How David Letterman Reinvented TV

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Once again, the show benefited from all the rules Carson had imposed. Letterman's talent bookers, desperate for acts, lined up a string of young stand-ups who turned out to be comedy's next generation. During the first year, Late Night hosted Seinfeld, Steven Wright, Richard Lewis, Pee-Wee Herman and Jay Leno. In those days, Leno – introduced by Letterman one night as "one of the best national comics working anywhere today" – was the ideal Late Night guest: pushy, sardonic and happy to throw darts at anything from airline pilots to the listings in TV Guide. The two, according to Markoe, were "never close – they didn't socialize, except maybe hanging around in the hall at the Comedy Store after performing. But Jay was a terrific joke writer and a hardcore smartass, and Dave was a big admirer of his act."

The show even mocked its own inability to land big names. One night, Letterman introduced Don Henley – and out came Ed Subitzky, a balding, overweight staff writer who answered all of Letterman's questions as if he actually were the Eagles drummer. At the end of the segment, Subitzky broke down and confessed "I'm not Don Henley – I'm just a sick man!" before running offstage. Then, a few weeks later, Letterman would repeat the gag all over again with another celebrity name. "The movie companies weren't on to what we were doing at the time, so they weren't giving us the actors," says Morton. "They'd rather do The Tonight Show and ignore us. We gave a lot of young talent a shot, because we were barred from having the real talent."

In a sign of NBC's commitment to Late Night, the show was renewed after 13 weeks. All it needed to really take off was a big media moment – and Andy Kaufman, the über-dweeb avant-comic, gave it to them on the night of July 28th. Kaufman was already a well-known commodity to Letterman. He had appeared on the morning show, doing a bit in which he claimed he was out of work and poor, thanks to leaving Taxi and getting a divorce; at show's end, he was seen bumming change off audience members. (His planned finale, which Letterman and his writers nixed, involved him pulling out a prop gun and shooting himself in the head.) "Letterman trusted him to do anything," says Morton. "He knew Andy was a pro and could get the laughs."

But Kaufman's previous bits were nothing compared with what happened that evening on Late Night. One moment, Kaufman and blockheaded wrestler Jerry Lawler were sparring verbally next to Letterman. Suddenly, without warning, Lawler jumped up and slapped the comic right out of his seat. Everybody in Studio 6A was stunned. NBC security guards rushed on to the set to restore order as Kaufman stood behind Letterman screaming curses and throwing coffee. "A totally shocking moment," recalls bassist Will Lee, who was watching from the sidelines with the band. "It seemed so real. It gave you a horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach – that this is sickening."

Like most of Kaufman's performance-art skits, his brawl with Lawler was bogus – but he kept it completely under wraps, even from the host. Letterman recovered on air, dryly noting that "what you can't do is throw coffee." Afterward, Kaufman popped his head into the control room and, in his best cowed-naughty-kid tone, asked for forgiveness. Letterman threw his jacket over his shoulder, walked past him and deadpanned, "Just remember to wear a tie next time." In many ways, the segment went against Letterman's instincts. "Dave didn't like surprises," recalls Mulligan. But Letterman knew he wasn't a first-rate interviewer – "It's just one of those shortcomings that you work on," he said at the time – so he welcomed guests like Kaufman, who could stroll onto the set and roar into bits without much prompting. "Andy got the genius exemption," says Mulligan. "Dave felt that if someone was a genius, you cut them more slack."

Since no one watching knew the brawl was a stunt, the Kaufman-Lawler "fight" made headlines – and thrilled early fans. One of the many nerdy kids who routinely stayed up past their bedtime to revel in the weirdness of Late Night was Judd Apatow, then a 14-year-old on Long Island. "I was always exhausted at school the next day," says Apatow. "But I didn't care if I was failing tests. It felt like there was something interesting that was going to happen on that show." And the night of the Kaufman stunt, it did. "I remember leaping up in my room at one in the morning with the biggest adrenaline rush," recalls Apatow. "I was dancing and screaming and laughing and wanting to talk to someone about it. I had trouble falling back to sleep after things like that." Another 14-year-old who stayed up late to watch was a kid in Las Vegas named Jimmy Kimmel. "Being one of the exclusive few who stayed up to watch it made me feel cool," Kimmel recalls. "It instantly made Carson feel corny."

