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Stupid Sidekick Tricks: David Letterman’s 10 Best Second Bananas

From ‘Bud’ Melman to Dave’s mom, the supporting characters who made the show — and the host — funnier

Sirajul, Mujibur and David Letterman

Sirajul, Mujibur and David Letterman on 'Late Show with David Letterman.'

CBS/Everett

On a recent Late Show, David Letterman was setting up a highlight reel featuring the exploits of his longtime stage manager Biff Henderson. Dave called his burly, grey-haired friend "a real fixture on the show — and like so many other fixtures of this show, more beloved, really, than me." (Cue President Barack Obama quipping that "Mainly, I came by to say goodbye to Biff and Paul [Shaffer].")

Whether or not that's true, the comment reinforced the fact that when Letterman signs off on May 20th, we're not just losing him; we're also saying goodbye to a deep bench of fantastic sidekicks, second bananas and average Joes (and/or Sirajuls) who've played the straight man and taken part in the host's shenanigans for the past 33 years. This list honors 10 of the most enduring supporting characters in the Dave-iverse — everybody from a brusque cue-card holder to our best Bud.

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Sirajul, Mujibur and David Letterman on 'Late Show with David Letterman.'

CBS/Everett Collection

10

Mujibur and Sirajul

Mujibur Rahman and Sirajul Islam became minor celebrities thanks to the fact that the souvenir shop where they worked was right next to the Ed Sullivan Theater, and the comedic appearances of the Bangladesh natives with broken English always ran the risk of bordering on xenophobic. But Letterman immediately latched on to Mujibur and Sirajul's naïve sweetness, doing countless segments with the two men and even sending them on the road with a camera crew. The laughs that came from their awkward demeanor were always mitigated by Dave's playful affection and the audience's clear love for the guys. Sirajul once explained it like this: "People like us as their family."

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Sirajul, Mujibur and David Letterman on 'Late Show with David Letterman.'

CBS/Everett Collection

9

Tony Mendez

For years, "cue card boy" Tony Mendez's shtick on Dave's show was that he was hilariously, unreasonably surly about everything. ("I look like a jolly person," he said, smiling, while looking straight into the camera during his web series The Tony Mendez Show. "But inside, I'm filled with rage.") He'd had a very different life before becoming the host's punching bag: Born in Cuba in 1945, Mendez was a ballet dancer, and he'd appeared in Broadway shows like Pippin. But after joining Letterman's NBC show in 1993 and then accompanying him to his CBS gig, the stagehand started to appear onscreen more often (see his oddball "broken glass in the chocolate" skit), especially as Dave seemed to enjoy belittling the man. Unfortunately, the story does not end happily: The comedic tension Mendez brought to his bits spilled over into real life when he was fired from the show in 2014 after assaulting staff writer Bill Scheft during an argument.

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8

Rupert Jee

In 1993, the co-owner of Hello Deli on 53rd Street learned that his new neighbor would be interviewing him as part of a get-to-know-you segment for the show. "I was so frightened about being on television, I was just hoping that they would forget about me," Rupert Jee later recalled thinking. No such luck: He soon became a staple of the show, and an example of the somewhat warmer, more amiable vibe that the Late Show had over Letterman's Late Night tenure. The host's favorite trick was to have Jee do remotes in disguise while he gave him instructions on what to say to strangers via walkie-talkie. But the best bits were simply Dave shooting the breeze with the shy, personable man, encouraging him to take a lot of unsolicited business advice. (For the record, installing the Slurpee machine was a great idea; giving out free hot chocolate in the winter, less so.) During his final appearance, Jee even got his own Top 10 list — a fitting way for the Hello Deli proprietor to say goodbye.

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Sirajul, Mujibur and David Letterman on 'Late Show with David Letterman.'

CBS/Everett Collection

7

Pat Farmer and Kenny Sheehan

Sure, it's a cheap, dumb joke — but it's a great cheap, dumb joke. Late Show stagehands Pat Farmer and Kenny Sheehan were just regular-looking dudes without much personality. So how did Dave turn these guys into supporting-player MVPs, you ask? By having them read interview transcripts from The Oprah Winfrey Show in their flat, dry style, and the result was a recurring bit that somehow never got old. The contrast between the daytime-TV superstar/megamogul's super-charged enthusiasm and the duo's gloriously deadpan delivery perfectly mocked Winfrey's cloyingly consistent sunniness. And Kenny's ever-present cigarette, dangling just so from the corner of his mouth, only underlined how little guys like him cared about celebrity nonsense.

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Alan Kalter on 'Late Show with David Letterman.'

