Frizzi: Amber Waves of Dave

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When I was a kid in Indiana, I stumbled across a show one Saturday afternoon on an Indianapolis TV station. The show was called “Clover Power” and it was one of those local shows that focused on the community. It featured kids and their hobbies. This particular show was one where members of 4-H, an organization for youngsters to hone their farming skills, were proudly showing off their prized livestock to the TV audience.

As a teen-aged boy from Pittsburgh who was rurally challenged, I had no interest in these tykes or their animals. What had me glued to the TV was the show’s host. He was a skinny, gap-toothed guy who was interviewing the kids with thinly veiled, sarcastic and hilarious questions.

“What a wiseacre,” I thought. How could he get away with this? The kids didn’t catch on; they were smiling and proud as punch to show off their blue ribbon winning cow or pig on TV. I thought for sure one of their parents would hit the guy. But none did. I figured  they were so proud to have their kids on TV that they didn’t catch on to what the host was actually saying.

Me? I was laughing my rump off!

And I learned a lesson: People will put up with virtually anything just to be on TV.

Thus was my introduction to one David Letterman, who recently announced his retirement after more than 30 years on late night television.

Dave’s current project, The Late Show with David Letterman, has been on the air for 22 years. Letterman jumped to CBS after his former network, NBC, chose Jay Leno over him to replace Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. NBC was banking on a Jay-Dave double shot. However, Letterman believed he had earned The Tonight Show after successfully following Carson for 10 years with Late Night With David Letterman. It also didn’t help that Dave often made fun of his employers, General Electric, while Jay played it good and safe.

Even though Leno led Letterman in the ratings for most of those years, Dave still had a strong following from his Late Night days. To me, it seemed that those who tuned into Leno did so to watch his guests while those who tuned into Dave did so to watch Dave.

While The Late Show has had many great moments, it was relatively tame compared with the hipness and edginess of Late Night. For my money, Dave did his best work when he was on NBC.

With Late Night, Letterman reinvented late night TV. Since Carson was his boss, Letterman could not do the conventional talk show format. That was Carson’s. Dave couldn’t even book the usual show-biz guests that Carson would normally book. So, Letterman created the most innovative talk show since Steve Allen.

In short, Late Night was not a talk show. It was a parody of a talk show.

Letterman was a product of Indianapolis’ Broad Ripple suburb. He was the middle child and only son of a florist and a church secretary. He graduated from Ball State University in nearby Muncie in 1969. He was fired from the campus radio station because he introduced the Claude Debussy’s classical number Clair deLune with "You remember the de Lune sisters. There was Clair, and there was Mabel."

After a stint as a radio talk show host, Dave went to work at WLWI, Channel 13. Along with Clover Power, he hosted a Saturday night show called Freeze Dried Movies. Along with playing campy “B” movies, Dave would turn his desk into a boat and reenact a scene from the movie Godzilla by using plastic toy dinosaurs. At the end of the show, he’d blow up a cardboard replica of the TV station.

Letterman was also the weekend weatherman. During the weather, he would inject off-the-wall comments, which would annoy farmers and others who would be interested in the actual weather forecasts. Some examples were his description of hail “the size of canned hams.” He congratulated a hurricane for being upgraded from a tropical storm and gave exaggerated weather reports for fake cities.

Letterman’s comedy bit was simply this: He would use his Midwestern homespun charm and his boyish toothy grin to insult people and honk them off.

And Dave, who would parody comics who constantly relied on the “F-Bomb” for laughs, would emphasize his comedy with wholesome phrases like, “Well, Gosh darn it to Heck!” Which he could get away with on TV and was 10 times funnier than cursing.

Encouraged by his first wife and his college buddies, Dave packed his rusty red pickup truck and moved to Los Angeles. He was part of the onslaught of young comedians like Jay Leno, Robin Williams and Paul Mooney who performed stand-up comedy at Mitzi Shore’s club, The Comedy Store. Letterman and Leno became good friends. Both wrote for comedian Jimmie “J.J.” Walker and his 1970s sitcom, Good Times.

Letterman also appeared on various TV and game shows, such as Mork and Mindy and Password, and was cast on the 1977 summer series The Starland Vocal Band.Show. He was a regular on Mary Tyler Moore’s ill-fated variety show, Mary, which also featured actors Michael Keaton and Swoozie Kurtz of the TV show Mike and Molly.

