TV Guide - David Letterman Article

He had it all: The looks, the talent, the charisma. And let's face it -- an armadillo that drinks beer from a bottle is not something you see every day. As soon as the people in charge of "Stupid Pet Tricks" on NBC's Late Night with David Letterman heard about the armadillo, they knew they had to get him. They immediately called his owner in Georgia, but the owner had bad news. There'd been a party the night before. As always, the armadillo had been doing his thing, but this time he must have
had too much. He wandered off, never to return.

Another promising career over before it began. The show must go on, of course, and so it is that Late Night's quest for suitably stupid pet tricks is never-ending, as is the search for equally stupid human tricks. Also in constant demand are the human-interest guests (aka "civilians"), those otherwise average Americans with one peculiar passion that puts them into The Letterman Zone -- the lady who makes sculpture out of dryer lint, for example, or the lady who collects spark plugs and other objects she finds in turkey gizzards.

One of Letterman's talent coordinators was asked by a friend why the show's writers don't simply make up funny guests and have actors play them. Because, she answered, no writer could ever invent this stuff. Choosing the right guests isn't easy, since silliness is definitely in the eye of the beholder. Every week, an average of 50 telephone calls, 30 letters and 10 videotapes come in for "Stupid Pet Tricks" alone in addition to proud pet owners.

Susan Hall Sheehan, who books the monthly segment, hears from lots of high schools, humane societies, clubs and bars that have held their own stupid pet trick contest. "Oddly enough," Sheehan says, "the pets we're interested in usually don't win
first place." Video has replaced auditions as the major source of candidates, and some of the submissions are strange, to say
the least. Two college students once sent in a tape showing laboratory rats dancing to the tune of "A Bicycle Built for Two." The rats needed a little help staying on their feet, since they were dead.

Sheehan automatically rejects a trick if the pet seems not to be enjoying the experience. One gentleman who failed to get on dressed up in black tie and held his cat as if it were a violin; when the owner squeezed, the cat screeched. Humans are relatively free to abuse themselves once they sign a release.

When a guest appeared who stopped an electric-fan blade with his tongue, Letterman took the precaution of warning the
audience not to try duplicating the feat at home. He also had the guest explain how he'd painstakingly developed his talent for three years, beginning by stopping a desk fan with his finger.

Finding the civilian guests requires more research for the simple reason that those who believe they're absolutely perfect for Late Night usually aren't. The most successful guests are the ones to whom it would never occur to go on television -- looniness, the talent coordinators have found, works best when combined with a certain innocence. Letterman's staff looks for leads in supermarket tabloids, special-interest magazines and small-town newspapers -- Grit, which bills itself as "America's family magazine," is a favorite. The archivist of the Ripley's Believe It or Not museums has proved helpful (he recommended the woman who paints cobwebs,) as have such books as Roadside America, the Passionate Collector and
Carolina Curiosities. Reporters working the Charles Kuralt beat at local television stations send in their tapes, and plenty of eccentrics turn up on the public-access channels of cable-TV systems around the country.

Madeleine Smithberg, a Late Night talent coordinator responsible for civilian recruitment, also collects brochures from fairs and festivals, which she occasionally visits in person. She discovered the life-sized butter sculpture of race-car driver Bobby Rahal at the Ohio State Fair, for example, while a gourd festival in Mount Gilead, Ohio, yielded the Ritz Brothers, growers of gargantuan gourds. "There are a lot of gimmicky festivals," Smithberg says, "but this one was for real. People have a semireligious fervor about their gourds."

Potential guests sometimes tread a thin line between the charmingly eccentric and the truly crazy. One woman believed her cat spoke messages from God, although all God apparently had to say was "meow." Unlike professionals, civilian candidates aren't accustomed to rejection, so the bookers have learned to be noncommittal when asked for their reaction. Direct turn-downs tend to be greeted by a disbelieving silence, quickly followed by the suspicious question, "Has Dave seen it?" (Letterman, in fact, almost never has; he trusts his staff's judgment, and he avoids meeting his guests before the show so the interaction in front of the audience will be spontaneous.) The next step for the disgruntled is usually to try calling "Dave" directly, but the show's receptionists are well-versed by now in fending off die-hards.

Once on the show, however, even the rankest amateurs can come through like troupers. Take, for example, the guy who
chug-a-lugged two dozen raw eggs, among other things, in two minutes. Immediately afterward, backstage, he threw up.
Embarrassed, but still eager, he managed to get out the quintessential question of show-biz hopefuls everywhere: "Well, what'd you think?"
"If You Spy An Armadillo Drinking Beer From A Bottle...please tell the Letterman show bookers. It's one that got away
in their relentless pursuit of unusual guests"

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August 8th 1988
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