|TIME - David Letterman Article
Hi, there, night owls! Have we got an extravaganza for you tonight! If you're thinkin' of goin' to sleep, forget it. You won't forgive yourself if you miss...the man from the Potato Museum! Later on, you'll meet the guy with the Worm Farm -- yes, a colony of live worms to enthrall you tonight! And as if that weren't enough -- and you'd better believe it will be -- we have an investigative report on -- Celebrities and Their Dry Cleaning! More Stupid Pet Tricks! An in-depth profile on Alan Alda, the Man and His Chinese Food! And right after this word from one of our several sponsors, we'll place a phone call to Mrs. David Nelson in Loomis, Neb., who's going to tell us all about her social club, the Porkettes, and their Make-It-with-Lard Cherry Pie Bake-Off! I mean, we're gonna have more fun tonight than humans should be allowed to have. But why not, folks! Hey, this is Network Television!
It is? At first glance, second gasp and third giggle, it seems like a 4-H show gone considerably askew. Since its debut six
weeks ago in the post-Carson slot on NBC, Late Night with David Letterman has been winning fans and increasing its ratings with a tossed salad of celebrity interviews, low-key comedy and just about every uninstitutionalized eccentric it could find in the Lower 48. This recipe makes for the liveliest, least predictable talk show since Fernwood 2-Night in 1977. But Fernwood was a scripted show -- a deadpan, dead-on satire of smarmy MC's and their desperately cheerful, no-talent guests.
Late Night is different: a chatcom whose mixture of the real and the surreal keeps the viewer agreeably off-balance. It deals in the brand of humor that recent Late Night guest Gloria Steinem described as "found humor." Most talk shows demonstrate only that famous people are boring; Late Night means to prove the contention of Head Writer Merrill Markoe that "most people are intrinsically funny." This is Fernwood 4-real.
Tall, slim and laid-back -- indeed, almost supine, like a Perry Como on mescaline -- Letterman, 34 responds to his odder guests with the wary smile of a farmer who has just opened his door to yet another shingle salesman. The cockeyed parade passes in review, and Letterman gets laughs merely by squinting at the audience and, once in a while, spitting a thimbleful of wry through the gap in his front teeth. He speaks in a voice as gracefully modulated and wickedly bland as that of a small town disc jockey reading a mortuary commercial. "I like to call as little attention to myself as possible and still be funny." He seems to have been created for and by television, working within a narrow band of emotions, charming viewers with his unflappable attitude rather than with quick reactions, political satire and confrontation comedy. He wears well, like Hush Puppies. Letterman honed his style as a phone-show host on a Muncie, Indiana, radio station. "It was around the time of
Watergate," he says, "and most of our callers thought homosexuals and people from Jupiter were behind it all."
In 1975 he moved to Los Angeles and began writing and performing comedy. After exposure on Mary Tyler Moore's 1978 variety show ("The producer kept wanting me to dress up in a gopher suit and dance"), Letterman won bookings on The Tonight Show, first as a guest and then as a frequent guest host. In 1980, when Johnny Carson threatened to quit his show, Letterman was often mentioned as most likely to succeed. Like Steve Allen, whose syndicated talk show in the '60's had much of Late Night's loopy spontaneity, Carson has been a major influence on Letterman -- ever since the '50's, when Johnny got laughs on Who Do You Trust? by bantering with contestants. Recalls Letterman: "There was one guy who balanced a lawnmower on his chin -- quite a booking coup -- and Carson just made fun of him. I thought, 'What a great way to make a living!'"
The living has been good for Letterman. Though his first regular series -- a morning comedy-variety show on NBC -- ran for only 18 weeks in 1980, it found its loose-limbed form toward the end, won two Emmys (for best host and writing) and
became the prototype for Late Night. Upon its demise, NBC signed him, at a reported $750,000 a year, to wait around for a
slot to open up. When Tom Snyder was deposed from his eight-year milk run, Letterman was ready to step in. Carson's
company co-produces Letterman's show, scanning the guest list for duplications and overlap with The Tonight Show, an
arrangement that enables Carson to foster Letterman's rise while also keeping a benign eye on the proceedings. "Late Night is equaling Tom Snyder's ratings," notes NBC Programming Chief Brandon Tartikoff, "and is even more popular with the 18-to-34-year-olds. We're very pleased with it." Barry Sand, who brought order to the morning show's early chaos and now produces Late Night, points to unexpectedly long lines of sponsors and ticket holders.
Markoe, a dark-haired Liza-eyed Berkeley graduate who has lived with Letterman since 1977, is proud of the show's progress but eventually plans to move on: "I have things I'd like to write that are not out of the mouth of David Letterman."
Since December, Markoe and Letterman have been bunkered in a Manhattan hotel suite working on the show. They miss
their Malibu, California, home and, most of all, their german shepherds, Bob and Stan. Dogs are a major topic of Letterman's
comedy, and absence from Bob and Stan may help drive Letterman and Late Night to California. For now, though, there is plenty to smile about -- and Letterman does, with his patented platypus grin. "I just want to make the show as playful as
possible," he says. And why not? Hey folks, it's only Network Television.
|"Laid-back David Letterman tosses a late-night comedy salad"
By RICHARD CORLISS, reported by PETER AINSLIE
|Late Show With David Letterman Webpage>|
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|March 22nd 1982|
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