YouTube
YouTube

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

YouTube
YouTube

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".

tv
nextArticle.image_alt|e
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
5 Bizarre Comic-Con News Stories from Years Past
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC

At its best, San Diego Comic-Con is a friendly place where like-minded people can celebrate their pop culture obsessions, and each other. And no one can make fun of you, no matter how lazy your cosplaying might be. You might think that at its worst, it’s just a series of long lines of costumed fans and small stores crammed into a convention center. But sometimes, throwing together 100,000-plus people from around the world in what feels like a carnival-type atmosphere where anything goes can have less than stellar results. Here are some highlights from past Comic-Con-tastrophes.

1. MAN IN HARRY POTTER T-SHIRT STABS ANOTHER MAN IN THE FACE—WITH A PEN

In 2010, two men waiting for a Comic-Con screening of the Seth Rogen alien comedy Paul got into a very adult argument about whether one of them was sitting too close to the other. Unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion with words, one man stabbed the other in the face with a pen. According to CNN, the attacker was led away wearing handcuffs and a Harry Potter T-shirt. In the aftermath, some Comic-Con attendees dealt with the attack in an oddly fitting way: They cosplayed as the victim, with pens protruding from bloody eye sockets.

2. MEMORABILIA THIEVES INVADE NEW YORK

Since its founding in 2006, New York Comic Con has attracted a few sticky-fingered attendees. In 2010, a man stole several rare comics from vendor Matt Nelson, co-founder of Texas’s Worldwide Comics. Just one of those, Whiz Comics No. 1, was worth $11,000, according to the New York Post. A few years later, in 2014, someone stole a $2000 “Dunny” action figure, which artist Jon-Paul Kaiser had painted during the event for Clutter magazine. And those are just the incidents that involved police; lower-scale cases of toys and comics disappearing from booths are an increasingly frustrating epidemic, according to some. “Comic Con theft is an issue we all sort of ignore,” collector Tracy Isenhour wrote on the blog of his company, Needless Essentials, in 2015. “I am here to tell you no more. It’s time for this garbage to stop."

3. CATWOMAN SAVES THE DAY


John Sciulli/Getty Images for Xbox

Adrianne Curry, winner of the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has made a career of chasing viral fame. Ironically, it was at Comic-Con in 2014 that Curry did something truly worthy of attention—though there wasn’t a camera in sight. Dressed as Catwoman, she was posing with fans alongside her friend Alicia Marie, who was dressed as Tigra. According to a Facebook post Marie wrote at the time, a fan tried to shove his hands into her bikini bottoms. She screamed, the man ran off, and Curry jumped to action. She “literally took off after dude WITH her Catwoman whip and chased him down, beat his a**,” Marie wrote. “Punched him across the face with the butt of her whip—he had zombie blood on his face—got on her costume.”

4. MAN POSES AS FUGITIVE-SEEKING INVESTIGATOR TO GET INTO VIP ROOM

The lines at Comic-Con are legendary, so one Utah man came up with a novel way to try and skip them altogether. In 2015, Jonathon M. Wall tried to get into Salt Lake Comic Con’s exclusive VIP enclave (normally a $10,000 ticket) by claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and needed to get into the VIP room “to catch a fugitive,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Not only does that story not even come close to making sense, it also adds up to impersonating a federal agent, a crime to which Wall pleaded guilty in April of 2016 and which carried a sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Just a few months later, prosecutors announced that they were planning to reduce his crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.

5. MAN WALKS 645 MILES TO COMIC-CON, DRESSED AS A STORMTROOPER, TO HONOR HIS LATE WIFE


Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Disney

In 2015, Kevin Doyle walked 645 miles along the California coast to honor his late wife, Eileen. Doyle had met Eileen relatively late in life, when he was in his 50s, and they bonded over their shared love of Star Wars (he even proposed to her while dressed as Darth Vader). However, she died of cancer barely a year after they were married. Adrift and lonely, Doyle decided to honor her memory and their love of Star Wars by walking to Comic-Con—from San Francisco. “I feel like I’m so much better in the healing process than if I’d stayed home,” he told The San Diego Union Tribune.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Courtesy of Shout! Factory
No Strings Attached: The Puppet Satire of D.C. Follies
Courtesy of Shout! Factory
Courtesy of Shout! Factory

At one corner of the bar, Jack Nicholson is seducing Margaret Thatcher. At another, Richard Nixon is reconsidering the sins of his presidency. Before the night is out, Sylvester Stallone, Oliver North, and Dan Rather will all make appearances, each sporting slightly exaggerated features and misshapen heads.

