be thankful they have jobs at all, because it seems inconceivable people with the comedy acumen of MTM could so miscast their No. 1 star with such inferior talent.
- Bob Moore, Palm Beach Post, October 10, 1978
MARY FALL DOWN, GO BOOM
Mary never really got any excitement going. It remained a vanity project, amiable but dawdingly bland ... In a musical bit, the cast (Jim Hampton, Judy Kahan, Michael Keaton, Swoozie Kurtz, David Letterman, Dick Shawn) wore white football jerseys and rhythmically stamped their feet as Mary made like Knute Rockne. At the end of the show, they all gathered at a seedy nightclub and had a friendly bull session; on stage, Mary crooned, "We've Only Just Begun." After 20 minutes or so, I thought, 'When are they going to quit chumming around and actually do something?' It had better be soon ... My unsolicited advice is ... Do movie parodies."
- James Wolcott, VOICE, October 9, 1978
January of 1979 Dave was hired to liven up the Rose Parade pre-show (is this trip really necessary?) with the generic personalities Bobby Van, Elaine Joyce and KTLA newswoman Susan Maun visiting the various sites where the parade floats were built. David had an appearance on a 1979 episode of Mork and Mindy that was slickly arranged by his managers, who also represented Robin Williams. Johnny Carson hosted The 51st Annual Academy Awards on a Monday night in April 1979. Since Johnny usually taped The Tonight Show on Mondays, a guest host was needed. No shortage of substitute regulars were available but Tonight Show producers already had Letterman in their sights. "It happened really quickly," David said. "During the middle of the third [appearance], producer Fred de Cordova came over and said, 'Have your people call me about hosting." It became the first of many turns as Carson's substitute. Letterman's close friend and stand-up contemporary, Tom Dreesen, was one of Letterman's guests that night. Dreesen saw Tom Snyder loitering in the wings after Ed McMahon bellowed, "Here's David!" and overheard Snyder chortle, "I gotta see how the audience responds to this no-name."
NBC President Fred Silverman was so impressed with David's performance that an exclusivity contract was penned soon after. Silverman started brainstorming immediately. An afternoon show was conceived called Leave it to Dave. "The whole project was just a disaster," said Letterman. "I was supposed to sit on a throne and the set was all pyramids. The walls were all covered in shag carpet ... At one point I was in New York and I got a phone call from the West Coast. They said, 'We've come up with a great idea. Your guests will all sit around on pillows.' And I hung up the phone and I turned to my manager, Jack Rollins, and I said, 'This moron wants us to sit on pillows. What's the matter with chairs?' You could just see the elements kind of - I hate to say it was like dominoes toppling, but it was like dominoes toppling." Merrill Markoe says, "The set was not even the worst idea to come down that particular pike. I remember that [somebody] wanted the guests to make their entrances by sliding down a chute ... But even more vivid is the memory of how little blood there was in Dave's face when he was presenting the news to me. Somehow we succeeded in getting that idea shit-canned." Regardless, David was still pleased with the exclusivity contract. The assurance of steady work alleviated a great deal of stress in his Comedy Store life. He was torn as to what side to take in a bitter labor dispute that had the majority of the club's acts walking out on owner Mitizi Shore, demanding to be paid for their performances. The disruption lasted for months.10 Letterman, who believed that the comedians deserved some compensation, was also extremely loyal to Pauly Shore's mother for believing in him, nurturing him and giving him the chance to do stand-up on a regular basis when he first arrived in Hollywood. He didn't want his insecure ego to be the victim of any more hostility.