6

Alan Kalter

With his bold, slightly self-mocking voice, announcer Bill Wendell was instrumental in establishing the brash, snarky tone of Late Night — still, the man who replaced Wendell after his retirement would ended up becoming a more central figure. Joining the Late Show in 1995, Alan Kalter wasn't simply the guy who introduced Letterman every night. With his stentorian voice and stiff demeanor, Kalter seemed like Central Casting's idea of an old-school radio broadcaster, which only made his bits that much more off-the-wall and fun. Kalter escaping the Ed Sullivan Theater, Shawshank Redemption-style, is an all-time highlight, but we really love "Alan Kalter's Celebrity Interview" in which the big name he'd booked for the segment was the exact same star Letterman had just interviewed on the show. That would set the announcer off into a rage spiral; anybody can say, "Bite my junk, suck-rod," but only Kalter could make it so consistently hilarious.

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5

Biff Henderson

From the beginning of Dave's late-night career, James Jackson Henderson Jr. has been by his side, serving as the show's stage manager. But more importantly, the man we call "Biff" has played the crucial role of all-encompassing good guy. Where other Letterman sidekicks are hapless, wacky, surreal or deadpan, Biff is winningly genial. Whether hanging out with the New York Yankees at spring training or visiting a tiny town in Idaho, he's brought a common touch to his taped segments that even our folksy Hoosier host couldn't match. Other people associated with the show are way cooler; Biff is the one guy you'd want to have a beer with.

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4

Dave’s Mom

If you're looking for the single most beloved Late Night/Late Show supporting player, stop here. With her petite frame, happy smile and big glasses, white-haired Dorothy Mengering (a.k.a. Dave's Mom) was the perfect embodiment of a mother: She clearly loves her son while politely tolerating his foolishness with the sort of doting affection only a parent understands. In a world where everybody refers to Letterman by the more familiar "Dave," Dorothy was the one person who called him "David," and it was sweet enough to melt your heart. Whether she was covering the Winter Games or simply checking in from her Indianapolis home every Thanksgiving, she conveyed an unassuming Midwestern earnestness that was endlessly disarming. Amidst the show's witty, edgy spirit, she provided the heart.

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3

Larry ‘Bud’ Melman

When Late Night debuted in 1982, the first person we saw on screen wasn't Dave but, rather, a disturbingly ordinary and unsmiling older man in glasses who wanted to welcome us (and warn us) about what we were about to watch. "I think it will thrill you," he said, eerily calmly. "It may shock you. It might even horrify you." That maniacally buttoned-down man, Larry "Bud" Melman, went on to become the show's de facto oddball, as if a character from a David Lynch film had wandered into the studio and taken up semi-permanent residence. One of the few Letterman sidekicks who played a fictional persona rather than himself, Melman was actually a clerk named Calvert DeForest before being discovered by Late Night writers Stephen Winer and Karl Tiedemann. Melman personified the show's after-hours, anti-showbiz aesthetic: Belting out the Entertainment Tonight theme or welcoming weary travelers at the New York Port Authority, he was marvelous anti-comedy before the term became fashionable.

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Chris Elliott on 'Late Show with David Letterman.'

2

Chris Elliott

Chris Elliott will always be most associated with Dave's show for his 1989 appearance where he tested two kinds of dog food — "I can't tell too much difference between the two," he nonchalantly reported — but the performer was a Swiss Army Knife of comedy, able to do just about anything. He'd come on Late Night as a guest but then pretend he was, say, Jay Leno, Marv Albert or Marlon Brando (the latter doing his "famous" banana dance). There was a terrific recurring segment called "Guy Under the Seats," in which it was established that Elliott lived beneath the audience bleachers, occasionally popping up to unleash some random madness. Mostly, though, the comedian provided Letterman's first late-night show with a consistent blast of irreverence laced with just enough anger and bite to leave you wary. During his final Late Show appearance, the host called him the "funniest man I've ever worked with." It's also possible he's the show's most underrated comic force.

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1

Paul Shaffer

The most visible member of the Letterman universe outside of Dave, the bespectacled bandleader has never really gotten his due. Sure, Paul Shaffer is an ever-joking, musically dexterous presence. But he's also a sublime mixture of Johnny Carson's sidekicks, combining Doc Severinsen's showmanship and Ed McMahon's backslapping shtick, with a twist of postmodern irony thrown in for good measure. Shaffer's genius is that he's both straight man and jester, providing whichever foil is needed at that moment. When Letterman's going off on a funny rant at his desk, Shaffer hangs back, adding just a bit of color in the margins. And when the host is flailing through a lame opening monologue, Shaffer's bizarre non-sequiturs have a habit of saving the day.

The two men couldn't be more different — Dave is proudly anti-glitz, while Paul is a well-connected insider — but the confluence of their two temperaments has given Late Night and Late Show its crucial glue. Behind those weird sunglasses is the mind of an underappreciated comic sensibility. We don't know how we're gonna make it without Letterman. But we'll really miss Shaffer, too.