Letterman achieved his dream when he appeared on The Tonight Show. Carson would have Dave on regularly and then as a guest host. I remember laughing at the joke where Dave describes feeding his dogs food that was advertised as 100% beef with no additives and fillers. Since dogs drink from the toilet and root through garbage, who cares what they eat?

Here’s another Dave joke on dog food:

“I’m looking at the can and it says on there, ‘for the dog that suffers constipation.’ The way I look at it, if your dog is constipated, why mess with a good thing?”

NBC liked Letterman so much they offered him a show of his own. Problem was, it was in the morning. Late night on NBC was booked with Carson and Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show. There was nowhere to put Letterman but in a time slot normally used for game shows, soap operas and normal talk shows. The show tanked after 90 episodes, running from June 23 to Oct. 24, 1980.

To this day I think the morning show was the funniest of Dave’s three shows. I was in college at the time and would hurry home from class to watch it. For some reason the NBC affiliate in Terre Haute, IN would delay the show by an hour. So, I would watch the show on the NBC affiliate in Champaign, then watch it again on the Terre Haute station. I did absolutely no homework during this 180 minutes of fine television viewing.

The David Letterman Show - Live was created by Letterman and his companion, head writer and comedian Merrill Markoe. It featured comics Valeri Bromfield, Rich Hall and Edie McClurg, who also appeared on NBC’s short lived The Richard Pryor Show. Veteran newscaster Edwin Newman would update the actual news on the live show with the audience reacting to the stories by either laughing or groaning.

One of Dave’s interviews was with Steve Martin, who was wheeled out on a bed clutching a beer because he just didn’t feel like getting out of bed that morning. Another was celebrating the 50th anniversary of an elderly couple with rose pedals and sparklers. The sparklers set fire to the rose pedals. The crew came on stage with fire extinguishers spraying the feet of the confused partiers. All of which was aired live.

Many of Letterman’s and Markoe’s skits, like The Top-10 List, Small Town News, Stupid Pet Tricks and Stupid Human Tricks, originated on that show. Although the show received two Emmy Awards, it was cancelled and replaced by another game show.

NBC retained Letterman under contract with the hope it could find another time slot for him. It later cancelled Snyder’s show and replaced it with Late Night With David Letterman. Markoe was named head writer.

Late Night debuted Feb. 1, 1982 in the time slot directly after Carson. The show opened with Letterman escorted onto the stage by The Rainbow Grille Peacock Girls, a third- rate group of dancers adorned with feathers that kept falling off their costumes. One of Dave’s first quips on Late Night’s was, “You know spring is just around the corner in New York City when the Peacock Girls start to moult.”

Bill Murray was Dave’s first guest. He entertained the audience by doing jumping jacks as the house band played the Olivia Newton-John song, Let’s Get Physical. Murray would also appear as the first guest on The Late Show.

The house band was led by music director Paul Shaffer, who was a band member on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Shaffer could be seen as the piano player in Bill Murray’s Nick the Lounge Singer skit as well as appearing as Don Kirshner, in a parody of the show, Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. Shaffer worked on Gilda Radner’s Broadway show and would also appear on keyboards as Paul “Shiv” Schaffer on the John Belushi/Dan Ackroyd album, The Blues Brothers – Briefcase Full of Blues.

Consisting mainly of Shaffer, bassist Will Lee, guitarist Sid McGinnis and drummer Anton Fig, Letterman’s house band, known then as The World’s Most Dangerous Band, has remained relatively intact over the years. I remember a co-worker going to see Fig when he was in Bloomington a few years back. When asked about Shaffer, Fig was said to have replied that Shaffer was a musical genius. There is nothing about music, especially pop music, that he doesn’t know about.

While Carson maintained momentum with his target audience, Late Night, also produced by Carson Productions, was becoming a cult classic. The show was gaining an audience of young college students who would and could stay up late to watch Dave and his irreverent antics. I was among them. In later years, when VCRs became more affordable, I would tape many of Letterman shows to watch over and over.

So, wake the kids and phone the neighbors. Here is my Top-10 List, times two!

$11)    The Late Night Monkey-Cam: Dave straps a portable camera on the back of a monkey and lets it run loose though the studio.

$12)    Elevator Races: Dave would invite guests to race each other in elevators from the 6th floor studio to the main floor. Sportscaster Bob Costas provided the play by play.

$13)    The Velcro Suit: Dave dresses in a suit of Velcro, jumps on a trampoline and sticks to a wall.

