I’ve shared a mammoth steak with Jimmy Kimmel, been gently mocked by Conan O’Brien during a dress rehearsal and been serenaded in concert by Regis Philbin. But my most memorable experience with a talk-show giant was the scant 20 minutes I spent chatting in a nondescript office with David Letterman.
It was May 1997. As part of a short-lived publicity stunt, CBS would fly in roughly 450 people from various metropolitan areas for a specially themed “Late Show” episode. On that Thursday evening, the guests were the recently retired Kirby Puckett, Soul Asylum and, via video from the WCCO-TV studios in Minneapolis, news anchors Amelia Santaniello and Don Shelby, who kept breaking in with special reports about a gopher in his pants named Carlos.
Minutes after going off the air, Letterman, who had a reputation in the ’90s as TV’s greatest grump, said that the show was one of the most satisfying of his career. He was particularly touched by the standing ovation for Puckett.
“You do 10,000-some shows and you don’t get that often,” Letterman said while watching the end of a hockey game. “It’s usually crap and showbiz. ‘Oh, don’t ask her about her nose job.’ ‘Don’t ask her about her pants.’ This was genuine.”
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Since that encounter, Letterman went through many changes: Heart surgery. A child. Sept. 11. Joaquin Phoenix.
And now this. For the first time in 33 years, Letterman will no longer be a late-night fixture.
For me and many others, it’s almost unthinkable. More than any other figure in my lifetime, Letterman shaped and influenced comedy, not to mention introducing the mainstream to great musicians.
Back in that 1997 interview, Letterman said that in the early ’70s, he was offered a job as a weatherman at KMSP in Minneapolis, then an ABC affiliate.
“I thought, ‘Maybe it’s time for me to make a change,’?” said Letterman, who was then working in Indianapolis. “Then as I was going back to the airport, I saw these big fences down the median of the highway. I asked the driver what they were, and he said it was for the snow. I decided then that I’m not doing that. It just wasn’t worth it to be that uncomfortable for the same amount of money.”
Minnesota’s loss. The nation’s gain.
As Letterman signs off Wednesday night, we asked others to share some of their favorite memories of the broadcasting legend.
Writer and performer on Letterman’s old NBC show: “He gave me my career. Everything stems from working for Dave. I haven’t been on staff there for a while, but I’ve always sort of thought David was kind of a safety net for me, and now that safety net is gone.”
New host of CBS' “The Late Late Show”: “I learned so much in just sitting with him for 35 seconds. There is a formal informality, if you like, to his approach in dealing with you, and I felt so supported by him when we went to commercial or whatever. You can only learn from those guys. I wish I could have stayed there a month.”
Host of Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show”: “Letterman created a whole different space for himself and comedy in general. He brought in ironic distance. His departure is kind of emotional to a lot of us guys in the comedy business, to be honest with you.”
“Two and a Half Men”: “The first time I went on, (producer) Rob Burnett scared me by saying I’d better have my pre-prepared stories in line, because Dave will kill you if you don’t. But he was a pussycat.”
“Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “The Goldbergs”: “Both times I did the show, I was a wreck. I was nervous. He’s a hero of mine. I think he doesn’t want to hear that. I think he’s a genuinely humble man. The first time I was on, I said, ‘I don’t think you know what this means to me,' and he just nodded his head. He didn’t want to talk about it.”
Former guitarist for Soul Asylum: “I believe we played the show 10 times – maybe even 12? I always wore a long-sleeve shirt or jacket as Letterman kept the stage at 59 or 60 degrees. Literally, it was so cold that the (show’s) band had hand-printed letter jackets with leather sleeves that said on the back “World’s Coldest Band.” Letterman would typically introduce us as “those nice kids from Seattle” and Paul (Shaffer) would correct him. It was sort of a sweet gag in hindsight.”
Of Crosby, Stills & Nash: “It’s like a meat locker in there. Dave doesn’t want people to see him sweat. We play acoustic guitars. We tune them in the dressing room. Then, when you get them in the studio, you can’t keep them in tune. I liked Johnny (Carson) better anyway.”
“SCTV”: “In the mid-'80s, John Candy and I went on to promote a show we were doing called ‘The Last Polka,’ and there were two characters we did called the Shmenge Brothers. I had heard that Letterman didn’t like having to interview people as characters. But he did say yes. I was forever indebted to him for that.”
“Mom”: “It’s such an honor to be invited on that program and walk out on that stage. He’s in that beautiful suit, looking so handsome. It’s terrifying and thrilling all at once.”
“A Prairie Home Companion”: “I was not a good guest. The moment I sat down on the couch, I felt like I was interviewing for a job I didn’t want. And I’m glad I didn’t get it.”