|Newsweek - David Letterman Article
The band slides into the usual brassy intro, the camera zooms in on the standard desk-and-couch set. Then the announcer
gushes: "It's 'The David Letterman Show...Live!...with regular guests Edie McClurg, Valri Bromfield and Paul Raley...and
special guests Hester Mundis, Rich Hall, Wil Shriner, Esther Satterfield and the Carkuff family!" Huh? Who are these
people -- and what are they doing on daytime talk show? Unlike Merv, Mike and Phil, comedian David Letterman is depending entirely on noncelebrities to lure housebound America to his new 90-minute five-mornings-a-week program.
NBC is talking an even bigger gamble. It is the first network in years to turn over a fat chunk of daytime to a comedy-oriented gabfest, betting on its hunch that post-breakfast viewers want an alternative to the likes of "Search for Tomorrow," "Tic Tac Dough" and reruns of "My Three Sons." The result is a laudable, if somewhat erratic, TV departure. In its best moments, "The David Letterman Show" exudes the inspired satirical mischief of Martin Mull's "America 2Night" along with a refreshing whiff of the late Ernie Kovacs. 'A Bummer': Consider Letterman's repertory company.
Edie McClurg, who calls to mind Kate Smith on Quaaludes, plays "Mrs. Marv Mendenhall," the show's chirpy "household hints" expert. How do you freshen up a room that's gone stale from too much air freshener? "Old fish and garlic are good,"
bubbles Mrs. Marv. "Also burnt cauliflower." Valri Bromfield is cast as "Debbie Smith," an addlepated teen-ager who, reporting on her trip to Kenya, complains that "the girls all wear cornrows just like Bo Derek...a bummer!" Then there is
Paul Raley as "P.J. Rails," a former FBI agent who reports that "J. Edgar Hoover is still communicating to me through the
lyrics of Helen Reddy." Rails sees conspiracies everywhere. He even has photographic evidence placing NBC sportscaster Joe
Garagiola at the scene of every major disaster in the last 30 years, including "the wreckage of Glenn Miller's plane and the
first Beatles' concert."
Gigs: It is host Letterman, however, who keeps things percolating with his easy blend of boyish charm and trigger-quick ad libs. The 33-year-old comic caught the nation's eye by presiding over "The Tonight Show" more often than anyone but Johnny Carson himself. With his 30 guest-host gigs, Letterman was touted as the top contender to replace Carson permanently until Johnny agreed to stay for three more years.
Both Carson and Letterman possess the same effortless wit, but David seems closer to his audience. Roaming the house with his mic last week, he playfully asked a burly visitor from Texas to go out for some coffee. Sure enough, one hour later, the guy happily returned with a full tray, receiving applause and a tip from Letterman. To assure home viewers that there was nothing better going on down the dial, he hauled out a portable TV and reported: "There's an 'Alice' rerun on Channel 2...I think they found something in Mel's stew...The Lone Ranger's on 5...Uh oh, here's Dinah cooking an omelet." So far, Letterman's uncelebrated and determinedly eccentric guests, such as the woman who raised an ape in her apartment, have almost made one pine for Charo. Yet what other daytime host would return after a commercial break with the news that "the mayor of New York was just here nude"?
David Letterman looks like the sort of guy who grew up in, say, Indianapolis (where his father probably was a florist and his
mother a church secretary), who married his college sweetheart while attending, say, Ball State in Muncie and who ended up as a State Farm insurance agent in Terre Haute. All of that is true, except that Letterman passed up insurance for broadcasting. During seven frustrating years in Indianapolis radio and TV, he was alternately cast as a weekend weatherman
("I livened things up by predicting hail the size of canned hams") and as host of a kiddie show, a late-night movie series and a call-in radio program. "For five hours each day," he says of the last job, "I handled calls from people who were certain the Commies were behind the rain." His standing in town hit its nadir when he announced that Guam had just purchased the city's tallest monument because it resembled an asparagus -- Guam's "national vegetable."
Air: In 1975, Letterman grew a beard, packed his beloved Chevy pickup and headed for Los Angeles. His improvisational
routines at the Comedy Store won him writing assignments for Jimmie Walker, John Denver and Bob Hope and, shortly
thereafter, his first booking on Tonight. Carson, perhaps recognizing his own younger self, invited the comic over to the
couch, a gesture the grateful Letterman calls "this industry's instant stamp of approval." Things went less smoothly when
Letterman literally ran into NBC president Fred Silverman in the men's room at an Anti-Defamation League luncheon. After
stepping all over Silverman's shoes, the flustered Letterman bolted the room -- leaving his future boss's hand shaking empty air.
Despite the debacle, the head of NBC is so high on Letterman that he has guaranteed his show a 26-week run. "It is going to capture audiences where tired game shows couldn't," Silverman recently told the network's affiliates. Privately, however, he seems to have doubts whether daytime America will cotton to -- or even understand -- Letterman's subtle parodies. One NBC insider confides that Silverman wants the program to become "folksy and family, a kind of Arthur Godfrey for the '80's."
Get the Ax: That desire has already trigged some backstage sparks. Letterman had planned to open his first week with a
"Cancellation Sweepstakes," in which he would invite viewers to guess the exact date on which the show would get the ax.
Silverman killed the idea. Letterman accepted that decision -- but it also gave him another idea. During some future show,
he intends to select several members of his studio audience and dispatch them, with the camera following, to Silverman's office down the hall. Explains Letterman with an impish grin: "I want them to meet the man who has given us 'Sheriff Lobo'
and...Gee, what was that other one? Oh yes, 'My Sister the Tuba."
|"David in the daytime"
By HARRY F. WATERS
|Late Show With David Letterman Webpage>|
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|July 7th 1980|
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