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How David Letterman Reinvented TV

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The taping of the first show, on Monday, February 1st, 1982, was under way when Gurnee received an urgent message from one of his crew. Bill Murray, Late Night's marquee first guest, was scheduled to sit down next to Letterman, and no one knew where he was. Running backstage with only minutes to spare, Gurnee found Murray tucked away in a soundproof room, laughing hysterically at the idea of keeping Letterman waiting. Pissed off, Gurnee grabbed Murray and practically threw him onstage. He should have known to expect a few surprises. The previous Friday, as Letterman and Markoe were preparing to leave to shoot a remote segment, Murray had popped into the office to work out his routine for the show. The star took over a conference room, replaced the fluorescent bulbs with candles, and ordered in bottles of Aquavit. "We tried to throw around ideas," recalls Morton, "but it basically degenerated into a drinking party."

The loony bit that ultimately emerged from those brainstorming sessions staked out Late Night's nonconformist turf. When Murray finally settled into a seat next to Letterman, he accused the host of mind control ("I wish you would quit trying to run my life, Dave – you can't play God with people!") and threatened to strangle him. Later in the show, he pulled a crew member onstage and made her do jumping jacks along with him to Olivia Newton-John's "Physical." (As the bit ended, the stage went dark and the audience heard Murray yell, "I'm hurt! I'm really hurt!") All of it was a bit too spontaneous for Letterman, who seemed uncomfortable and was seen grimacing on the sidelines during the "Physical" segment.

The rest of the first show was equally eccentric and awkward, at times just above the level of a high school production. The monologue was brief (Carson's people didn't want Letterman doing any topical jokes), the "Top 10 List" didn't exist yet, and a science experiment with Don Herbert, TV's "Mr. Wizard," went on far too long. For no explainable reason, the show ended with a young comic named Steve Fessler reciting aloud the script of an obscure Bela Lugosi movie, Bowery at Midnight. "The audience didn't know what to make of it," recalls Jim Downey, a former Saturday Night Live writer watching in the audience that night.

As flawed as it was, though, the launch revealed Letterman's ambitions – and pinpointed a sensibility very different from that of The Tonight Show. It was impossible, for instance, to imagine Johnny's audience knowing what to make of the opening: an hommage to the original film version of Frankenstein in which DeForest stood alone on set, engulfed in darkness, warning viewers that what they were about to see "may shock you – it might even horrify you!" On the third night, after baseball great Hank Aaron chatted with Letterman, a camera followed him backstage, where TV sportscaster Al Albert conducted a post-interview chat with Aaron about how it had gone. (The layout of 6 A made it easy for Gurnee, a fast-on-his-feet director, to dispatch handhelds all over the studio.) Aaron went along gamely, but still seemed befuddled by what was transpiring.

The reviews were mixed – "Much of Letterman's first week did not jell," The Los Angeles Times scoffed – but the show drew 1.5 million viewers, 30 percent more than had tuned in for Tom Snyder. The staff was elated. "From the first night, it didn't feel tentative," recalls Gaines. "It felt like, we were finally in the right spot, at 12:30, where it made sense." In a sign of things to come, the only one not thrilled was the host. "Dave could see all the flaws in the first show," says Gurnee. "Usually you forget a show immediately. Dave doesn't." In a practice that would become routine and fuel his self-flagellation, Letterman began watching each show after it aired and dissecting what worked – and what didn't.

From the start, the key to the show's success was the tight bond between Letterman and Markoe. Newly reconciled, the couple moved into the Surrey Hotel, off Fifth Avenue, with their dogs Stan and Bob, and resumed their business and personal relationship. It wasn't always easy: "For all the time we worked together, he was continually worried that things weren't funny enough or perfect enough to avoid cancellation," Markoe says. "He was terrified of getting canceled again."