$14)    The Alka-Seltzer Suit: Similar to the Velcro suit, Dave wears a suit of several Alka-Seltzer tablets and is dunked fizzing into a vat of water.

$15)    The Today Show Incident: While Today Show correspondents are doing the show live and outside in Rockefeller Center, Dave sticks his head out the window and interrupts the show by shouting through a megaphone that he is not wearing any pants. The stunt visibly annoyed host Bryant Gumbel.

$16)    Just Stores: Dave visits stores with names like “Just Lamps” and asks the owners if they carry anything other than lamps.

$17)    Amber Waves of Dave: Dave has a farmer mow the name “DAVE” into his field of wheat so it could be seen from the air.

$18)    The Fake Morning Show: Since many viewers taped Late Night and watched it at breakfast, Dave creates a fake morning show format, complete with a perky co-host. Monty Python’s Michael Palin demonstrates how to stuff sausages and a confused Carol Channing is interviewed.

$19)    The Rotating Show: Viewers see the show rotate 360 degrees during the hour.

$110)The NBC Bookmobile: Kathleen, the NBC librarian, is brought out by Gus, the forklift driver. Dave checks out Kathleen’s books.

$111) Kamarr, the Discount Magician: One of Dave’s frequent guests was a campy magician from the “cruise ship, resort hotel and birthday party circuit.”

$112) Live at Five: Dave enjoyed crashing a live show on the local NBC station, broadcasting from the studio across the hall.

$113) The Five Story Tower: Dave tests the laws of gravity by dropping various items from the top of a tower. These include bowling galls, watermelons, televisions , etc.

$114) Road Trip: Dave interrupts the show to take members of his staff on impromptu road trips that would make Ernie Kovacs proud.

$115) The Official General Electric Corporate Handshake: When GE became NBC’s parent company, Dave went to their offices to welcome them with a fruit basket. He was told by GE staff that authorization was not given for GE to receive the fruit basket. Dave decided to go on in, was stopped by security and he and his welcoming committee were ordered out of the building. Dave showed America what he believed to be The Official General Electric Corporate Handshake. The security guard starts to shake Dave’s hand but pulls it quickly away.

$116) The Kaufman-Lawler Bout: Comedian Andy Kaufman gets into a fight on the show with pro wrestler Jerry Lawler in front of a shocked Letterman. Years later, after Kaufman’s death, Lawler and Kaufman’s manager and close friend Bob Zmuda admit that the fight was staged.

$117) Crispin Glover: Known for playing Marty McFly’s dad in the Back to the Future films, Glover got a bit excitable during an interview and, after challenging Dave to arm wrestle, almost kicked Dave in the head. Dave walked off stage, telling the audience that he was going to check on the Top 10.

$118) Do’s and Don’ts with Frank and Fred: An adult spoof of the cartoon, Goofus and Gallant from the magazine “Highlight’s for Children,” Fred would always do the right thing while Frank chose the other path.

$119) Nastassja Kinski’s Hair Don’t: Actor Nastassja Kinski appeared on Late Night with her hair in an extremely tall bee-hive. She became flustered when Dave told her that her hair looked like “a barn owl.”

$120) Cher: The singer had been the butt of many of Dave’s jokes. While a guest on Late Night, Cher said she didn’t want to do the show because she thought Dave was an ---hole.

And one more, because it’s Dave.

$121) Dave Letterman’s Old Fashioned Christmas: Dave, his “wife”, Audrey Daniels Letterman and “The Letterman Family” make homemade Christmas gifts. The Doodletown Pipers entertain the audience. Teri Garr tells how she spent Easter at Elvis Presley’s house. In a parody of David Bowie singing a Christmas song with Bing Crosby, Dave sings The Christmas Song with Ted Nugent.

Because Carson didn’t want Dave to interview certain mainstream stars, Dave’s guests would border on the eccentric. Such guests would include Brother Theodore, a monologist who claimed to perform “stand-up tragedy.” There was also Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a diminutive sex therapist who, on one episode, recommended women use cucumbers for something other than a salad topping. Then there was NFL Hall of Fame defensive tackle Art Donovan, who told stories of the old days when he played football without a helmet.

Dave’s guests were among the young, edgy and hip. Comedians such as Paula Poundstone, Elayne Boosler, Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks, Jeff Altman, Super Dave Osborne, Jake Johannsen, Bobcat Goldthwait , Richard Lewis, Ray Romano, Craig Ferguson, Billy Connolly and Margaret Smith were mainstays. Musical guests included Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Marshall Crenshaw and Warren Zevon. Late Night literally resuscitated the career of blues singer Bonnie Raitt.

