The Early Days of 'Late Night With David Letterman'

Letterman
David Letterman, on the cover of "Newsweek" in 1986. Newsweek archives

David Letterman's 33-year run as host of Late Night with David Letterman comes to an end this month, with the final show taking place on Wednesday, May 20. So we dug into our archives for this February 1986 cover story on the longest-serving late night host in television history.

Steve O'Donnell, head writer of NBC's Late Night with David Letterman, is trying to explain his boss. He's having a hard time. He needs props. "Take the Giant Doorknob," he says, referring to a Late Night prop that is exactly what it sounds like. "Maybe in the 1930s some comic had a prop that was a giant doorknob, and his take on it was: 'WAAH! IT'S GOOFY!!' It's different with Dave. Here's a guy standing there on network television saying calmly, 'This doorknob is really large. It's much bigger than it ought to be. It's just plain big.' I don't know. Maybe every generation reinvents the wheel for itself. Or the Giant Doorknob."

This is glibness, of course, but he's made his point: In David Letterman, young adult TV viewers have found a comic temperament that matches their own—hip and ironic, at once silly and knowing. And in NBC's Late Night, they have found a home. Some 3.3 million people tune in four nights a week at 12:30 Eastern time, and half are between 18 and 34. They may lose a little sleep, but where else are they going to see Mariel Hemingway clean fish, or Tom Selleck stick his head in a tub of water and do motorboat impressions? On what other program are they likely to see the host—an apparently sane man in a nice suit and tie—covered with potato chips and lowered into a ton of onion dip?

A Hot Property

Even the staff tends to describe the show as "strange." But as it enters its fifth year, Late Night has hit its own goofy stride. Ratings reached a record high in mid-December and then a new one in January; three weeks ago the trade paper Advertising Age called the Letterman show "the hottest property in...late night," outpacing even The Tonight Show in ad sales. The writing staff, including Letterman himself, has won two Emmies in the last two seasons. The show has made a star of a 38-year-old former TV weatherman and stand-up comic, who only several years ago was convinced, after three successive flops, that he would never work again. It's also sparked an orgy of "time-switching" by VCR owners who regularly tape the show and watch it over the next morning's breakfast. And it has even done something fairly subversive, at least as far as television goes: It has altered forever the accepted notions of what a talk show is and does.

Consider this Great Moment in Late Night history:

The guest was Don King, who is probably as well known for his mile-high electrified Afro as for his career in boxing promotion. As King launched into his usual bombastic spiel, Letterman listened politely. But the first time King paused for breath Letterman leaned over and said: "Let me ask you something. What's the deal with your hair?"

The Letterman-King exchange violated every single rule of talk-show politesse. And it got a big laugh besides. All in all, a pretty good day's work for the people at Late Night.

It's 7 p.m. in the New York offices of Late Night, a half hour after the evening's taping, and Letterman has changed from his on-air suit and tie into what his assistant, Laurie Diamond, calls "Dave's real clothes": football jersey, warm-up pants and high-top athletic shoes. Contact lenses out, glasses on, cigar lit, he looks less like a TV star than the junior manager of a sporting-goods star. A cheesy looking étagère holds pictures of Merrill Markoe—the only woman on the Late Night writing staff and Letterman's housemate since 1977—and the couple's dogs, Stan and Bob. There are athletic paraphernalia scattered around everywhere—softball bats, a football, a lacrosse stick, a basket of baseballs—and approximately two dozen pencils stuck point-first into the acoustical tile ceiling directly over Letterman's head.

Letterman is talking about being covered with chips and lowered into a vat of dip. "I did mind doing it," he says. "I have a real low threshold of embarrassment." This strikes him as pretty silly, and he laughs. His intelligence is quick and playful; he sifts ideas as he goes, and frequently an absurdity drifts to the surface. "It may be hard to tell that I'm easily embarrassed from watching the show. Or it may be that I'm in the wrong line of work. But that sort of thing pierces the flatness of the television screen. It's great if you can get people to actually talk about something they saw on television. In the first years of television, that's all people did talk about, because there never had been television before. But now, heavens, we've just seen it all."

And seen it, and seen it. Talk to Letterman and his staff about the mass of TV, and the phrase "it's only television" comes up again and again. They're well aware that the sense of wonder that suffused the medium in the early days, when wild men like Steve Allen ruled, has given way to a snoozy familiarity. Among the Late Night staff, it's literally true that this familiarity has bred contempt. What they have done in response is energize the talk-show format by melting it down and recasting it in Letterman's own odd image.

