|TIME - David Letterman Article
A late night in September, David Letterman is on CBS, with the same bits he perfected (but maybe didn't patent) on his NBC
show: running animals through stupid pet tricks and Calvert De Forest -- Larry "Bud" Melman to you -- through the
humiliation gauntlet. Chevy Chase is on Fox, reprising the Weekend Update routine from his early stint on NBC's Saturday
Night Live. So what does that leave for beleaguered NBC and its corporate parent, General Electric? To stick with the
lunch-pail charisma of Jay Leno at 11:30. To hope that Conan O'Brien (Dave's 12:30 replacement) will disprove early
indications that he is a human test pattern. And, for now, to cry "Rip-off!" all the way to the courtroom.
At issue -- if anything so frivolous can be called an issue -- was whether a performer can use material created for a program owned by another network. "There are certain intellectual-property issues that do not travel with Dave," warned peacock president Robert C. Wright on NBC's summer press tour, referring to such Letterman shtick as Stupid Pet Tricks, Larry "Bud" and the Top Ten List. "If CBS thought they were buying that, they didn't...They can certainly do things like that. But they can't do those things."
CBS Entertainment president Jeff Sagansky replied genially, as you'd expect of the winner in the $42 million taffy pull over Letterman's services. "David's brand of comedy is unique," he said. "And we're not really worried about the NBC suit." Then he added a japish threat: "We have invested $1 billion in baseball over the last four years, which NBC is going to get now. And we feel we have a proprietary right to the nine-inning baseball game."
Right now the late-night game is in its dog days, or stupid-pet season. The play-offs begin August 30, when Letterman debuts on CBS opposite Leno, with the wild-card teams headed by O'Brien and Chase joining the fray in September.
Addressing a network press conference last week, CBS's star free agent had fun from the moment he came onstage and fiddled with a defective microphone ("Oh, it's the GE equipment"). Anything different on the new show? "Well, I'm going to start using a rinse on my hair." Won't his huge salary alienate his old audience? "If that happens, I'll just, you know, buy a new audience."
CBS, of course, hopes he steals Leno's audience, whose numbers are about the same as Johnny Carson's were. And Leno,
whatever his anxiety over competing with the talk-show host who made him famous, is happy to milk the story for sharp laughs.
Last week he read an "NBC memo" regarding the intellectual properties Dave may not use on CBS: the letters N, B or C
("legally they're ours"); the term Letterman ("because it originated with the singing group who appeared on NBC's Kraft Music Hall with Eddy Arnold in 1970"); and the phrase "pinhead network executives." ("Pinhead network executives are the exclusive property of NBC").
Wright sounds spurned and burned. "None of us wanted to see him leave," he said of Letterman. "But the reality is...he walked out of our marriage." And so NBC picks a fight with flush CBS over comic ideas that were hackneyed when Letterman started using them; call it banalimony. That surely describes the high-level mud wrestling over De Forest's Melman.
"If you have an actor who's a bumbler," asks Manhattan attorney Stanley Rothenberg, "do you prevent him from earning his living after this series is over? Do you say he can't go and bumble elsewhere?" And what, anyway, is a comedy character? "There was no Larry 'Bud' Melman character," says Merrill Markoe, Late Night's first head writer. "It was just Calvert being unable to read cue cards particularly well. It was a trait with which he was so consistent that we could call it a character.
That was the character: there was no character." As for Stupid Pet Tricks, Markoe dreamed it up for Letterman's NBC 1980 morning show -- which he, not NBC, owns -- and reused it on Late Night.
"I came up with a really good sequel to Stupid Pet Tricks," adds Markoe. "If anyone wants to contact me, for $3.5 million I
can tell them what it is."
Considerably more is at stake this fall. NBC, the premier late-night comedy network for almost 40 years, has a daunting challenger in Letterman. The late-night game could be a fall classic this year, but the Barry Bonds of talk-show comedy doesn't "hold a grudge" against his old team. "I've had a little remorse," he said with uncharacteristic introspection. "Certainly no acrimony."
The night before his last NBC show, Letterman recalled, "Bob Wright came up to the office, and we sat and we talked for about an hour. And he gave me some very nice gifts." And what were the gifts? "Oh, a pack of gum."
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|August 2nd 1993|
|T Bone's Late Show with David Letterman Webpage Contact Me|
|"Stupid talk-show tricks"
"NBC and CBS squabble in a corporate custody battle over David Letterman's shtick"
By RICHARD CORLISS