One recurring guest was actor Teri Garr. She was on so frequently it sparked a rumor that she and Dave were actually married. One night, in a show where Dave interviews Garr in his office, he talks her into taking a shower on the air.

Another frequent quest was actor Bonnie Hunt, whose sense of humor was very similar to Letterman’s. His production company, Worldwide Pants, produced her sitcom, The Bonnie Hunt Show. Letterman and Rob Burnett, a former head writer and executive producer of Late Show, were executive producers.

No guest received more exposure on Late Night than Jay Leno. Considered one of the top stand-up comedians in his day, Leno was a frequent guest. For me, the highlight of Late Night was when Jay Leno was on the show. Leno was so well liked from his appearances with Dave that he was named permanent guest host on The Tonight Show, appearing on Tuesday nights. The rest, as they say, is television history.

Much like on Steve Allen’s version of The Tonight Show, Dave had his own cast of characters. One was staff writer Chris Elliott, The son of Bob Elliott of the comedy team, Bob and Ray, Elliott would appear as several offbeat characters, like The Panicky Guy, The Guy Under The Stairs and Marlon Brando. The latter consisted of Elliott speaking incoherently and performing The Banana Dance to the tune of The Alley Cat. Elliott would later appear as a cast member on Saturday Night Live as would his daughter, Abby. Father Bob appeared in a SNL Christmas episode during the 1978-1979 season

Perhaps the oddest of Dave’s friends was Larry “Bud” Melman. Portrayed by actor Calvert DeForest, he was a short bespectacled actor who appeared in various skits. He would promote “Toast on a Stick,” hand out hot towels to travelers at a bus terminal and be wheeled out in a giant suit to the tune of Smoke on the Water. One spot had him interview “the man in the street,” only he would move away the mike while the person was still speaking.

The best Melman skit came when Dave sent him on a worldwide goodwill tour. Melman would call in during the show to report on his day. He would complain and beg Dave to let him come home.

When Letterman debuted The Late Show in 1993, Melman opened the show by appearing in the CBS eye logo pupil, proclaiming “This is CBS.” From then on, he would have to be referred to by his actual name. NBC would not let The Late Show use the name, Larry “Bud” Melman because they claimed it, along with other Late Night gags, as “intellectual property”.

When Johnny Carson announced he would retire in 1992, Letterman felt he had outgrown his original time slot and desperately wanted The Tonight Show. While Carson stayed neutral publically, he favored Dave over Jay. Carson symbolically passed the late night torch to Letterman when he appeared on The Late Show on May 13, 1994, while the show was out in Los Angeles. Dave announced that Johnny Carson would bring out The Top-10 List. “Johnny” turned out to be Calvert DeForest. After discovering that the card didn’t contain The Top-10 List, Dave asked “Johnny” to bring out the real list. Out came the real Johnny Carson to a thunderous standing ovation that got louder as Johnny sat behind Dave’s desk. It was Carson’s final appearance on television.

Despite his retirement, Carson couldn’t stop writing jokes. Not wanting them to go to waste, Johnny asked his former executive producer, Peter Lassally, who was then the senior vice president of Letterman’s company, Worldwide Pants, if Dave could use some of the jokes in his monologue. When Johnny died in 2005, Letterman revealed in his tribute to Carson, that all of the jokes in his monologue that night were indeed written by Johnny.

As a continuing tribute, The Late Show performs Carson’s famous bit, Stump the Band.

As much as Letterman has been praised for his innovative and eccentric humor, very little is said about Merrill Markoe, who was the head writer on Late Night and had a 10-year personal relationship with Letterman. Like the comic, Rodney Dangerfield, Merrill Markoe gets no respect. It’s safe to say Letterman would not have been as successful as he was on national TV if it wasn’t for Markoe. In fact, Markoe’s comedic influence is still being felt on the other late night talk shows, The Late Show included.

Markoe was also a comedy pioneer, becoming a head writer of a network TV show, even at a time when there were very few female comedy writers. Even with Late Night, she was the only female writer in “the boy’s club”.

