How David Letterman Reinvented TV

Page 2 of 5

Beamed into America's homes at 10 a.m. every day, The David Letterman Show opened with a smooth-jazz theme song by ex-Doobie Brother Michael McDonald – but that was about as relaxed as it got. On air, Letterman joked about Central Park drug dealers, openly ridiculed NBC and made fun of his morning-show competition, Dinah Shore. Letterman and Markoe introduced bits like "Viewer Mail" (a nasty parody of 60 Minutes) and "Stupid Pet Tricks," inspired by the days when Markoe and her college friends would get drunk and dress up their Great Dane. From sea to puzzled sea, viewers did a collective head scratch. "There weren't a lot of morning shows doing an opening comedy monologue and produced comedy pieces," recalls one of the writers, Gerard Mulligan. "People don't really want that in the morning. They want to find out what the weather is." Baffled by Letterman's oddball antics, many viewers called up NBC and demanded, "Where's my game show?" When a quarter of the stations carrying the show bailed on it, NBC freaked and scaled it back to an hour. But in October, after only 18 weeks, The David Letterman Show was canceled. On the air, Letterman took the news stoically: One morning, his announcer introduced him as "the man who's being replaced by two game shows!" But backstage, alone in his office, Letterman was devastated. "He told me that would be the last time he'd ever work in television," recalls director Hal Gurnee. Letterman's dejection was alleviated for a fleeting moment when he received a telegram: "You have been a source of relief and inspiration for all of us," it read. "We are deeply upset that your show has been canceled." It was signed, "Martin Scorsese and the cast of Raging Bull." As usual, though, Letterman's happiness didn't last long. One day, while he and Markoe were on vacation in Antigua, he looked over at her as they sat on a pristine beach with turquoise water. "My life is a living hell," he said.

Fortunately, Silverman remained a fan; in his mind, The David Letterman Show was simply in the wrong time slot. When he heard Letterman was being courted by a syndicate company, Silverman paid him $20,000 a week to chill out for a year and guest-host a few times on The Tonight Show. The notoriously aloof Carson was never especially close with Letterman, but he had sent his protege a sympathetic note during the waning days of the morning show, and he recognized talent when he saw it. On November 9th, 1981 – in a prolonged delay designed to avoid scaring off affiliates who remembered the failed morning show all too well – NBC and Carson Productions announced the creation of Late Night With David Letterman.

The show would air Monday through Thursday at 12:30 a.m., with occasional specials every few Fridays, all aimed at young men. "There was very little late-night real estate with programming for that demographic," Silverman says. "Everything else was repeats and old movies." In a precursor to the way Jay Leno would bump Conan years later, Letterman's move to late night displaced Tom Snyder, the charmingly pompous host of the show already in that time slot, Tomorrow: Coast to Coast. When Snyder refused to move his show back an hour, he was canceled.

Once Snyder left 30 Rock, the staff moved from its small offices on the second floor to Snyder's more expansive ones on the 14th floor. While lugging some of Letterman's boxes upstairs, Elliott – a former Rockefeller Center tour guide newly hired as a Late Night runner for $200 a week – walked into the men's room. There, written on the mirror in lipstick, was a cryptic message from Snyder: "Into your hands . . . " Given Snyder's peculiar sense of humor, and the fact that he left the message in a bathroom, no one was sure what he meant. But to Letterman's crew, it was almost as if they were being handed a baton – and encouraged to run with it as hard and fast as possible. "Dave inherited a form," says Gurnee. "But from the beginning, there was a feeling of 'Hey, this is just television – let's do things we want to do. If it makes me laugh, it'll make other people laugh, too.'"

The plan from the start was to resurrect the morning show for a late-night audience, one more likely to plug into Letterman's offbeat humor. At that hour, Letterman knew, the viewers would be more geeky kids than harried housewives, which meant he'd be able to get away with even more than he had in the morning. He would bring back bits like "Stupid Pet Tricks," hire a staff of young writers who could tap into his sensibility and ask guests to not just plug their movies but to participate in sketches. If Letterman was going to flame out again, he'd at least do it his way.