Shifting the Balance

The first step was to take comedy and information, two commodities that coexist uneasily in many talk shows, and shift the balance firmly to comedy. That didn't happen quickly. At first Late Night tended to book serious guests like Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Letterman often found himself constrained to be a serious host. "It just didn't work," he says. "I'm not really comfortable as an interviewer, because that's not what I am." It took about two years for the scale to tip. Today, although Letterman has improved as an interviewer and can question almost anyone without the once obvious strain, "the priority is on comedy," says producer Barry Sand. "If we have a serious guest, it's somebody Dave can be funny off. If it's a funny guest, it's somebody Dave can help to be funnier." You are less likely to see Moynihan on tonight's Late Night than Alba Ballard, a lady who dresses her pet parrots in tiny hand-sewn costumes for no apparent reason. "The idea of it," Sand says, "is that if you've learned anything from the show when you go to sleep, we really made a miserable mistake." 

It's worth noting that Late Night comedy is an acquired taste, and not everybody gets it. In part, the split is generational. "I spent years watching talk shows and listening to references to radio stars and old big-band people that I never knew," says Markoe. "It seems finally only right that mentioning a rock and roll star's name wouldn't have to be preceded by a long explanation." Mostly, though, the style of comedy on Late Night is based on Letterman himself and his own comic take on the world: ironic and keenly observant, with a fine sensitivity to the absurd in the real. "We do a lot of what we call 'found comedy,'" he says. "Things you find in newspapers. Viewer mail. The fact that January actually is National Soup Month, so we're saluting soup all this month. I don't know if this stuff is more funny, but I do know that I feel more comfortable dealing with something that's actually there than with some lame premise we cook up."

Markoe calls the process "looking for the goofy edge to perceived reality." Needless to say, this is a tall order to fill. How do they do it? VOLUME, VOLUME, VOLUME. While Letterman functions as editor in chief and has the final word on everything, there are 12 other writers on staff. They spend hours every week combing newspapers and magazines, watching TV, tracking American culture at its silliest and most self-important. Although five of the writers went to Harvard, while Letterman attended Ball State University in Indiana, they otherwise tend to resemble him in background and demeanor. Also, height. "It's the tallest comedy-writing staff that's ever existed, I'm sure of that," O'Donnell says earnestly. Average height of a Late Night writer: 6 feet. Dave's height: 6 feet 2.

A Plastic Hatchet

Most important, the writers, like Letterman, love both silly props and sophisticated wordplay. Some of their best bits involve a hastily constructed prop and a lovingly written explanation. A visit to "Dave's Toy Shop" spoofs both the toy market and the chipper tenor of catalog prose: "THE WIFFLE AX," Letterman announces brightly, displaying a plastic hatchet punched full of holes. "Yes, at last, the same wonderful Wiffle technology that made living-room sports safe now does the same thing for mindless acts of childhood violence."

The second step in the evolution of Late Night was to rummage around through the history of the talk show, picking and choosing. From Johnny Carson, Letterman learned how to appear at ease under great pressure. Even now, he says, he's more at home in an empty radio or TV studio than in front of a live audience, and his on-camera command is hard work. From Steve Allen, Letterman and his staff chose to keep an incongruous mix of apparent normality and deep underlying weirdness. When the time came to start Late Night, recalls Barry Sand, Allen's image stuck in the mind: "A man in a suit and tie surrounded by madness."

Thus, over 650 shows, has Letterman come to do all these things, and more: spray-paint Bryant Gumbel's ankles orange. Award regular network exposure to Stupid Pet Tricks, like the ones in which a dog plays basketball or carries money to a package store and returns with a six-pack of beer. Throw 60-foot hand shadows on the side of the Exxon Building. Badger passersby with a bullhorn from a sixth-floor window. Crush a Smurf under a steamroller and a complete franks 'n' beans dinner under a hydraulics press. Then there's Letterman-as-victim: He's been covered in suet and exposed to small animals, zipped into a Velcro suit and flung against a Velcro wall, layered with Alka-Seltzer and lowered into a tank of water (a stunt that very nearly rendered Steve O'Donnell unconscious in rehearsal) and buckled into a NASA antigravity simulator.