Fueled by breakout moments like the Kaufman skit, Late Night began finding its viewers. On the street outside 30 Rock, DeForest found himself being approached for autographs. Nielsen ratings at the time indicate that only 20 percent of the audience was composed of 18-to-24-year-olds – but Nielsen didn't measure college TV sets, the crucial demographic. The proof of the show's burgeoning following arrived when universities began sending over boxes of T-shirts to the Late Night offices in the hope that Letterman would wear them on air. The show spoke to a generation raised more on mockery and pop culture than politics – and for whom SNL, then in its seventh season, had grown too mainstream and predictable. The show's late hour did more than appeal to college kids – it also insulated the show from network meddling. There were few commands from on high about content. Language was another matter: After the Kaufman sketch, NBC's standards-and-practices department sent a memo to Letterman spelling out a hilariously long list of expletives that had to be bleeped out. "Nobody at the network really cared," says Morton. "You never get a sense that anybody stayed up that late. They looked at it as bonus money." One of Elliott's jobs was to hand-deliver tapes of the previous night's episode to Jack Rollins, who was not only Letterman's manager but an executive at Carson Productions. Even he couldn't be bothered to stay up and watch. Late Night could do whatever it wanted, and did.

The creative freedom and initial success of the show did little to calm Letterman's fear of failure. Even good reviews didn't make him happy: When a staffer handed him an early, positive write-up, Letterman threw it across the room. His terror of screwing up, in fact, had started as soon as he landed Late Night: Although he'd chugged plenty of beer during his Sigma Chi days at Ball State University in Indiana, his new job prompted him to quit drinking entirely. "The show meant everything to him, and he didn't want to screw up his big opportunity," says Markoe. "He was just single-minded in this goal." Letterman's new preferred vice would be the occasional cigar.

That blend of self-control and high anxiety drifted down to the staff. Unlike SNL, also broadcast from 30 Rock, drugs and alcohol were rarely seen in the Late Night offices. "Drugs were just not a part of our scene," Meyer says. "Most of us were doing drugs in college, but we all realized what a phenomenal opportunity we'd lucked into. We didn't want to mess it up."

The show's schedule played into the staffs disinterest in excess. Everyone reported to work at 10 a.m., and the show was filmed – in real time – between 5:30 and 6:30 each night, after which most staffers would head home by 7. There were few, if any, all-night writing sessions as on SNL, and therefore no need for performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals. The office was so quiet after-hours that Elliott, then living with his parents, invited a high school girlfriend up one night to watch movies on a new technology called a Betamax machine.

The World's Most Dangerous Band, as Shaffer had dubbed his players, was another story. The musicians – especially Lee and guitarist Hiram Bullock – weren't averse to partying, and the scent of weed regularly wafted out of the band's dressing rooms, irritating the local NBC news reporters across the hall. (In this case, Letterman didn't mind a little hedonism: "I guess we thought it came with the territory," Markoe says.) Lee, dabbling in coke at the time, was thrilled to get a steady gig: "I called my drug dealer immediately – 'Just back the truck up and start unloading!'" When Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir appeared that April, the festivities continued offstage. "We partied together," recalls Weir. "Paul passed out on my floor one night. That was the Eighties. We were up all night, every night."

Yet when it came time to play, Shaffer and the band introduced a groundbreaking mix of classic rock and soul – a soundtrack now deployed by virtually every talk show. When Letterman interviewed Shaffer for the job and asked what he wanted to do, Shaffer had replied, "R&B." "We were carving new wood," Shaffer writes in his memoir. "We were breaking from tradition with a quartet whose music, unlike Doc [Severinsen]'s swinging band, didn't harken back to the '40s or '50s We looked back at the '60s and '70s for our inspiration."

Thanks to engineer Pam Gibson, the sound was unusually loud and crackling for TV. Word quickly went out that Late Night was the place to be; the list of musicians who appeared that first year included Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, Paul Simon and James Brown. For many musicians Late Night was a godsend. "Who else would have invited me?" recalls Bonnie Raitt, who had appeared only once on The Tonight Show. "It meant a lot to me at a time when I wasn't necessarily being paid attention to. It made me feel really hip. Dave was our counterculture guy. It was like one of our own got handed the keys."

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