How David Letterman Reinvented TV

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By the end of its first year, Late Night was still a cult hit, drawing only a million viewers a night. A-list guests remained elusive. But a few big names had taken notice. At a grocery store on New York's Upper West Side, Elliott ran into Mark Hamill, then at the height of his Star Wars fame. Hamill not only recognized Elliott but admitted that he'd been videotaping Late Night off his TV from the very start. Hamill was so worried the show would get canceled – "It was so far ahead of the curve," he says now – that he wanted to make sure he had his own copies. Later, when Late Night researchers needed a list of every "Viewer Mail" segment, they turned to Hamill, who had maintained meticulously annotated notebooks of the sketches on every show.

Backstage, though, a major change was taking place at Late Night. A few months earlier, Jim Downey, a former SNL writer, had signed on as head writer. Markoe says she wanted to spend more time shooting remotes, but the unspoken reason was that her and Letterman's relationship was again suffering. "I thought Jim could deflect and diffuse some of it, and I could operate more covertly," she says. "I had some misguided notion that if I wasn't in the line of fire quite so much, and wielding quite so much power, Dave and I would be happier as a couple."

The pressures had been building all year. Domestic life at the Surrey wasn't any easier. Markoe would read rewrites of skits to Letterman while he was in the shower, and he would make his displeasure clear in no uncertain terms. "Dave had no problem telling me when he didn't like something," she says. "He would just glare or turn red or tell me that thing we were planning was 'laugh-free.' Sometimes that sentiment was perhaps phrased a little spicier. He was very comfortable being blunt with me." When living with the host got particularly stressful, Markoe would flee to a hotel across the street in the middle of the night.

By the time Downey inherited Markoe's job that fall, Letterman was becoming more private and demanding, gradually morphing into the reserved and grumpy persona now familiar to millions of viewers. His interview skills were improving, and he knew how to emphasize his goofy inner self to comic effect, repeating silly phrases from skits, like "the world's biggest doorknob – it's just big," over and over. "He was half polished performer and half muttering weirdo," Meyer recalls fondly. But Letterman was hard on himself; one staffer remembers watching him flush his necktie down the toilet after what he considered a subpar taping. He grew bored with writers' meetings and eventually stopped going. Downey would sit in Letterman's office for hours each afternoon, trying to talk him into certain bits as the boss tossed around a baseball or threw pencils up at the ceiling. The idea of looking foolish on air terrified Letterman to the point that one of Downey's simplest ideas – to have Letterman pretend there was a wasp colony under his desk – was rejected outright. "It was pretty obvious what he wanted and didn't," Downey says. "There was no mystery to it. He would be happy with individual things, but he was never really satisfied."

By the time of Late Night's first-anniversary episode in early 1983, the show was still a year or two away from becoming a smash hit. But in a sign of things to come, Talking Heads appeared on the show – and asked to have their photo taken backstage with Letterman. "Oh, yes," Downey thought at the time. "We have arrived."

In the years that followed, Late Night lost much of the core talent that helped create it. By 1984, many of the original writers had left. Markoe departed in 1986 and broke up with Letterman two years later. Bill Wendell – the announcer who ebulliently introduced Letterman each night with lines like "A man about whom has been said, 'Huh'?" – succumbed to cancer in 1999. DeForest died in 2007 at age 85. Bullock, who had battled drug problems on and off over the years, passed away from throat cancer in 2008.

When Letterman left NBC for CBS in 1993, Late Night essentially became The Late Show. By then, his talent bookers could rope in any guest they wanted, and Shaffer's band was finally able to hire a horn section. Letterman is now said to earn about $45 million a year. But none of that would have been possible without the anything-goes innovation of the first year. Even though the original show is no longer on the cultural radar – it was only briefly in syndication, and the tapes are locked up in NBC's vaults – its impact remains profound nearly three decades on. Today, talk shows work off the model that Letterman, not Carson, built. "You see his influence in every talk-show host – Jon Stewart, Conan, Colbert, all those guys," says Kimmel. "We're all 100 percent guilty of stealing from Letterman. That show changed everything, and it changed the humor of the United States more than anything I can think of. We all got a lot cooler all of a sudden." Because of Letterman, celebrity is no longer treated with unquestioned reverence, the audience is in on every mocking joke and pop-culture reference, and self-knowing humor and showbiz sarcasm pervade the work of avowed Letterman fans like Tina Fey and Howard Stern. "As a kid I would watch The Mike Douglas Show, but it felt like a different world," says Apatow. "When Letterman was on, I thought, 'I know these people and this sense of humor – this is a world I have to find a way into.' There were six or seven people or groups who changed comedy in the Seventies and Eighties – Saturday Night Live, Monty Python, National Lampoon, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin – and Letterman is at the top of that list."

In retrospect, Late Night's triumph was both a miracle and a curse. Thanks to its success, the networks finally grasped there was a young, caustic demographic to serve, and in its wake, they greenlighted talk shows hosted by comics from the sharp and innovative (Stewart, Stephen Colbert) to the less so (Arsenio Hall, Dennis Miller). Yet rarely if ever did the powers in charge allow a show to run as amok as NBC did with the original Late Night, or bring in such a cantankerous, against-the-grain host to preside over the madness. Even now, watching any random episode from the show's first year – the wisecracking animatronic doll built to resemble Martin Van Buren, Elliott modeling a suit made completely of city trash, Letterman wandering backstage to see if missing guest Levon Helm was anywhere to be found – offers a glimpse into a revolution that actually was televised, if only briefly. Nearly three decades after the show first aired, those who took part in the birth of Late Night still remember it as a moment when the unthinkable seemed possible on network TV. "We were always willing to try anything," says Morton. "I've never worked on a show like that since. I wish I did."

This story is from the September 29th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

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