Friday, January 6th, 2012

Inside the Almost 100% Successful 1985 Late Night with David Letterman Book

Everyone knows that Merrill Markoe just wrote a book called Cool, Calm & Contentious. But did you know she also did a first book? It’s true, because that is how ordinal numbers work, and for the purposes of this, it is Late Night with David Letterman: The Book.

Perhaps you can tell by the cover that this book was published in 1985 (also: there are some Tip O’Neill jokes). But: it captures a lot of what we might now refer to as “Late Night High Ironic” and at the time was referred to as “confusing to anyone not accustomed to constantly adjusting their point of reference”. That the title page includes the actual book title underneath the crossed out title “The Day the Whistling Stopped: The Short, Tragic Life of Harriet Zwindel” might give you some indication of whether this book will be up your alley.

This book is up my alley! Published about three years into the production of the show, it really feels like a frozen moment from the early seasons: the bulk of it comprises material from Late Night, from some opening monologue lines to Viewer Mail to the “Goofus and Gallant” parody “Fred and Frank”:

…as well as some of the one-off “remotes” from the show, like the Afterschool Special “They Took My Show Away” in which Letterman comforts a boy named Jimmy who is upset at the cancellation of Voyagers!

In addition to the pieces that were mined from the show, there is also a knot in the middle where a handful of writers have short original pieces:

  • Joseph Toplyn discusses some show slang (it turns out the expression “spackies” refers to “jokes about spackling or grouting”, obvious in retrospect).
  • Fred Graver provides some answers to common questions such as “What’s Dave like?” and “How much money do the recipients of the MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius Grants’ get? (he doesn’t know, because he told them to give his grant money to John Sayles)
  • Sandy Frank contributes some Star Trek / Letterman slashfic
  • Chris Elliott provides a book review for Treasure Island wherein it is gradually revealed that he wasn’t actually able to get all the way through Treasure Island.

  • Plus original pieces by Jeff Martin, Larry Jacobson, Kevin Curran, Steve O’Donnell, Gerard Mulligan, Matthew Wickline, Randy Cohen and Merrill Markoe

The writing in this section (and, really, throughout the book) exactly hits a tone that is deadpan surrealist, witty but affable, and skeptical but not really wanting to be and that now is basically House Style for a late night show.

“Oh, so the book is 100% Perfect?” you are saying. Oh, man, almost. I’m sorry to say that the visuals sometimes don’t always enhance the writing and in a couple of cases distract. Many of the remotes are now up on YouTube and it’s better there? In particular, Dog Poetry and The Late Night After School Special are both flawless, and knowing that you could be actually watching them makes looking at screenshots in the book a little tough-going today.

There are some layout issues as well, which in one case results in these two photos orphaned on an otherwise blank page 114.

Which, I guess that’s kind of beautiful, but maybe there was a better way? That said, a lot of the visuals work, especially in the prop-based segments. The main reason the Jack LaLanne Q-Tip Dispenser is funny to me is that someone had to make it, which is also the case with these Whimsical Ham Grips:

Going through the book again recently I was struck by the question “Whaaaat is the deal with this book it is so crazy?” Unfortunately for editor Merrill Markoe, she is on Twitter, and her avatar is a dog holding a sign that says “bother me about something dumb from 26 years ago” (it has since changed), and she was way more generous than necessary in replying.

I’m sorry to say my main question is basically “Whaaaat is the deal with this book it is so crazy?”

I can see it as NBC marketing trying to capture lighting in a bottle (where “lightning” = “whatever it is college students see in this” and “bottle” = “book”) but it also feels like something the writing staff might have insisted be published so they could show their parents what they’ve been doing.

So: I am glad this was made, but why was it made?

I think it started because the publisher approached the show and asked for a book. And we all thought that sounded exciting. It was conceived of as a showcase for the writing. I guess that is just how we thought the show would be best showcased. Back in the beginning, we were specifically proud of the care we put into the writing. The book was supposed to showcase the comedy and one of the unique things about the comedy, in our minds back then, was the written material.

The book includes a lot of the recurring segments from this period, about two years into the show. How did you go about selecting what would go into the book? Alternatively: Who complained the most about having to write something?

We sorted through hundreds of things and picked the stuff that was highest up on the ladder of our past comedy hits. Things we were pretty proud of. The pieces that seemed to be an example of the kind of interesting original thinking we were trying for, reduced to the ones that played well in front of the audience. We all knew what we meant by that. You probably weren’t even born yet so it’s hard for you to imagine people slaving over the writing of a nightly talk show back then. You probably imagine it being the 1300s and I guess in some ways it kind of was. We all came to work on ox carts. But we were really in to making the show unique and original.

I don’t remember anyone complaining. Which doesn’t mean they didn’t. I just don’t remember.

Since it was a big collaborative staff situation, everyone was kind of wanting to stand alone as themselves for a moment. The idea for this may have come from me. No one wanted personal differentiation more than I did. And I was a big fan of humorous essays (and continue to be as we see in my latest book, Cool Calm and Contentious). (You didn’t expect me to come all this way and not do a book plug, did you?) But back on topic, one difficulty of writing for TV is you don’t often get to hear your own voice. This seemed like a cool opportunity.

I have a couple questions about the images and the answers are probably either lost to time or not something you were involved with (or the questions are insulting) but: (1) the book is about 200 black and white pages, but there is a four-page color section in the middle of the book that includes “The Future” and “Camping with Barry White”; (2) there are a ton of photos from the show, and a lot of them have video “noise” in them – they look like photos taken of television monitors. The charitable version of my question is: What was the reason for these aesthetic choices?