NBC's recent announcement heralding the return of its famed peacock only serves to suggest there are people running amok through the boardrooms of America's third place network these days, people who aren't playing with a full deck ... The ludicrous [group] NBC is banking on to become their superstars of the '80s is David Letterman and Susan Anton ... If someone set out to find a more no-talent pair than those two, they'd probably find them clutching a bottle of Thunderbird in some alley. To even consider Letterman in the same breath as Milton Berle or Jerry Lewis is an insult to comedy, and Miss Anton's talents are what keep her costume from falling off. - Bob Michaels, Palm Beach Post, June 26, 1979
Fred Silverman pitched the idea to David of his hosting a ninety minute daily morning show. Letterman was enthusiastic and said at the time, "I had this deal for a late night pilot, which would have been just that - on once, late at night and I didn't want to do anything for prime-time. I couldn't see myself in a sitcom as the kooky next-door neighbor. This was a twenty six week commitment, a chance to experiment on the air. It may not be the high side of glory but it sounds like fun," but he added ominously, "All of this could go up in smoke the first day. I could be the only one amused and they're bringing back the game shows." The head of NBC entertainment, Brandon Tartikoff, said during a press conference that, "We think this program will upgrade and change the face of morning television." The David Letterman Show would bump Hollywood Squares, Card Sharks and the Alex Trebek hosted High Rollers from their morning time slots. Perhaps it was a metaphor for his career... Dave finally shoving game shows out of his way. NBC started a fierce cross-country advertising campaign with the main slogan, "A Face Every Mother Could Love!" Once the program entered the rehearsal stage, a whole wrath of problems developed. The rehearsals were a festering pool of animosity. The game show world was haunting him. Bob Stewart, the man in charge of Dave's ventures on The Riddlers, Decisions, Decisions and The 20,000 Pyramid, was hired to produce and direct. The veteran did not gel with Letterman's view of things. Letterman says, "Every day was a fistfight ... The first director was a game-show director, and he could direct a game show in his sleep, but he couldn't direct a talk show. Basic rules of television directing were being violated left and right. The guest would be saying something and the light would be on me. I'd be asking a question and the shot would be on who knows what. Finally he started to shoot everything with one wide shot. It looked like a security camera at a 7-Eleven. I mean, it just stunk."
In an astonishing high-level shake-up, the top two producers of the David Letterman Show have resigned, only days before this morning's scheduled debut of the NBC talk show ... Letterman's daily ninety-minute live program is a pet project of Fred Silverman. The shake-up seems to indicate yet more trouble in the NBC studios - as well as Letterman's clout. Nobody will say what caused the turmoil, but insiders believe it had to do with the format.
- New York Post, June 18, 1980
Four days before the premiere of The David Letterman Show, Stewart walked out. Associate producer Anne Marie Schmidt, another game show trust, was also gone. The press said she was "losing a power struggle with Letterman." David's new producer was Markoe.11 She remembers, "I was particularly sick of seeing everyone on television doing that bigger-than-life, fraudulent, full-of-shit television persona - which was mainly how the shows all worked then. I welcomed the idea of a host being caught having real reactions to odd situations ... One immediate task - when we were determining how to construct a daily format - was to create segments that could be repeated. Since there was a horizon of future shows spreading out in front of us that seemed to stretch into infinity, it seemed to call for free-form thinking." The AP wire was full of backhanded praise the day after the premiere episode. "The David Letterman show seems to present a rational reason to watch television after the morning news goes off ... This judgment is based on only one viewing and it may be that the Letterman show is like the plain girl at an Ugly Convention." Yes, the notice capitialized "ugly convention." Merrill Markoe remarked, "The morning show was a delusion in the sense that we felt you could just do whatever comedy you wanted, any time of day or night. And when the show started to fail, Dave was going crazy. It was not a happy time ... Fred Silverman ... requested we hire 'a family' for the show, by which he meant regulars along the lines of a band singer, an astrologer, a beauty expert, a funny announcer, and an eleven year old fiddle player ... we pretty much ignored Silverman's edicts - at our own peril. Almost immediately, the show was cut from ninety minutes to sixty. After that, it was just a hop, skip and a jump to zero." Peter J. Boyer writing for the Associated Press described the cut in duration as "a network's way of offering you a cigarette and a last meal before standing you against the wall and opening fire." Peter Marshall, host of the canceled Hollywood Squares wasn't happy, "Mr. Silverman thought we'd had it. He decided he'd put on something innovative, so he put on The David Letterman Show, which is a disaster," he said. Letterman concurs, "The ratings weren't going up, and then we had a meeting with the NBC executive in charge of the show ... Finally, we lost four Westinghouse stations - Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Detroit12 - in one fell swoop. There was a piece in the LA Times about the disaster that was daytime television, thanks to us ... the affiliates were grumbling. That's how I found out about it. So it was from that point on that we said, 'Screw it, we've got nothing to lose. We're sinking. Let's do whatever we want to do ... everyday I felt like I was in Vietnam." One of the things they decided to do was a "Cancellation Sweepstakes," with viewers writing in to guess the date that NBC would finally pull the plug. The David Letterman Show was canceled in September of 1980 and had its final show on October 24th. David joined the man who considered him a nobody, Tom Snyder, in a final plug for the morning program on The Tomorrow Show and mentioned that the show hadn't been canceled as previously thought. It wasn't the case. He was about to be replaced with Las Vegas Gambit and Blockbusters, a pair of game shows hosted by Wink Martindale and Bill Cullen respectively. The game show circuit had thwarted him again. That spring the defunct show won two Daytime Emmy Awards, one for Best Daytime Talk Show and another for Merrill Markoe in the category of Best Achievement in Writing. David Letterman remembers, "It was the best and worst experience of my life. I was on a plane back to California and I was thinking, Now what do I do?"
