The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
As you may already know, this week marks David Letterman’s 30th anniversary. In this series of articles, we’ve already looked at a classic example of Dave’s first late night show, a very rare HBO special from Letterman, and it’s a safe bet that we’ll be looking at his short-lived morning show at some point in the future. Today we’re actually going to travel even further back to 1978, when younger versions of David Letterman, Merrill Markoe and Billy Crystal appeared on NBC’s Tomorrow with Tom Snyder.
If you never saw one of Tom Snyder’s shows, or Dan Akroyd’s impression of him on SNL, his interview style was generally very conversational. It was a loose format, with no studio audience, or any of the traditional late show elements one might expect; just him in a black room, with his guests, and possibly a cigarette or two. Depending on the night, his questions might be hard-hitting and cut to the core of the person he was talking with, or it could be just a rollicking back and forth. Either way, the discussion was generally going to be honest and something different from what usually happened on television.
This episode of Tomorrow with Tom Snyder, which aired on Friday, May 26th, 1978, begins with Tom immediately asking his audience to send in trivia questions for an upcoming show. You may not ever give the host welcoming you to the show a second thought, but it’s really jarring when it doesn’t happen. Snyder talks for a little while (that’s a nice way of saying “way too long”) about a correction he needed to make from last night’s show involving a breakfast food that was being recalled that accidentally contained wires of various lengths, because the show’s sponsor got mad. It’s an interesting preview of Snyder’s conversational style, as he squeezes so much information what could have been a 30 second statement.
To introduce the guests, Tom decides to read the bios written by the comedians themselves. Billy Crystal’s, who was appearing on the TV show Soap at the time, and Merrill Markoe’s, who had just finished working for the now-cancelled Laugh In and was just starting to write for Mary Tyler Moore’s short-lived variety program Mary, bios are pretty straightforward. Letterman’s, on the other hand, begins: “David Letterman has appeared on all the major talk and variety shows in Canada, and would be a major star there if not for his frequent and violent denouncements of Canada, its people, its weather, and its bacon.” Then the conversation begins.
Tom starts by asking Dave about his early days on television in Indiana, which quickly devolves into Snyder asking about specific station managers, and who owns what station now, and call letters, which prompts a sarcastic, “pretty interesting stuff” from Dave. After they finish this exchange, Tom says “Well, very good, David,” which gets the quick response of “Well, I guess I’m going home, then.” Which is pretty much the attitude Letterman hangs onto throughout the episode.
Next he goes to Merrill, and he starts with what has to be one of the worst opening questions possible: “Merrill, how come the pilots you wrote for CBS never aired?” Her response is a good spin, saying “when you’re making a pilot for TV, you wonder if it’s a compliment if they accept it or if it’s a compliment when they reject it.” She then talks a bit about the differences between writing for others and performing stand-up, saying that there wasn’t enough self-abuse in writing for others, and that she prefers to find out her material isn’t funny herself, rather than hear it from the person she wrote it for.
Billy Crystal talks about his early days, and getting his start with an improv group he started with three friends that toured college campuses, before finally striking it out on his own as a stand-up. Later in the show he’ll talk about having a shot fired at him from the audience (“the ultimate heckle” says Letterman) and the terror of having an audience that doesn’t find you funny.
Though there are elements of biography to the conversation, for the most part Snyder seems most interested in hearing about what it’s like to actually work as a comedian. He asks about having go-to material, the differences between “pieces” and individual jokes, finding material and so on. But there are a few moments that break out of this format. For example, Tom informs his guests that he has a surprise for them. Out bounds a singing telegram girl for Merrill, sent by two co-workers at Mary, who sings a version of “Tonight” from West Side Story with new lyrics about how she should be just herself on Snyder’s show. To say this is painful would be an understatement. Once she leaves, Crystal immediately asks what that was about. Their host apologizes and admits that that was a terrible idea to do that on the air, and Letterman assumes that “this is like the gag show, and we’ll do another one right after.”
Through it all, there are some really fantastic moments from the young comedians. Merrill talks about what it’s like to be a female comedian in the seventies, saying “it’s considered very aggressive to do stand-up. It’s manipulative and rather hostile. A lot of people are turned off by a woman being manipulative.” Instead, her method is to “skirt the issue” of her sex. She just tries “to be a funny gal saying funny things.”
We also get to hear a bit of Letterman’s stand-up, in which he talks about working on a local news program in Indiana where the news director’s concept was that the news should be as funny as possible. There had been three murders in the town, which was very strange for the area, and it was decided that it would not be funny to report the three murders back to back. So, Dave suggested that they let the sports guy do one. So, the way that this crime was reported was “First, in the National League, Reds get past the Cards, the Dodgers murdered the Giants. Speaking of murders… looks like 45 year old Eddie Foster won’t be going out to the old ballpark anymore…”
Over the years that would follow, Snyder and Letterman’s paths would continue to cross. When Letterman was given the original Late Night show after Carson’s Tonight show, Snyder’s Tomorrow was cancelled. Then, when Letterman moved to CBS, part of his contract stipulated that he would develop the show that followed his. In 1995, Letterman hired Snyder to host The Late Late Show, whichhe would helm until 1999.
At the very end of the program, Tom asks two out of three of his guests what’s going to happen to them in the future. Merrill says she’s going to just keep taking things one day at a time, and that she’d like to have creative control over a television show, which she would get, along with the guy sitting next to her, two years later. Dave says that he’s happy doing stand-up, and that he likes not knowing what he’s doing week to week. He didn’t like working in television and having to be at a job every day at a specific time, wearing a suit and tie.
Luckily for us, I guess he changed his mind about that.
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.