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.)
One of the best things about Late Night with David Letterman was that in its prime, you never knew what was going to happen. One night Dave might wear a Velcro suit and attach himself to a wall, another night they might film the show with 13 different cameras, another night they might constantly turn the camera so that it rotates 360 degrees over the course of the hour. Well, on Thursday, November 21, 1985, not only did the viewer at home not know what to expect next, it seems as though the people making the show didn’t know either. Today we’ll be looking at an episode of Late Night that broke all the rules of the traditional talk show: there was no audience, no cue cards, no set, no band. It was just Dave, and a camera building a show, wandering through the production offices of Late Night with David Letterman.
As Dave tells us at the very beginning of the show, as he opens the door to the offices, on that particular day in New York City, the temperature was a record-setting 77 degrees with intense humidity (keep in mind that this was November, and that that is crazy). As a result of the weather, the staff as too emotionally exhausted to put on a show in the studio, at which point we are shown that the studio audience is actually being dismissed as they were taping. And so, tonight, Bill Wendell announces the show live from the 14th floor as Paul plays the show’s theme on a portable keyboard and Dave, in a red jersey and sweatpants, gives us the tour.
He starts with the monologue by stopping by the office of writers Larry Jacobson and Gerard Mulligan. You might recognize Gerard as the guy in glasses with a beard that occasionally will play random celebrities on Dave’s current show, like Peyton Manning or Hillary Clinton. Dave, Larry, and Gerard read a few of the monologue jokes that were written for that evening’s show. Dave continues walking down the hall, and we get a glimpse of Chris Elliott in his office who is told to “wash up and head home for the night.”
As the show progresses, it’s clear that some of the proceedings for the evening were planned in advance, for example when Dave stops in Research and Development to see them testing a model for a baking soda suit that Dave could wear and then be lowered into a vat of vinegar, or a visit into CEO Grant Tinker’s office, who has a partially completed jigsaw puzzle spread across his desk. However, there’s a lot of improvising too, as Dave creates humor out of these situations, for example, when the baking soda-covered Ken doll creates noxious fumes that cause his R&D staff to start choking a bit, or when Dave says that Tinker’s office is “an exact replica of Lincoln’s boyhood home, and school groups come in and tour from time to time. Isn’t that right, Paul?” Paul, peeking into the office, responds with, “I never get to take a look at this office,” to which Dave responds through gritted teeth, “Why don’t you help me out with some of this…”
Finally, we get to Dave’s office, and he gives us a tour. There’s a view of the Hudson, some photos of his dog, and a private bathroom (“This is not my bathroom, actually. It was built for Tom Snyder. And sometimes when I’m in the shower I can actually feel the presence of Tom.”) From one of the windows Dave has a view of the line of people getting ready to see the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall, so Letterman grabs a bullhorn and announces that one of the camels in the pageant that evening is highly contagious. He also lets them know that he isn’t wearing any pants.
After a break, the show begins to resemble an actual episode of Late Night. Now sitting behind his desk, Dave shows us the kind of legendary ceiling above his desk, which features dozens of pencils, stuck in the acoustical tiles. Then he introduces his first guest Terri Garr (you may know her better as Inga from Young Frankenstein). She was a frequent guest of Late Night but seems a little disoriented by the experimental episode she’s on. At one point she tells a little anecdote about how she feels as though with age she is losing her memory and then immediately exclaims that she feels stupid for having said it without a studio audience there to react to it. It also probably doesn’t help that throughout her entire appearance on the show, Dave and the rest of the (male) crew in the office pester her with this idea of her taking a shower in Dave’s private bathroom. No reason for this idea is given, and the suggestion appears to be a joke that just gets out of hand, but throughout the entire episode Terri insists that she won’t do it, until finally, in the last minutes of the show, she reaches her breaking point and agrees. The last shot of the episode, beneath the credits, is a view of the showerhead being turned on as we hear Ms. Garr shout “I hate you! Why am I doing this?”
Beyond the sweatpants, the tour and the nude actress just beyond Dave’s desk, the rest of the episode follows the pattern of a typical episode. Richard Lewis comes on, is entertaining, but just as rambling as usual, talking about dating younger women and how he’s dreading Thanksgiving with his family. Pizza delivery guys show up in the midst of the episode, which is the type of thing that probably could have happened on the show in the studio as well, and the Late Night segment producer shows some videos of “Stupid Pet Tricks” that are too elaborate to be done in the studio.
The interesting realization that one has by the end of this episode is that the talk show is very closely tied to the studio audience. So much of the pacing and the flow of the format is driven by laughs, and with those removed, it feels as though the guests and the hosts are in a vacuum. Dave can’t seem to tell if he’s bombing or killing. Terri Garr nearly has a breakdown when she can’t really tell if she’s being charming or obnoxious. And at times, it would seem as though the crew doesn’t even realize there’s a show being taped as they talk loudly with each other, walk into shots and just generally act in ways that one would believe to be unacceptable during the taping of a network television show. However, this episode is interesting in the sense that even though it’s pre-taped, it’s probably the closest TV show of the last forty years to the live, so-called golden era of television of the 1950s. Just like the Steve Allens and Ernie Kovackses of yore, Dave takes his place among the legends as he manages to steer the ship through an environment where anything can happen and everyone is on their toes.
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.