1Almost as fascinating as the road from fame to depressing obscurity.
2Freeze Dried Movies was described annoyingly by Bill Adler, one of Letterman's unauthorized biographers, thusly: "It would start at 2 a.m. and go on until it ended."
3Garry Mule Deer's act consisted of short comical songs played on guitar and carrying a rubber chicken as a prop. A comedian hoping to get booked on The Late Show with David Letterman with that kind of shtick would be anathema to Letterman. Mule Deer might seem like an odd choice alongside Letterman favorites like Jim Gaffigan or Todd Barry, but Mule Deer's several bookings had nothing to do with stand-up content and everything to do with loyalty. Letterman remains close to all those he started out with in the seventies.
4Norm Crosby's Comedy Shop was the very first television show devoted solely to stand-up comedy. Syndicated across North America, it was primarily received on UHF channels via cutting-edge rabbit ear technology. The stage was split up into three parts. Stage right featured a flashy curtain from where a late seventies television celebrity like Avery Schreiber would emerge and introduce Norm Crosby. In a none-to-subtle edit out of nowhere, Norm would spring to the stage and deliver a labored monologue full of the malapropisms that became his trademark (and Sacha Baron Cohen's characters for that matter). Stage left was a barren looking living room set up, carpeted and with a door in the background. In between the stand-up comedy that took place on a catwalk center stage, Norm would try to tell a joke from the living room only to be interrupted. A sudden knock at the door would interrupt him. "Uh oh! Who could that be? Must be our super mystery surprise guest!" Norm would then open the door and feign shock and surprise as some seventies flash-in-the-pan would emerge. "Why it's Vic Tayback!!!" The mystery surprise guest would then introduce "a young stand-up comedian I really enjoy." A great deal of the series is now available on DVD and I highly recommend it if you love fromage or are curious to see just what terrible stand-up comics Michael Keaton and Brad Garrett were circa 1979. Incidentally, super mystery surprise guest Vic Tayback introduced "a very funny man who has written for our Alice show... Garry Shandling."
5The Jacksons featured everyone except Jermaine. Jermaine was still with Motown enjoying a lackluster solo career. By this point, the rest of The Jacksons were working for CBS Records. Hence, the variety show was called The Jacksons instead of, like their earlier cartoon series, The Jackson 5ive.
6Altman hosted another one of the worst variety programs ever made, Pink Lady and Jeff.
7I have not been able to verify that this television show actually existed.
8The game-show-punchline premise was re-used a few years later in an awful Toronto made version called The Joke's On Us that was hosted by Monty Hall and featured regulars Jack Carter, Marty Allen, Maurice LaMarche and Nipsey Russell. Carter, Allen and Russell were all well past their prime as nightclub comedians, but for Canadian impressionist Maurice LaMarche it was one of his very first gigs. It took another decade for LaMarche to achieve success with his voices on Pinky & the Brain and many other contemporary animated programs.