For two seasons between 1987 and 1989, a fictional Washington, D.C. bar was the setting for this unlikely assembly of political and entertainment figures cast in foam and orbiting around the show’s only regular human performer, actor Fred Willard. D.C. Follies might have been the most peculiar thing to come from the minds of famed television duo Sid and Marty Krofft, and when the hallucinogenic H.R. Pufnstuf is on their resume, that’s saying something.

A screen capture from the 'D.C. Follies' television series
Courtesy of Shout! Factory

The satirical, syndicated half-hour series might not have been paying licensing fees to the UK’s ITV network, but there’s a good argument for why they should have. In 1984, the channel began airing Spitting Image, a sharp, cutting take on world affairs created by Peter Fluck and Roger Law that used hypnotically repugnant puppets to represent political figures and members of the British royal family. The altered reality allowed for skewering, with jokes and actions that would have seemed too mean-spirited in live-action made permissible by the fact that they were embodied by living caricatures. In one sketch, then-Prime Minister Thatcher wondered why the poor didn’t just “eat their own bodies,” while newspaper employees at reputed tabloid outlets were depicted as literal pigs. At the height of its popularity, Spitting Image was viewed by 18 million viewers weekly.

Although other UK comedy exports like Monty Python's Flying Circus had found success with American audiences, Spitting Image was strikingly topical and resonated best with British audiences. A series of American-oriented specials for NBC that aired in 1986 and 1987 did well, but not well enough to commit to a series. At the same time, Sid and Marty Krofft—who had made their last name synonymous with Saturday morning kid TV culture in the 1970s—were working on a show that would emulate Fluck and Law’s approach. Thatcher would take a back seat to Oliver North, Dan Quayle, and other sometimes scandalous figures in then-contemporary U.S. politics. With Willard cast as the bartender, D.C. Follies got picked up in 90 markets for syndication beginning in September 1987.

The Kroffts had experience with parody puppets, having crafted Elvis Presley in felt as far back as the 1950s and mounting an elaborate live show, Les Poupées de Paris (The Dolls of Paris), that featured topless puppets. Not quite as appalling in appearance as the Spitting Image cast, the near-life-size foam stand-ins cost between $1500 and $3000 apiece. Political cartoonists like Bob Myers, who contributed to the New York Daily News, would offer a design that puppet makers could use as inspiration for a sculpt. People with easily identifiable features, like the drooping lip of Stallone or the shock of bright red hair sported by Jim Bakker's mistress Jessica Hahn, were ideal.

Unlike Fluck and Law, who typically targeted elected officials, the Kroffts had to be more cautious when it came to legal consequences. While political figures were largely powerless to complain or litigate over puppet counterparts, celebrities tended to exercise more caution over their likeness. D.C. Follies got away with using Woody Allen, Dolly Parton, and a host of others, but Frank Sinatra threatened to sue if he showed up cast in foam. The show eventually added a disclaimer at the end reminding viewers it was meant to be taken in jest.

There was also the challenge of remaining topical in a fast-moving news cycle. Unlike most scripted series, D.C. Follies was taped just three days prior to air to avoid time-worn jokes. Marty Krofft told the press that a puppet could be crafted in just 36 hours if needed, making it easier for them to comment on that week’s headlines.

D.C. Follies premiered the weekend of September 26 and 27, 1987, an auspicious debut for a syndicated offering: It was the same weekend Star Trek: The Next Generation began airing. Often on late at night and sometimes opposite Saturday Night Live, Follies invited a number of human guest stars—Martin Mull was the first—who tried not to be upstaged by the vaguely disfigured effigies surrounding them. Marty Krofft allegedly recruited some guests simply by threatening to make a mocking puppet of them if they didn’t agree to appear.

A screen capture from the 'D.C. Follies' television series
Courtesy of Shout! Factory

Each week, Willard—who was apparently hired for his ability to make conversing with puppets seem plausible—lent a sympathetic ear to the problems expressed by his satirical patrons. The blend of characters and real guests made for some odd pairings: The real Mike Tyson once appeared to box a puppet George Bush. Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund in his familiar makeup) saddled up to the bar to help plug a new Nightmare on Elm Street movie. Krueger's nightmare: Quayle becoming president.

Mostly, though, the puppets walked in and out of frame in non-sequitur sketches. John Madden might accost Pope John Paul II; Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford were seen playing Trivial Pursuit, with Nixon admitting his Presidential Library was a Bookmobile; Madonna, Sean Penn, Jesse Jackson, Ted Koppel, and dozens of others also passed through.

Follies earned a second season while still filming its first, but ratings were never strong enough to warrant a third. (Late last year, Shout! Factory released the full series on DVD.) The Kroffts went on to produce similar puppet productions like Red Eye Express and Krofft Late Night. Nothing, however, seemed to endure quite like Spitting Image, which ran for 12 years in the UK and is currently being considered for a U.S.-based revival. Based on today’s political climate, there should be no shortage of material.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios