I Dream of Letterman
The first memory I have of watching “Late Night with David Letterman” - I’m sure that I’d watched it before, but this moment is always what comes to mind - is when my mom and I were watching together. It was 1982. We were sitting at the dining room table, and I think we were both doing some mending (wow). We were watching the show on the little 12” TV that had taken residence at the end of the table, to my mom’s chagrin, after all of us kids were gone from the house. My father liked to watch TV while he was eating - “Jeopardy,” “Wheel of Fortune,” “Hogan’s Heroes” reruns - which my mom, understandably, found dismissive of her.
So, my mom, who has always been a nightbird, and I, were thoroughly enjoying the show. I had been doing standup for about a year, at the time. I am pretty sure that Carol Leifer was on the show that night, and I told my mom who she was. I felt kind of “inside,” sort of personally knowing someone who was on TV. I told my mom that I wanted to do the show one day. At least, I’m pretty sure I told her.
Regardless of whether or not I actually said that out loud to my mom, I know that it was true. I wanted to do “Late Night with David Letterman.” I also wanted to do “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson one day, as pretty much all of us stand-ups wanted to do. But I really wanted to do Letterman’s show, particularly since it was taped in New York. I’m a New Yorker, I lived in New York, I have always had a New Yorker’s sensibility, and I knew, on a visceral level, that I would do well on the show.
I watched the show almost every night, unless I was working at a club, or hanging out at a club, Catch A Rising Star, hoping to get on.
My boyfriend at the time, Steve Mittleman, had been on Letterman, and, when his friend, Mark Schiff did a spot on the show, we all went to watch the taping. More and more of my friends and colleagues went on to do the show. I knew that, one day, it would be my turn.
To be on a show that I loved, that made me laugh so consistently, would be such a rush. There were so many favorite bits from the show over the years, it would be impossible for me, and tedious for you, to go through all of them here. But, here are two bits that I love and remember well, and that I’ve not seen since they aired, and I can’t seem to find either one online:
The first one was on the NBC show. It was in “Viewer Mail.” The letter read, and I obviously paraphrase, “Dear Dave, I enjoy watching many of your reruns when they’re on. But, I was wondering if you could tell me how I can tell how old that particular show is.” And Dave said, yes, it was possible to tell when they originally aired from looking at the clothes he was wearing.
They then show a clip of Dave, standing, wearing a wider tie, telling the tail end of a joke, for which the punchline is “Spiro Agnew.” Then, Dave turns around, walks away from the camera, and you can see that he’s wearing bellbottoms that are as wide as The Liberty Bell. Hilarious.
The second one, on CBS, I am pretty sure, was during one of the many times when Richard Simmons was on the show. On this particular occasion, Richard enters the set flying in on a wire, sailing over the audience, and then lands in the guest chair next to Dave. They proceed with the interview, and Richard, of course, inevitably irritates Dave, so Dave signals to the crew to “Take him away,” in so many words, and Richard, wires still clipped to his outfit, goes flying, flailing, into the air. Laughing out loud.
Dave went through a lot of big changes over those years: The Tonight Show debacle, quintuple bypass surgery, and, in my opinion, the most profound event, the birth of his son. I think that Dave becoming a father was the most maturing, most grounding thing that happened for him. It was the thing that ignited his compassion. And I loved, and still love, that shift in him.
So the years went on, and I still hadn’t been booked on Letterman. In the meantime, I did The Tonight Show several times, four or five times with Johnny, I appeared on “The Tonight Show Anniversary Show” two years in a row, I did two HBO specials, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson many times, etc., etc.
Still, no Dave.
This is the point in the story where it would be perfect to say, “And then, it happened. I got the call.”
But it didn’t. I didn’t. After 34 years of doing stand-up, I still haven’t gotten to do Letterman.
The show is ending on Wednesday, May 20th. Do you think there’s a chance?