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".