Finally, Letterman and staff decided what to discard, and it was nothing less than the cardinal rule of the talk show: Show business itself is sacrosanct. Bandleader Paul Shaffer, formerly of Saturday Night Live, is a devastating living caricature of showbiz gush, oozing unction behind the keyboard, every third word out of his mouth a sober "marvelous." The show simply refuses to take show-business conventions at face value. Sometimes this means peeling back the video façade in unexpected ways—Letterman racing backstage to pelt production assistant Barbara Gaines with ice cubes or delightedly calling over a camera to get a shot of the hidden stagehand working the controls on a cheesy prop.

Showbiz Buffoons

More often it means giving a recalcitrant guest a hard time. The worst thing a Late Night guest can do is take himself seriously and expect Letterman to go along. This only annoys him. "We've all worked on talk shows where you have to play along," says segment producer Robert Morton. "There are things you don't ask." Not on Late Night. When model Cheryl Tiegs appeared on the show to push her line of Sears designer clothing, Letterman did the unthinkable: asked her if she actually shops at Sears, and then clearly didn't  believe her when she said she did. Tiegs was reportedly miffed. Speaking generally, Letterman says, "If the person seems defenseless, you have no business getting in there and hurting their feelings. But if the person seems to be an incorrigible show-business buffoon then I think they're a fair target."

Put all these things together, and what you end up with is not so much a talk show as a negative image of one—sharp where other talk shows are dull, testy where they are reverent. Maybe the best example of the strange relationship between Late Night and real TV is Larry (Bud) Melman, a nearsighted geezer who looks like the Michelin Man, sounds like Olive Oyl and periodically turns up as Letterman's stooge. Melman—actually New York actor Calvert DeForest—is so convincingly inept a creation that it's hard to believe DeForest is acting. Maybe he isn't. "We love to imagine people not quite knowing if what they see is a joke or not," says Steve O'Donnell. "It's that strange pleasure that comes from seeing network television do something that's hard to explain."

Letterman Fans wait outside the Ed Sullivan Theater for tickets to watch the first Late Show with David Letterman to air since Letterman's production company "World Wide Pants Inc." struck a deal with workers from the Writers Guild of America in New York January 2, 2008. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

The earliest recorded example of Late Night-style humor dates back to the late '70s when Letterman was a disc jockey at WBST, Ball State. Introducing Debussy's "Claire de Lune," he added: 'You know Mrs. Lune and all the little loonies.' A little primitive, but it showed promise. After graduating in 1970, Letterman spent five years kicking around Indianapolis radio and TV. He worked as an announcer and a weekend weatherman on local TV (once predicting "hail the size of canned hams"), all the while working up TV sitcom scripts in his bedroom. In 1975 he connected with a Los Angeles agent, packed up his pickup and headed west to be a writer. At their first meeting, his agent told him he was quitting the business. Letterman saw no choice but to stand up in front of an audience and perform.

His second Monday in town, at the Comedy Store's open mike night, "I got up and said from rote some stuff I had written that day. To dead silence." Things didn't click until he saw comic Jay Leno, now a frequent guest on Late Night. "I thought, 'Aww, I see, that's how it's supposed to be done,'" Letterman recalls. "It wasn't two guys go into a bar, and it wasn't bathroom jokes. It was all smart, shrewd observations, and it could be anything—politics, television, education. The dynamic of it was, you and I both understand that this is stupid. We're Jay's hip friends."

A Readiness to Bubble

Attitude firmly fixed, Letterman became a Comedy Store regular. In 1977 he was signed by the heavyweight management firm of Rollins, Joffe, Morra & Brezner, who also handle Woody Allen and Billy Crystal. They looked at Letterman's fast, reactive comedy style, and what they saw was TV. "The format was hard to guess, but the medium wasn't," says Jack Rollins. "David has a readiness to have things bubble out of him. That's an enormous strength in television, where everything is quick and short."

The process of moving Letterman into television, though, was a long helix of mixed luck. First came the ill-fated Mary, Mary Tyler Moore's "comeback" variety hour in 1978. It lasted all of three weeks, but got Letterman a shot on the Tonight Show. Regular exposure there led to a crack at an afternoon NBC show of his own, but Leave It to Dave never reached the air. Twenty-nine appearances as Carson's guest host gave rise to some flattering talk about Letterman being Carson's heir apparent. "But in order to do a good job hosting that show, you have to be as much like Johnny Carson as you can be," he says. "I didn't want to be the guy who was just like Carson. I wanted to have my own identity."