Markoe broke up with Letterman in 1988 and left Late Night at about the same time. According to her website bio, “Merrill Markoe felt that she had plumbed the depths of her ability to invent off-beat, comedic ideas for acerbic witty white hosts in suits. Haunted by the fear that the creation of Stupid Pet Tricks was going to be the only thing that would appear in her obituary should she die right then, Merrill Markoe decided to abandon the talk show game entirely unless she herself had something she needed to plug.”

Years later, Markoe would occasionally appear on The Late Show plugging her latest novel. Now an accomplished novelist and humorist, Markoe also writes an occasional article for Time Magazine.

Years ago, when Heddy (wife) and I went to New York City, one of the first spots we went to was The Ed Sullivan Theater. We were going to try to get tickets to The Late Show. Instead, we saw a sign on the door saying, “We’re sorry, but The Late Show with David Letterman is in hiatus.” It felt like the scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation, where The Griswolds finally arrive at Wally World after the cross-country trip through Hell, only to discover that it was closed for repairs.

We did go over to Rupert Gee’s store, Hello Deli, which frequently appears on The Late Show. We interrupted a reporter interviewing Rupert. He stopped the interview to ask if he could help me. “Yes”, I said, probably in Dave’s dumb guy voice, “I’d like some gum.”

A friend of mine did get to see one of Dave’s show. He did verify that Dave kept the studio as cold as a meat locker.

David Letterman’s television legacy is secure. He is the longest-serving late night talk show host n American television history, having been at a desk for 31 years, He surpassed his idol, Johnny Carson last year. His alma mater, Ball State University, has named their communication and media building after him. He is a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors and was the first recipient of the Comedy Awards’ Johnny Carson Award for Comedic Excellence. Letterman has been nominated for TV’s Emmys 52 times. He’s won two Daytime Emmys and four Prime Time Emmys. Add to that four American Comedy Awards and you have quite the list of accomplishments.

The late night talk show format was created by NBC executive Pat Weaver, whose daughter is the actor Sigourney Weaver. Steve Allen, the first host of The Tonight Show, made late night zany. His successor, Jack Paar, made it cerebral. Johnny Carson took the format to a whole new level. Letterman made it hilariously irreverent.

Dave’s current contemporaries, Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, have spent their whole adult life watching him and, to a man, credit him for his influence. The grasshoppers have learned well from the Master.

Letterman has just celebrated his 67th birthday. His son, Harry, turns 12 in November. Harry’s namesake is his grandfather, Harry Joe Letterman, the florist who, according to his son, could tell jokes and be the life of the party. Joe Letterman died of a heart attack in 1973 at the age of 57. Dave was 25 at the time. He would be 52 when he himself was rushed into emergency heart bypass surgery. In typical Dave fashion, he lobbied to get the I-465 bypass that surrounds his home town of Indianapolis to be officially named, The David Letterman Bypass.

Announcing his retirement on The Late Show, Letterman explained how he told his son the news.

“I was goofing around with Harry, and I said to Harry, ‘What if I retire?’ (He said), ‘Why would you retire?’ And I said, ‘Well, because then I would be able to spend more time with the family,’” Letterman said, “and Harry looked at me and said, ‘Which part of the family?’”

What will Dave do in retirement? Much like Carson, Letterman is a very private person and seldom appears in public. Perhaps he’ll permanently move his family to his ranch in Montana. Maybe like the Frank Zappa song, Dave will be a dental floss tycoon.

Perhaps he and his son Harry will hop into the same rusty red pickup truck that Dave drove out to LA from Indiana years ago, and drive to the “Ol’ Fishin’ Hole.” I can see father and son walking down an old dirt path, fishing rods over each shoulder, the theme from The Andy Griffith Show whistling in the background. Or they may be playing Dave’s favorite song, Everlong by The Foo Fighters. Enjoy your hiatus, Dave. You’ve certainly earned it.

Personally, Heddy and I will miss David Letterman terribly. He is my all time favorite comedian. In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. And in the future, if I need a Dave fix, well, let’s just say that I thank the comedy stars in the heavens for YouTube.


About the Author
Donn Frizzi is a well-traveled man, if you consider Pennsylvania to southern Indiana to Texas and finally Peoria to be the definition of well traveled. But in each of his stops he gained certain insights that make him who he is — including a Pirates and Rangers fan who must travel to St. Louis to watch quality baseball without buying a plane ticket. Poetic justice, perhaps? A talented writer, Donn also can make a good point by putting pencil to paper and drawing with satirical splendor. We’re hoping to persuade him to grace our website with an occasional toon, as well.