"We were very intentionally trying to do the different thing," recalls Markoe, who agreed to serve as the new show's head writer. "The mainstream stuff on TV at that time seemed very used up to us." Although she and Letterman had broken up in the aftermath of the morning-show debacle, they had once again become a couple and, as Markoe says, doing the nighttime show "felt like manifest destiny to me – unfinished business."

The network's executives had no clue what they were in for, especially given the graveyard shift Letterman had inherited. At one meeting before the show aired, they presented Markoe with research suggesting that "Stupid Pet Tricks" would work better if the tricks weren't so, um, stupid. (A typical segment featured a pig wearing a Miss Piggy wig.) "You mean, do 'Stupid Pet Tricks' using, like, a horse that can count?" Markoe asked.

"Exactly!" the suits replied. Moments like that only served to reinforce Letterman and Markoe's belief that they should just ignore the rules and go with their co-medic guts. Still, there were plenty of rules. Since Late Night followed The Tonight Show, Letterman couldn't have a sidekick like Ed McMahon, and Paul Shaffer's band couldn't include a horn section like Doc Severinsen's. What's more, Letterman was told he couldn't book any of the old-school showbiz guests – the Don Rickles and Bob Newharts of the world – who were fixtures on Johnny's couch. To make sure the restrictions were obeyed, a Carson representative visited the set several times a week. "The Carson show also asked us very specifically not to replicate any of their signature pieces," Markoe recalls. "I remember thinking, 'So if we can't do "Stump the Band" or the "Great Carsoni" – what, oh what, is left for us to do?'"

In the end, though, the rules simply spurred Letterman to greater heights of absurdity: With few talk-show cliches to fall back on, he and his staff were forced to come up with something truly original. From the start, Dave made it clear that he wouldn't play characters, and he wouldn't wear wigs or mustaches. The writers also discovered that he found words like "pants" and "luncheon meat" hilarious, for mysterious reasons. "You learned early on that Dave wasn't interested in risque humor or anything that was really mean – unless it was someone who wouldn't hear about it, like the pope," recalls Meyer. "His orientation was toward the silly and confounding, as opposed to biting or trenchant. He wasn't trying to tear society down."

At 34, Letterman was a decade older than many of the writers, but with his helmet hair and his preference for jeans and Adidas, he came off like the oldest kid on campus. In those days, he wasn't as cranky as he would later become: He sat in on meetings with the writers and didn't flinch when staffers would stop by and plop down on the couch in his big corner office. Elliott – whose job was to get coffee and lunch for the staff – was shocked one weekend when Letterman and Markoe took him out to breakfast. "There was an accessibility there that started to end when the show took off," Elliott recalls. Letterman didn't have to be the grown-up; that role went to the preppy 47-year-old Gurnee, who had cut his teeth directing talk shows, and Barry Sand, a former SCTV producer. Yet for all Letterman's casual self-deprecation, the staff also learned that he was a tough and focused boss. When writers would hand him a list of monologue jokes, he would decisively check off the seven or eight he wanted that night. "I immediately saw a blazing intelligence in him," says Meyer. "It almost scared me. I'd never had a boss like that." If rehearsals for a comedy bit weren't going well, he'd shoot a what-the-fuck? glance at the writers watching offstage. At one point, as a Los Angeles Times reporter looked on, Gurnee announced that they were done rehearsing a particularly lame skit. "And not a minute too soon," Letterman grumbled openly.

Letterman was accustomed to people not getting his humor. In the office one day, he and Elliott were joking about something when a delivery man walked by, stopped, and accused Letterman of laughing at him. No, Letterman explained, he was just sharing a joke with his friend. The delivery guy didn't believe him and stalked off, furious.

Letterman turned to Elliott and shook his head sadly. "That shit's been happening to me my whole life," he said.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Culture Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.