The David Letterman Show No One Watched

Jamie Squire/Allsport/Getty Images
Jamie Squire/Allsport/Getty Images / Jamie Squire/Allsport/Getty Images

As Late Show with David Letterman winds down today with one final broadcast from New York, fans of the 68-year-old broadcaster are curious if he’ll ever consider another hosting gig. (Answer: possibly a podcast, but maybe not, because he’s not sure anyone listens to them.)

Whatever he decides, it’s unlikely Letterman would consider a return to one of his earliest television duties: trying to hide his exasperation for hosting late-night B-movies.

In the late 1960s, Letterman toyed with stand-up—a college-era appearance was witnessed by Jim Davis of Garfield fame—but by the early 1970s, Letterman had taken a "straight" position at Indiana’s WLWI and was assigned to a series of jobs that no rational person would ever connect to his sensibility. He hosted a children’s show, Clover Power, and delivered weather on weekends to tornado-plagued Indianapolis. Letterman could rarely play it seriously.

"Fifty-six [degrees] in Muncie, 52 in Anderson,” he’d say. “Always a close game.”

"[The people] got to know early on if they needed accurate weather information, they shouldn’t be watching me," he once told Larry King.

On Friday nights, Letterman began appearing in wraparound segments for Freeze-Dried Movies, a low-budget film showcase that aired so late (2 a.m.) the station really didn’t care what he did—and neither did Letterman. Regardless of what movie might be showing, the host would tell viewers they were watching When Godzilla Ate Detroit. In his second episode, he celebrated the show’s tenth anniversary.

The show’s first host, Jack O’Hara, told Indianapolis Monthly that Letterman eventually figured out how to superimpose himself over the movie to interact with it; he once re-scored a Western with Caribbean music. At the conclusion of the broadcast, he signed off by setting fire to a cardboard replica of the station’s building.  

Accounts vary of his patience for the gig, with Letterman hosting Freeze-Dried Movies for either just under a year or just over a week. Regardless, he would end up quitting WLWI because his bosses weren’t fond of his irreverent humor. Letterman headed for Los Angeles in 1975, where he reinvigorated a stand-up career that would propel him to a network presence that’s lasted, in one form or another, for 33 years. He spent many afternoons screening films starring his guests, some of which were undoubtedly no better than When Godzilla Ate Detroit.