Finally, something solid, or so it seemed: In 1980 NBC gave him a midmorning talk show, promoted it as an innovation in daytime TV, and guaranteed it six months' run. With characteristic good cheer, Letterman looks back on this period as "falling down an endless shaft into the miasma." Original producer Bob Stewart left exactly four days before the premiere, leaving the production staff in chaos, and the network executives hated what they saw. "They wanted a service show," recalls Hal Gurnee, who was brought in to direct the faltering morning show and now directs Late Night. "They wanted Dave to do cooking demonstrations. And he resisted. He wanted to do a comedy."

Letterman won out, and the show eventually hit its groove, becoming something like what is now Late Night. But this was midmorning, and the ratings were awful. Letterman eventually won two Emmys, for writing and hosting. But in October, after four months on the air, his show was axed. "I was on a plane back to California," Letterman remembers, "and I was thinking, 'Now what do I do? Yeah, we won, but now what?'" It was a rough time. "He was pretty sure he would never work again," Markoe says. "He's a pessimist, and this gave him a chance to be really pessimistic."

But encouraged by a late flurry of support from critics and Letterman's small, vociferous audience—and worried by the interest of Group W in securing Letterman's services for an afternoon show—NBC stepped in with a one-year holding contract: For not signing with anyone else, he got $625,000. A little more than a year after the morning show went off the air, the network cleared Tom Snyder's dying Tomorrow show from the 12:30-1:30 a.m. slot and offered Letterman one more try. Late Night took the air on February 1, 1982. Standing backstage waiting to go on, Letterman thought: "Well, let's just try not to embarrass ourselves unnecessarily."

From the very first show—on which a rumpled Bill Murray led the audience in aerobics to the tune of "Let's Get Physical"—there was never any question that Late Night was where Letterman belonged. Today, by any standard, he is hugely successful: He earns more than a million dollars annually, routinely rejects commercial endorsements, considers offers for his first movie. Late Night has become so popular with advertisers that NBC has started using it to help move slower late-night shows: If the advertisers buy spots on Tonight, Saturday Night Live or Friday Night Videos in addition to Late Night, they get a break on rates. Even so, it wasn't until last year that Letterman began to think maybe people were actually watching out there. At a Bruce Springsteen concert last summer, he was astounded to hear Springsteen mention Late Night, and to hear "a significant number of people in the audience not boo."

Stay-at-Homes

In part this is wariness—Letterman is his own toughest critic, and the strongest praise he'll give Late Night now is that "it seems to be going reasonably well." In part too, it's a result of the fact that he doesn't get out much. He and Markoe don't care for the showbiz social circle: Their friends tend to be people from the show, and they spend their free time at homes in Connecticut and California, where he runs four to six miles a day when he can, reads and watches sports and bad movies on TV. Mostly, though, his reluctance to claim victory stems from the fact that it's only television. "We did a morning show and it didn't go well," recalls Gurnee. "And we were looking at the audience leaving and I heard him say: 'Boy, thank God I'm not doing brain surgery.'"

At 5:20 p.m. on a recent weekday Paul Shaffer and the band walk into Studio 6A at the RCA Building in New York. At 5:21 they kick into Sly and the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music," and then into Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride." At 5:29 Letterman walks in, grabs a hand mike and climbs up into the bleachers. "What a night," he intones. "Can you feel the excitement in the air? Can you feel the excitement? Well then, you're in the wrong place." A perfect one-beat pause. "Aww, come on folks, it was a joke. How much time we got? Thirty seconds?? I gotta go. 'Bye. Enjoy the show." And he disappears backstage, shrugging, into a sportcoat.

Seconds later, as Letterman walks back out to open the show, the crowd cheers wildly. This is the spot in the program where according to talk-show rules the host takes a moment to bask in adulation, perhaps mouthing a modest Thank you. Letterman stands alone at center stage wearing a skeptical squint, looking vaguely steamed, and what he seems to be thinking is: This is pretty silly. Let's get on with it.

This story was originally published in the February 3, 1986 issue of Newsweek, with the headline "A Fine Madness at the Midnight Hour."