David Letterman’s caution in the name of comedy: My visit to the first ‘Late Show’ in 1993
So I guess this is how it happens: You do something long enough and you start being able to flash back on your own work. In 1993 I wrote to Late Night With David Letterman in the hopes of being able to get a ticket to one of his last NBC shows before he jumped to CBS, a move I was concerned would parallel with REM’s leap to a major label. Letterman wasn’t exactly Letterman then; on NBC, he was Dave. At CBS, he became Letterman, if you get my drift.
Instead, I landed one of the 440 tickets to that first CBS show.
In the ensuring years Letterman’s become a national treasure. Since the network jump I’ve paid little attention to his show; when he abandoned his silliest routines and traded spotlights on oddfolk like Harvey Pekar and Ostarro the Discount Magician for effusive celebrity guffaws, I lost interest. Generic Letterman wasn’t for me.
But that’s fine; give the people what they want.
Having landed one of those 440 tickets way back then, I took advantage of the situation: I pitched my attendance at the Boston Phoenix (pause for moment of silence for the departed) and editor Jon Garelick gave me one of my very first assignments to cover TV.
I’m still doing it today. Thanks, Jon … and thanks, Dave.
Here’s the piece I wrote:
Hey, I got tickets to the David Letterman show!
(The Boston Phoenix, September 1993)
Like an often-absent uncle, Letterman is just “Dave” in my household. And today, August 30, he has invited me into his home. I’ve watched Dave since 1983. I have earned this ticket. So standing on line, schvitzing in sunny, humid Manhattan as we wait to get into the first of his new CBS shows, the news that the fat lady behind me from Long Island “never watches his show – it’s on too late” nearly spurs me to violence. And it strikes me: are we going to have to share Dave now, with a bunch of people who don’t deserve him?
Quite probably. Dave is open for business. I expected CBS to be thoroughly unprepared for the arrival of Dave: the ticket department had no idea how tickets were to be doled out as recently as July, when I called to check on my request. And the Ed Sullivan Theater, where the Late Show is now filmed, had rats, not phone lines, until just a few weeks ago. But I forgot one thing. Dave is the boss.
He’s just letting CBS air his show. The ticketholders’ line had started forming at 12:30 that afternoon, and standby ticketholders had been waiting since the Saturday evening before, hoping to be one of the 440 selected by the efficient, scurrying, laminated-pass-wearing worker bees. CBS pages swarmed up and down the line, updating impatient ticketholders with tidbits:
“Once you get inside, you will have a limited time to use the bathroom, so go to the Roy Rogers across the street now.” Limousine chasers got their reward when Christie Brinkley and Billy Joel arrived and were thronged by television camera crews and thrill seekers in line. Next to me, last-minute alterations were being made as carpenters constructed wooden dollies in record time, then slid them into the air-conditioned building. A CNN camera filmed a posse of ticketholders waving their very important blue cards, like a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Paul Newman, a surprise pop-up in the first episode, wondering where the hell the singing cats were.
Once in the building we were held in winding queues as though waiting for the Batman ride at Riverside Park, then herded by yet more pages into our cushy, suede seats with a precision that would have impressed the Marines. While minions scurried to round up last-minute details – one assistant gasped, “I never want to do this again” – Paul and the rest of the CBS Orchestra, the World’s Most Dangerous Band fleshed out by a second guitarist and keyboard player, launched into a loud, tight version of “1999,” segueing neatly into the locale-appropriate “I Saw Her Standing There.”
Everything felt like the inside of a new car, fresh and spotless. At NBC, Dave’s studio held the audience on a tight incline of bleacher seats, leaving people blocked by lights and dangling monitors. At the Sullivan Theater, Dave’s desk sits higher than the first row. The stage is only three steps up from the audience, and though it looks spacious on television, those thousand-pound cameras teeter perilously close. One of the show’s writers, dressed eerily like Dave five years ago, even down to sucking on a cigar, took the stage and introduced us to the show, adding that we were very lucky to be witnessing television history. History? Phoo, we were witnessing Dave. And then Dave emerged jacket-less, striding onto the middle of the stage, looking thinner and handsomer in person than television would lead you to believe. He made a short speech, acknowledging much of what his writer had already told us, but he did not ask, as he does traditionally, if there were any questions or out-of-town guests – it seemed he just wanted to get on with the show. Once he departed, without so much as a countdown, Calvert DeForest (Larry “Bud” Melman) was guffawing from the iris of a huge black eye: “This is CBS.”
From there the roller-coaster never stopped and never had to. Controlled anarchy reigned, Dave wise-cracked, he stole an in-joke for the rest of the show from Paul Newman. While cameras rolled, all staff paused to watch the action, leaning pleased against theater walls. Dave’s assistant Rose twirled her skirts giddily. During the breaks they were all action: darting about to meet Dave’s changing coffee needs, to roll Calvert away, to set up Billy Joel’s equipment. This bustling activity seemed organized; no one ran screaming across the stage about last-minute changes, Dave never broke a sweat. From the start the Late Show never resembled a maiden voyage. Of course, Dave had taken no chances; two practice shows were taped to work out the bugs. Caution in the name of comedy seems to work for Dave.
As my friend and co-Dave ticketholder Valerie remarked, “It feels less planned on TV,” and she’s right. What makes Dave remarkable after 12 years is that though what you see on tape feels, as he would say, “slapped together,” Dave has it planned down to the last cigar puff. Of course you know putting together the Late Show takes massive manpower and endless energy. But Dave, our favorite uncle, knows how to make it all look easy.
And here’s the show: