A Look Back at Letterman’s Early Morning Roots
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.)
No one has left me an angry comment or emailed me about this yet, but as of writing, four out of the twenty-three articles that I’ve written in this series have been David Letterman-related. If my limited math skills are correct, that’s 5.75%! So far we’ve seen an early episode of Late Night, a comedy special he did just before that show started, and a very early appearance on Tom Snyder’s show. Well, today we’re going back in time again to take a look at Letterman’s morning show, called The David Letterman Show.
Airing at 10am on NBC for five months in 1980, The David Letterman Show shares many similarities with the host’s later programs, but is still very much it’s own, strange thing. Rather than give you a blow by blow of the whole episode, let’s take a look at what elements of Letterman’s Late Night and Late Show are present in this incarnation, and also what the major differences seem to be.
The most important similarity is the tone of the humor. Dave’s sensibility is deeply engrained in the morning show, which I wasn’t necessarily expecting. Remember, this show was on during the time slot that is now occupied by Kathie Lee and Hoda; one of the most un-Letterman-like TV shows out there. However, even at ten in the morning, Dave is genuinely funny and is able to do some bits that surely confused some of his viewers. For example, as the show comes back from commercial at one point, Dave stands in the audience (a familiar sight to modern day viewers) and approaches an elderly lady. He informs her that they were going to have Shelly Winters on the show that day, but found out that she couldn’t make it. He then asks the old woman if she would pretend to be Ms. Winters as a guest. She agrees, and Dave walks her back stage, then introduces and conducts an interview with the fake Ms. Winters. He compliments her work in the Poseidon Adventure, and she responds, eliciting genuine laughter from Dave, “I’m glad you liked it. It scared me, all that water.”
The most obvious difference between the morning show and the later programs is Dave’s interview style. While there have been many excellent interviews throughout the years, there are just as many where it is clear that Letterman has no interest in talking to his guest. Sometimes he makes no effort to hide this; when CBS made him have each newly kicked off Survivor castaway on his show, he made them stand on the opposite side of the studio. There’s none of that on the morning show. Whether he’s interviewing 80-year-old blues legend Sippie Wallace or or Dr. Howard Cotton, head of Mt. Sinai’s headache clinic, David seems engaged and interested in everything they have to say. Perhaps this could simply be chalked up to the greenness of his interviewing; he’s new to the game and hasn’t become jaded towards guests that no hold no interest for him.
Another similarity between the morning show and the late night show is the shared material. The episode I watched originally aired on a Friday, and it seems that every Friday on The David Letterman Show was Viewer Mail Day, just as it would later be on Late Night and the Late Show. David reads seven letters from viewers, and while on later incarnations of this bit, often the letters would receive highly produced, or in some cases, pre-taped responses, on the morning show they just get verbal, cost-effective, quips. Also appearing in this episode is the segment “Stupid Pet Tricks” which would later follow Letterman to 12:30 on NBC and 11:30 on CBS. This particular segment was a special spin-off called “Talking Birds,” although unfortunately, since the morning show was broadcast live, time was very limited, and not one of the four birds that appeared could be convinced by their owner to talk on cue. Although, it wasn’t that big a problem, as Dave surely would have made fun of the segment either way.
My favorite difference that one can see between the morning show and the late night shows appears very briefly, but gave me my favorite laugh of the show. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that Dave and his long-time bandleader Paul Schaffer have an excellent rapport with one another. They can joke with one another and their conversation feels friendly and jovial. This does not seem to be the case with the morning show’s bandleader, Fred Owens. Coming back from commercial, Dave talks about a new production coming to Broadway from the producers of “Beatlemania” called “Cowsilsmania” which recreates the experience of a Cowsills concert. He then turns towards Fred and asks “I hear you’re doing some work with that, aren’t ya, Frank?” There is a brief pause, then Frank responds: “Yes.” When the camera cuts back to Dave he is wearing an expression that seems to say “that’s what I get for asking.” It’s an awesome moment, and I can only imagine how many of those happened daily on the live morning program.
Beyond that, the similarities and the differences are pretty miniscule. The title cards between commercials are all comprised of offbeat jokes (Example: Free Bumper Sticker, Cut TV on dotted line: “I’m a Letterman Watcher.”). At the end of the program, a news anchor gives an update on the major stories of that day (SPOILER: nothing interesting happened before 10:45 on August 22, 1980.) While there are things that are different about the Letterman morning show, the important elements are still present, the most important being, of course, Letterman’s sensibility. While this talk show didn’t take off, (it would be canceled just two months after this particular episode aired) it’s clear that this sensibility just needed to find the right audience, which it continues to do every weeknight, 32 years later.