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Friday, March 29th, 2013

The Episode Where David Letterman Had 13 Cameras

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 all of my surface dwelling readers are already aware, the winds of change are once again blowing around the gates of late night TV. The Tonight Show is looking towards Jimmy Fallon to take the reigns, pushing Jay Leno off into who knows where. Now, I know everyone idolized Carson, everyone wants to be on TV earlier than midnight, and everyone wants to join that really small club of people who hosted The Tonight Show, but in spite of all of those perfectly legitimate reasons, there are some really good reasons to stay on at 12:30, too. Actually, I can sum it all up in one reason: at 12:30 you can be ridiculous.

At 11:30, old people are awake. People who watch local TV news are watching. Those people aren’t interested in “Let Us Play With Your Look” or “Potato Judge” or the “Late Night Monkey Cam.” So today, to celebrate the ridiculousness of 12:30, I’m going to look back at an episode of Late Night with David Letterman from March 2, 1988, when it was Camera Night.

After the opening introductions and graphics, Dave makes his way to the front of the stage in his then-trademark khakis and wrestling shoes, however something feels a little different. There’s a lot more movement, perhaps? Or maybe it just feels like there are a lot more crowd shots? After a brief non sequitur (“Hello everyone, and welcome to our Tuesday Night Roast Beef Roundup! I'm sorry, for a moment there I thought I was a manager of an Arby's.”), Dave lets us in on the joke: it’s Camera Night! “Because we continually want to bring you the finest in American commercial television, tonight we’ve added a few extra cameras to our normal battery of video equipment. Usually we have four, and that's honestly probably too much. Tonight, we have thirteen because we want to make sure you don't miss one second of all the action, the heart-felt action, that happens here tonight.”

Dave then shows off the thirteen different camera angles available that evening. Some are arranged behind him, some are long distance shots from the back of the studio, one is black and white, one, mounted to a long post, even crawls across the floor between his legs, up and around to give a towering wide shot.

The cameras, as you might imagine, provide Dave with an endless stream of material for the rest of the evening as his director Hal Gurnee, goes a little mad with power with the entire front of the stage now taken over by cameras at his command. “When the Fox Network finally folds and goes out of business,” Dave says in a prediction that wasn’t that insane, pre-Simpsons, “they’ll have a sale that looks something like this.”

From this point, the show basically proceeds as normal, with a few irregularities peppered in, due to the vast increase in hardware that evening. For example, Hal seemed to really enjoy cutting to Anton the drummer with the black and white camera for various reaction shots. Camera operators are given their time to shine as they accidentally walk into shots. Dave tells a story about why he had a horrible weekend, involving moving flaming logs around in his fireplace, and when Dave struggles to think of the brass item in the fireplace that holds the logs, an audience member shouts out “a fire log holder” and Dave commands the cameras to get a shot of guy who yelled it, derailing the story entirely. (They can’t find him.) Later as Dave interviews Tom Brokaw, suddenly the audience is shown a close-up on Brokaw’s hands, and the audience begins to titter in the middle of his story about travelling to Russia to interview Mikhail Gorbachev.

At a certain point in the evening it becomes a little hard to tell if Dave is being his usual sardonic self, or if he is genuinely displeased with the night’s gimmick. After finishing the story about his fireplace he announces loudly, “I couldn’t have told that story with just four cameras!” Later, Dave glances into a monitor and notices that the reaction shot of Anton the drummer is in black and white and asks, “That shouldn’t be in black and white, should it?” His off-screen producer gives him an answer and he responds, “Oh, they thought it’d be more amusing to be in black and white?” He feigns laughter. “I gotta start coming to the meetings!”

But if 13 cameras didn’t prove to you that you can get away with more ridiculous stuff, then certainly an appearance from Larry “Bud” Melman will. Now, I will grant you that Calvert DeForest appeared on the CBS Late Show, but he never got to do anything as crazy as the insane heights he reached on Late Night. In this particular installment he plays Kenny the Gardner who, for no discernable reason, is dressed as Roy Orbison and talks about how he travels the nation, “entertaining our men and women in uniform…at Dunkin Donuts.” The best moment in this strange interview happens when Kenny the Gardner attempts to get the audience on his side and jumps from his seat exclaiming “AM I right, people?!” somehow managing to put the emphasis solely on the “am.” A perplexed Dave goes off script and says, “That was a reading of that line I didn’t think possible.” Eventually Kenny has a guitar strapped on him (it takes a lot of effort for the stage hand to get it there, though) and he performs a verse from “Blue Bayou” demonstrating the weirdest strumming pattern possible, by tapping his hand against the neck of the guitar. Once he leaves, a flummoxed Dave complains to no one in particular: “Every time he comes out here, it's like a bar fight just to get through one of these things.”

While the show doesn’t go perfectly, the whole venture typifies exactly what late night TV can be: it’s fun, it’s different, and it’s messy as hell. There’s an electricity running throughout the evening that you just don’t see as often. The audience becomes much more vocal, perhaps because the number of cameras on the floor makes the gulf between where they’re sitting and where the show is being made much smaller. Or maybe they’re just excited by what’s unfolding in front of them. Whatever the reason, this attempt at experimentation doesn’t go that smoothly, but it does makes for some very entertaining television that had never been attempted before and (perhaps wisely) hasn’t been tried since.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

  • fard muhammad

    I saw the monologue of that show on YouTube. I miss that version of Letterman. While age, politics, and the kid changed him over time as would anyone else, I think another major change was the venue. During the outtakes of the Conan/Stewart/Colbert fight that took place in the 2008 Writer's Strike, Conan and Jon were talking about the concept of "comedy compression" and Studio 6A. Something that was almost impossible for the rafters of the Ed Sullivan Theatre…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Mclachlan/747758431 Jeff Mclachlan

    Let's also not forget the Too-Tired-To-Do-A-Show-Show, the Revolving 360 Degrees Show, The dubbed in Spanish show, the Japan Show, and the fake Christmas Special. The first few years of Late Night were just about the best, most innovative comedy ever done on tv. I don't blame Dave for not being able to keep up that kind of pace forever, so regardless of how traditional his show is currently, he pretty much gets a lifetime pass from me.

    I would say that you can possibly trace the end of Letterman's period of innovation to the 1988 writer's strike. There was a while there where he was doing the show on the fly without any prepared material, and I don't know if it was a positive for the show in the long run that he learned that he could get away with that. I really thought it was noticeable that even after the writer's came back there was fairly sharp decline in the amount of crazy ideas and elaborate written bits on the show, as though Dave finally realized that they were putting more work into the show than they needed to.