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Top Ten Facts About The Late Show With David Letterman's Early Days

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After 30-plus years on late night television, it's funny to think that David Letterman started in an untested time slot with a show that essentially amounted to an experiment. Starting from that very first show on February 1, 1982, NBC's Late Night wound up defining much of the modern comedy landscape. Brian Abrams' e-book AND NOW...An Oral History of "Late Night with David Letterman" tells the story of those early days from the men and women who made them happen. Here are ten highlights.

1. The "Top Ten" List Started As a Cosmo Spoof...Or a Daily News Spoof...Or a People Spoof...

The origin of The "Top Ten" List has its own little Rashomon narrative. "If you Google this, you’ll find that I get credit," says writer Randy Cohen, "But it’s more complicated than that...One of these mornings, I had come in and talked about this thing I had seen in Cosmo. It was the 'Ten Sexiest Men Over Sixty,' and I thought this was hysterical...As I recall, it was [Producer] Bob Morton who said, 'Oh, we should do something like that on the show.'”

However, as Late Night writer Steve O'Donnell recalls, "I had seen a list of eligible bachelors. I don’t think it was in Cosmopolitan. That’s too cheesy. I think it was in the Daily News. And there were 10 bachelors, including [Bill] Paley, the CBS chairman who at that time was 84 years old. That amused me... I suggested doing it on a daily basis."

Meanwhile, producer Bob Morton has a different version: "There’s always been disputed credit as to who created the 'Top Ten' list. I had a copy of People Magazine, and I think they had done the 'Top Ten Sexiest Bachelors.' It was John Kennedy, Jr. or somebody. And I said to Steve, 'You know, we should do our own 10 best lists.'”

2. The First "Top Ten" List Was About Peas

"The first one we did," says Steve O'Donnell, "was one suggested by Kevin Curran, which was 'Top Ten Words That Almost Rhyme With Peas.' Whatever it was, you can at least see that the first lists were not a bunch of jokes about John Boehner and Harry Reid. They were supposed to be conceptual, this weird mixture." Here it is, from September 18, 1985:

The next nine were "Top Ten Heaviest Kennedys," "Top Ten Baseball Players with Funny Names," "Top Ten Furniture Favorites," "Top Ten Liquids," "Top Ten Cartoon Squirrels," "Top Ten Wiper Blades," "Top Ten Commercial Processes," and "Top Ten Pharaohs or Tile Caulkings."

3. Larry "Bud" Melman (Calvert DeForest) Was Discovered In a Student Film

Larry "Bud" Melman, portrayed by the sui generis Calvert DeForest, was probably the most beloved character in the history of Late Night. He would be given ridiculous field tasks to do or scenes to read, all of which inevitably went wrong. That DeForest even wound up on the show in the first place was a matter of chance.

Season one writers Stephen Winer and Karl Tiedemann had submitted a student film when trying out for the gig. "When we were doing [the student film], Calvert DeForest came at an open audition. There was nothing for him in the movie except background, but there was something about him that made us believe we could use this guy forever," Winer says. "When we had the job interview with Dave and [Co-creator] Merrill [Markoe], they were very complimentary of the film. During the course of that meeting, Merrill said, 'We’re looking for somebody like that little guy in your movie for the show.' And I said, 'That’s the guy you’re looking for. Trust me.'"

Larry "Bud" Melman wound up being a regular from the very beginning—he read the cold open of Late Night's first episode.

4. Calvert DeForest Kept His Day Job

According to Steve O'Donnell, "For the first three years of the show, Larry 'Bud' Melman had a day job at a methadone clinic as a receptionist. Finally, we just hired him full-time."

5. Bill Murray Was the Show's First Guest—And He Went Missing

Nerves were obviously bundled for Late Night's premier on February 1, 1982. The first guest, Bill Murray, didn't help calm everyone down. When it was time to start filming, he had completely disappeared. "We couldn’t find him," recalls Late Night talent coordinator Sandra Furton. "We basically put out an internal APB. Everyone looked in all the doorways, looked through all the rooms. The show was starting, and we found out that he had left the building. He came in through the 6th Avenue entrance—it was a building he was familiar with because of Saturday Night Live—and [talent coordinator] Cathy [Vasapoli] and I asked, 'Where have you been?' And he said, 'I had to go home and feed my cat.'"

6. Chris Elliot Started As An NBC Page

Writer and show regular Chris Elliott wasn't plucked from the Harvard Lampoon or SNL—he had his humble beginings as an NBC page. "He amused Letterman by giving him a tour of 30 Rock when Letterman was just setting up," says Steve O'Donnell. Letterman then hired him to be a talent booker. "Elliott’s job initially was to book the pet tricks—not to be a writer or be funny." He was eventually promoted.

7. During the Early Days, People Had to be Pulled Off the Street to Fill the Audience

Writer Max Pross recalls, "We were still dragging in people from the street to sit in the audience." Writers were given tickets to hand out. "The Ford Modeling Agency was down the street," says writer Tom Gammill, "and you could go there and give them to the models. After a while, they stopped giving the writers tickets to give to people."

8. Dave Started Throwing Pencils Through The Window Because Of Viewer Mail

Stephen Winer takes credit for this one: "One day there was a piece of 'Viewer Mail' that asked if the glass in the windows behind Dave was real. So I tried to find another level to it. So he just threw a pencil through the window. As I expected, it didn’t get a huge laugh, but he did it twice more that night and three times the next day. And he’d been doing it ever since."

9. Crispin Glover's Bizarre Appearance Was A Failed Joke

On July 28, 1987, Crispin Glover appeared in what was one of the most notorious interviews in Late Night history. Sandra Furton recalls, "We did the pre-interview with him over the phone, and, OK, he’s a bit odd-looking but you didn’t expect him to behave so erratically when he went out on stage. But he did. He wasn’t answering any of the pre-interview questions and went off on this whole tirade...And then he ended up doing that karate kick. It’s really one of the first times that David cut to break and didn’t even say goodbye. We just escorted [Glover] off of the set.'"

While rumors spread that Glover had been on drugs or was experiencing a psychotic episode, the real explanation is far more benign. As he was being escorted out, Furton says he was apologetic, telling her, “Oh, sorry, I was just trying to do something funny.” Turns out he appeared "in character" (without telling anyone beforehand).

10. Conan O'Brien Was Turned Down For a Writer's Job

As Steve O'Donnell tells it: "It came down to hiring one of two writers in contention: a guy named Boyd Hale from Oklahoma or a guy [from the Harvard Lampoon] named Conan O’Brien. Letterman was like “Ah, geez, we’ve got so many Lampoon guys. They’re both funny. They’re both great.” There was a recommendation for both. The Oklahoma guy showed a lot of verve and determination, including making a tape at the time, which was harder then than it is now. So we passed on Conan."

Conan eventually landed a job on Late Night, albeit one with a higher profile.

For more Letterman history, go get Brian Abrams' e-book AND NOW...An Oral History of "Late Night with David Letterman".

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The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before he was called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior, in 1980, to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their original poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and said that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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