This was a big, big problem. We assumed when a network TV show signs on to do a book with a huge publishing house, it automatically means that there will be fabulous professional looking color photos, like ones we had seen in millions of other books. It never occurred to us that it could be any other way. Especially since we mentioned that the content would need photos. It’s not like we had never seen a book like that before. They weren’t an extreme rarity. Others had accomplished them. We assumed we would too. Then we saw the galleys and they were not only worse than what you are observing, they were filled with embarrassing nightmarish typos and lame photos. That was the first time we understood that the book wasn’t going to be like we imagined it would be… that there were apparently discussions we needed to have with someone contractually that had never taken place. Dave was extremely unhappy about this and from that point on pretty much washed his hands of it. He wouldn’t promote it. He sniped about it. He was really REALLY angry with me about it. But I had never done a book before. I had no idea… We were all pretty unhappy with everything about the final result except the words. They’re still pretty great. It’s really nicely written.

I sometimes think of the original material created for the show as having a tough time making a case for itself. The fact that the show is on nightly and has had a spotty syndication history – or that the marketing of it is centered around guests with something immediate to sell – all of that has conditioned me to think of each show as impermanent, or at least more disposable than, say, an SNL sketch or a Simpsons episode.

One thing I love about the book is that it feels like a snapshot of the show and represents the very specific tone the writers were able to get. I guess I’m wondering what the sense was in writing these pieces: did it seem like you were always discarding a ton of work to get content for the next night, or were you aware that you were possibly inventing Judd Apatow?

The show started out as a very written show. Everyone wanted it that way. We always did two to three written pieces, every night. The show set out to differentiate itself from the existing talk show genre by being a showcase for weird, interesting ideas and great writing. Within a few years, this had begun to wear on Dave. Too much rehearsal, for starters. And his standards of perfectionism were pretty difficult to meet on a nightly basis. It’s kind of a different show now. But back then, our intentions were pretty writerly. This book is a showcase of that effort. The people who were on the staff with me were all really good with words.

Amazon currently offers a range of prices one might pay different resellers for this book, from one cent to $263.46. What would you say is an appropriate value?

Well, I would say $500 is about right. And the people who would like to spend that should contact me directly.

* * *

The writers for this show were a Murderer’s Row of talent, plus two more rows and a hat, as shown here:

And for a mere $500 you can see what their brains were like when, as segment producer Robert Morton said, they were young kids who really didn’t know how to do what they were doing. There is definitely a sense that that assessment extends to this book. But it is also fascinating.

For the three people (including “Jimmy”, who is fictional) who recall the voice-over from the Voyagers! closing credits: “If you want to learn more about comedy in 1985, take a Voyage to your nearest public library. It’s all in books!”

Merrill Markoe’s Cool, Calm & Contentious is out now.

Late Night with David Letterman: The Book has been out since 1985.

Patrick Mortensen lives in Chicago. More of his writing can be found here and on his hard drive where it quietly waits rejection from the Quality Lit Game.

Sponsored Content
  • Paul Ford@twitter

    I truly loved this book. I got it when I was 12 and I had never seen the Letterman show so it made no sense to me–who is Larry "Bud" Melman? I read it about eight times trying to figure out what it all meant. It has amazing fake greeting cards that still make me laugh when I think about them–esp. one that read something like "You must long for the relief that death will bring."

  • Tom Graney

    The greatest gift of Letterman's show may be Norm MacDonald's dead-on impression of Dave on SNL… and I'm not paying $500 bucks for any book that has no nudity in it. However, I would pay $500 NOT to see Larry "Bud" Melman naked. HA HA! HE HE! Eeeeeh… you got any gum?

  • Davidwatts

    my mother had this book on the shelf my entire childhood, and i read it over and over again. They'd gotten it when it first came out, which was around the time that my (much older) brother had a letter make it on Viewer Mail. He taped a dead flea to it, which started a mini-trend of other people mailing in dead insects.

  • joe2

    I had that book when I was a teenager and I fucking loved it. I can still remember a bunch of the stuff in it.

    Those were the days, man.

  • Agent M

    I stole this book with my mind. That is, I read it over and over in the college bookstore without buying it. You mentioned the visuals. Terrible. Seemed like someone had played the tapes, hit pause, and photographed the TV screen.

  • Anthony Coro

    I love this book because it's the closest I've ever come to seeing the mentality of Letterman's 80s material that so many of my comedy idols (e.g. Conan) praise so extensively but has long been missing from Letterman's repertoire. There's some great stuff here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Timothy-McMahon/100000062513606 Timothy McMahon

    My wife had her copy of this book autographed by Chris Elliot two years ago. He was kinda amazed that anyone still had this book laying around! – It has now become a cherished family heirloom that we will now pass along to future generations.

  • Frank Tenorman@twitter

    I checked this book out of the library when I was 10. I thought it was great, but I had to ask my dad what "Nair" was.

    I think the joke was "Frank leaves his date an empty bottle of Nair and her eyebrows missing."

  • foo

    There was a mess up with printing and several pages didn't have text to accompany the pictures. Book was already printed, so corrected replacement sheets were added. The pages are titled "Corrected Pages 194-197 to Be Inserted in Badly Bungled First Printing". I remember Dave making fun of this while promoting the book, back in the day…