It’s no secret to anyone who’s a fan that David Letterman is a huge car-racing enthusiast. For the past 20 years he’s been the part owner of an IndyCar team (now called Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), and he has often compared his Late Show to a finely tuned race car, with himself as the driver and his staff as the pit crew that makes it run. They install the engine, adjust the aerodynamics and the fuel flow, do everything the show needs to run perfectly. “Every day I’m given the elements of a great car,” he told Charlie Rose in 2011. “And then I go out there and put it in the wall.”
As the checkered flag drops and the Late Show enters its last lap, we spoke with several of these longtime staffers about the show, the genius of Letterman, and the end.
Worldwide Pants CEO Rob Burnett (with Letterman since 1985): “What I love about Dave, the things I’ll really take away… Let me put it this way: Dave thinks things don’t go well much more than he thinks things do go well, and often that is very entertaining. I remember one time when I was head writer and a piece hadn’t gone well. I came to his desk during the commercial break, and he says to me, “Listen — I want you to go out and get some Hefty bags. The big boys — the 50-gallon kind. I need you to take two of those, fill them both with goat piss, and break them both over my head.’ He was very specific: ‘I need the big ones. The 50-gallon kind.’ Another time I remember him saying, ‘Listen, you got golf clubs upstairs? I want you to go get some golf clubs, get a nine-iron, a Titleist with the graphite shaft, and come down here and give me a full swing in the nuts. Just take my lights out.’ The fact that the guy could specify a graphite shaft at that moment made me so happy.”
Executive Producer Jude Brennan (with Letterman since 1980): “Dave has a very focused idea of what he wants, and we don’t always know what it is. And that can be challenging at times. If he ever said, ‘You did a great job,’ I would know that he was dying.”
Director Jerry Foley (with Letterman since 1993): “He’s an excellent editor of comedy. An enormous number of options have to be put in front of him every day. He’s ruthless. It’s like fracking: You’re pumping out an amazing amount of material.”
Burnett: “If he says something is OK, that’s like fireworks — that’s the best you’re ever going to get. I think that’s part of what makes him great. As a writer on the show, you learn very quickly to throw out the first 30 takes. All the obvious takes are out. And that pushes things to a great place.”