9Don Kirshner was almost single handedly responsible for removing the social relevance in popular music that Bob Dylan had instilled and inspired, to disturbingly grand success. Kirshner anecdotes are plentiful and well worth repeating. Kirshner made his lucky fortune as co-owner of a music publishing business in the fifties. Aldon Music had contracts with several Brill Building legends including Carole King and Neil Sedaka. Based on a solid track record, Kirshner was enlisted by ScreenGems to crank out catchy songs for a new television program featuring a fake rock band called The Monkees. They had several large hits under Kirshner's tutelege and use of Brill Building superstars. However, when Kirshner released a single under The Monkees moniker without the group's consent, it brought many issues that were already bubbling under the surface to an angry head. There had been bad blood from the beginning. During one of the TV show's earliest run throughs, Mickey Dolenz was bandying about and poured a Pepsi on Kirshner's head to generate laughs from his friends. Dolenz had not actually met Kirshner yet, and the music producer did not dismiss the incident. Much later, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork were furious to discover that the second Monkees album, More of The Monkees, had been released in January 1967 without their being told. Their anger increased when they were not given free copies of the album but had to purchase it themselves from a store. At the end of the same month Nesmith met with Kirshner and Colgems attorney Herb Moelis to pick up royalty checks. Nesmith took the opportunity to express the group's displeasure with the way the music was being created and demanded that there be a change. Moelis told Nesmith that the group of actors had a contract they must adhere to. The meeting ended abruptly with Nesmith storming out, but not before violently punching a hole in the wall, pointing at Kirshner and screaming, "That could have been your face, motherfucker!" The Monkees cast was treated by fans as if they were a real band, and when it was revealed to the masses that they did not play their own instruments, the result was a backlash from betrayed teenage girls. They told Kirshner they wanted control over their songs. Kirshner felt they were being ungrateful. After more complaints over what they felt was the release of another track released without the cast's consent, ScreenGems conceded and relieved Kirshner of his duties. Don insisted he would enact revenge and prove that he could create a musical sensation out of - not just a fictional band like The Monkees - but a band without human beings. Don Kirshner's next project was The Archies - a group consisting of comic book characters. Kirshner's insipid Sugar, Sugar would be the biggest hit of 1969. Incidentally, Sugar, Sugar had been offered to The Monkees first, but they turned it down. These anecdotes and many more can be found in the book The Monkees: The Day-to-Day Story of The Sixties Pop Sensation by Andrew Sandoval (2005, Thunder Bay Press).
10The story of The Comedy Store dispute has been told many, many times before and I have no desire to rehash such familiar material here. If you are interested in learning about it then consult some of the books cited as references below or track down the comprehensive E! True Hollywood Story of The Comedy Store.
11Some of Markoe's comments come from Mike Sacks' book And Here's the Kicker. I recommended it highly. The book features discussions with several excellent comedy writers including an interview with Mad Magazine genius Al Jaffee and contains this incredible exchange about Mad's Dave "The Lighter Side Of" Berg.
SACKS: What was Dave Berg like as a person?
JAFFEE: Dave had a messianic complex of some sort. He was battling... he had good and evil inside of him, clashing all the time. It was sad, in a sense, because he wanted to be taken very seriously and, you know, the staffers at Mad just didn't take anybody seriously. Most of all, ourselves.
SACKS: Do you think Dave Berg's inner battle later expressed itself in his strip The Lighter Side Of?
JAFFEE: It came out in a lot of the things he did. He had a very moralistic personality. I mean, he moralized all the time. And his gags were very suburban middle-class America. Plus he was very religious. He wrote a book called My Friend God. And, of course, if you write a book like that, you just know that the Mad staff is going to make fun of you. We would ask him questions like, "Dave when did you and God become such good friends? Did you go to college together or what?" I think Dave had a feeling that his contribution to the success of Mad wasn't appreciated enough. And I think this bothered him. He once told a staff member that he received so much fan mail that they had to hide it from him. And he really believe this ... I guess Dave felt he was carrying the whole magazine, and he should have been treated royally.
The David Letterman Story by Caroline Latham (1987, Franklin Watts)
The Letterman Wit by Bill Adler (1994, Carroll & Graf)
Comedy on the Edge by Richard Zoglin (2008, Bloomsbury USA)
I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy's Golden Era by William Knoedelseder (2009, Perseus Books)
And Here's the Kicker by Mike Sacks (2009, Writer's Digest Books)
The Google News Archives (2010, The Internet)