To the staff, Letterman and Markoe seemed like "one mind," according to Elliott. Both had sarcastic sensibilities and a need to disembowel the showbiz world around them. Walking to work with Letterman or simply flipping through the Manhattan phone book, Markoe took note of odd stores – ones that sold only lampshades or mattresses, or restaurants with signed celebrity photos in their windows. Then she and Letterman would return with a camera crew to film Dave interacting with the owners.

Those segments, called "remotes," wound up defining the show as much as Shaffer's smoky, organ-shuffle theme. The show's first week featured a classic remote called "Alan Alda: A Man and His Chinese Food," in which Letterman interviewed the owner of a restaurant that sported a photo of the M*A*S*H star in its window. "He like a string bean," the owner told Letterman with apparent pride. In another remote, Letterman kept asking the owner of a place called Just Shades what the store carried. "What can you get in here?" she replied, her exasperation mounting. "Only shades. That's why our name is Just Shades." TV audiences weren't used to seeing such unconventional bits, and neither were the baffled store owners. "What is this?" they would ask Gaines, who had to get them to sign release forms. "Who are you and what is happening?" Letterman, who spent the first few months alternating between tweed jackets and sweaters, quickly discovered that the jacket-and-tie look ultimately served him better. During the shooting of one remote, Markoe turned to Elliott and said, "Dave can get away with anything he wants now that he's wearing a jacket and tie, because he looks respectable."

Looking back at the early remotes, it's easy to see some of the origins of reality TV: regular folks put on camera and turned into stars. (Late Night's first-anniversary show featured a red carpet with many of the shop owners Letterman had interviewed.) Even their animals were treated as celebrities. Elliott was handed the responsibility of auditioning critters for "Stupid Pet Tricks." Since Late Night was produced on a fairly low budget, the audition space was a ratty room above a porn theater in Times Square. "People would drive in from Westchester with their dogs, and were totally suspicious from the start," Elliott recalls. "Man, did I hate that job. That was a shitty job." The owners seemed a little sad or desperate, and the pets . . . well, if they couldn't do a trick, they at least had to blunder it in style, just like Calvert DeForest."

DeForest had been hired after two Late Night writers submitted a student film starring the unmarried Brooklynite. Markoe was immediately taken with him, hiring him for bits and renaming him Melman. (The new moniker was an amalgam of a nonsense word Markoe and Letterman would say to each other – "melman" – coupled with a nod to one of the Watergate conspirators, Egil "Bud" Krogh Jr.) From the debut, DeForest became one of the show's leading lights of absurdity, a seemingly clueless every-schlub stumbling his way through new-product parodies ("Toast on a Stick") or plugging the fictional "Melman Bus Lines." "Calvert was magic, whatever he did," says Morton. "It was second nature for him to fuck up. He couldn't throw a ball. We wanted him to do a piece as Roy Orbison, but he didn't know how to strum a guitar."

Whether or not DeForest was in on the joke was never clear, and at times the skits bordered on cruel. But cast members insist that DeForest didn't mind: He'd always wanted to be famous, and now he was. (He did, though, keep his day job at the rehab center, since it paid benefits.) DeForest had what Markoe calls "that famous and beloved disconnection from the actual content of any words he was reading out loud, and that made it all seem perfect to us. 'Odd' would get you on our show faster than many other qualities."

"Odd" also extended to the guests booked in the early months. Given the laws laid down by Carson, Late Night was forced to settle for a parade of outcasts and eccentrics who helped give the show its crazy-universe personality. On any given night, you could stumble across the gay British writer Quentin Crisp; the intense and troubled author of Being There, Jerzy Kosinski; or a little-known journalist like Jon Alpert, who showed gripping footage he'd shot of El Salvadorian guerrillas attacking villages. Even the big names were hardly that: Milton Pitts, Ronald Reagan's barber, brought along a few locks of the president's hair (un-colored, he claimed), and former Watergate henchman G. Gordon Liddy expressed little but contempt for Letterman during their awkward chat. As house drummer Steve Jordan recalls, "There were several days a week where it was like, "Who is this person? How'd they get on this show?'"

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