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How David Letterman Reinvented TV

A backstage and in-depth look at how a gap-toothed failed morning-show host and a ragtag band of misfits and rejects changed television forever

September 29, 2011
david letterman ed sullivan theater
David Letterman outside the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York.
Ray Tamarra/FilmMagic

Outside studio 6a in New York's rocke-feller Center, it was the middle of summer. But inside the cavelike, 180-seat home of a brand-new show called Late Night With David Letterman, Calvert DeForest – a part-time file clerk at a Brooklyn rehab clinic better known to viewers as Larry "Bud" Melman – was preparing to read the beloved children's poem "The Night Before Christmas" to a group of excited kids. In the five months since its debut in February 1982, Late Night had gleefully mocked any number of sacred cows, from inane celebrity talk-show banter to NBC executives, whom Letterman called "vegetables" on the very first show. Tonight's target was insufferable holiday TV specials. But when DeForest began reading from the version of "The Night Before Christmas" he'd pulled off a prop shelf, he immediately realized it was in the wrong language. "Oh, my God!" he stammered. "I have to speak Spanish now!" He tried to ad-lib – "not a creature was stirring" – but not for long: "I don't know what to do!" he blurted helplessly.

The camera cut to Letterman, standing by the side of the stage. Watching the disaster unfold, he made an exaggerated, self-mocking gesture of wiping the sweat from his brow. Maybe Late Night had finally done it – TV's edgiest show had self-destructed. Barbara Gaines, a bookish 23-year-old production assistant who was supposed to ensure that the right prop wound up in DeForest's hands, thought the train wreck was hilarious. But she and one of her coworkers also knew they were in trouble. Sure enough, producer Barry Sand immediately called them into his office and started screaming at them. Then Letterman popped into the office. "Hi, girls!" he exclaimed, flashing his gap-toothed grin. "That was amazing!"

The thought of airing such a calamitous skit would have been unthinkable on network TV. But a few nights later, on Late Night's "Christmas in July" special, a national audience watched just that: a confused, pear-shaped 60-year-old man completely flubbing a holiday classic as a group of bewildered children looked on.

Tune in to Conan O'Brien or Jimmy Fallon any night of the week, and you'll see plenty of knowing put-ons of entertainment cliches. You'll also hear acerbic monologues by the host, celebrity in-jokes, hip house bands and grown men doing stupid things for laughs (and mocking themselves in the process). You'll see, that is, everything that Late Night With David Letterman launched: the blueprint not only for modern talk shows, but for the cheeky, skeptical way we perceive and ridicule pop culture. "He did the thing that everyone's tried to do since and has never done, which is to take the talk-show form and redo it," says Jerry Seinfeld, one of Letterman's earliest guests. "The mindset was, 'We're tired of pretending there are no cue cards and no cameras and nothing's rehearsed. It's late, and we're going to take over this little piece of territory and do our own thing.' Now that mindset is everywhere."

With their pop-culture sendups and smashing-the-fourth-wall innovations, precursors like Ernie Kovacs and Steve Allen laid the groundwork for Late Night. But Letterman's first after-hours show, which aired from 1982 to 1993, brought those ideas into the mainstream and introduced them to a new, far more jaded generation – with Letterman as the sharp, socially awkward, perpetually goofy outsider at its center. "Johnny Carson made fun of the obvious showbiz people, like Wayne Newton or Liberace," says Chris Elliott, an original Late Night staffer who played the Guy Under the Seats and a slew of other deranged characters. "But Dave was poking fun at everybody at will. It was a blanket 'show business sucks, it's all shit – but you're in the club and you agree with us, and that's why you find it funny.'"

And Letterman was doing it all with a whole new kind of high-wire intelligence that went against TV's traditional lowest-common-denominator approach to humor. "From the Letterman experience I learned not to dumb things down," says writer George Meyer, one of Late Night's first hires, who went on to craft many classic episodes of The Simpsons. "On some shows the writers are always asking, 'Is the audience going to get this?' At The Simpsons, we acted as if the viewers were as smart as we were."

Yet when Late Night debuted 30 years ago this February, few had major expectations for what would become one of the most influential shows in television history. Suits at the network barely bothered tuning in, the host struggled to contain his overwhelming anxiety, the house band was often high, and major movie and TV stars stayed away in droves. "We were young kids who really didn't know how to do what we were doing," recalls Robert Morton, one of the show's original segment producers. "We were probably all in over our heads." Then Morton adds, still sounding a little stunned, "And it worked."

In some ways David Letterman seemed like the last person to subvert television from within. From the start, growing up in Indianapolis, he saw himself as a geeky loner. "I never knew how you approached beautiful women," he told Rolling Stone years later. "Kind of strange-looking guys like myself, we don't know." Around his hometown, he'd been a late-night-movie host and a bearded TV weatherman and DJ. He married his college girlfriend in 1970, when he was 23.

But then Letterman moved to L.A. in the mid-Seventies and found a home for his cynical wit. He began working the stand-up circuit and appearing on game shows like The Hollywood Squares. By 1977, his marriage had fallen apart, and he started dating Merrill Markoe, a sharp-witted, self-described "baby comedian" several years younger than him. Markoe learned quickly how odd Letterman could be. When she was hired as a writer on Mary Tyler Moore's short-lived 1978 variety show, she was given a list of cast members – which included Letterman, who hadn't told her about the role, even though she had spent the previous night with him.

Moore's show was canceled after only three episodes, but Letterman's affable, gently mocking humor endeared him to Johnny Carson, who booked him on The Tonight Show eight times. Then Letterman was hired to do stand-up at a charity event honoring Fred Silverman – and the NBC president loved his routine. The two chatted briefly in the men's room afterward, and Silverman decided to make Letterman the host of a new morning show he had dreamed up, one designed to attract a younger demographic than the geriatric crowd that tuned in to morning game shows like The New High Rollers. ("There are only so many hemorrhoid advertisers," Silverman recalls.) The David Letterman Show, a daily 90-minute talk-variety show, launched in June 1980, replacing three half-hour game shows. Even before it aired, the show almost fell apart. Three days before its debut, the show's original producer, game-show veteran Bob Stewart, was watching rehearsal tapes with the cast and crew. "I don't know if you and your friends think this shit is funny," Stewart groused, "but it's not." By showtime, Stewart was gone. "The feeling was that we needed a professional, and Bob was a great game-show producer," says Silverman. "But it was like putting somebody in the middle of Shanghai who didn't speak a word of Chinese." Markoe was promoted overnight from head writer to producer, even though she'd never produced a TV show in her life.

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