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Friday, April 4th, 2014

The Episode Where David Letterman Rotated the Screen 360°

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 150,000 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.)

Yesterday it was announced that very soon we would be coming to the end of an era. Next year, David Letterman will retire from late night television after what will end up being 33 years. With him stepping down, so too ends a long, sustained period of creativity, innovation, and weirdness that television had not seen since the days of TV's first innovator, Ernie Kovacs. Over the last few years of this column, we've examined some of Dave's more experimental shows throughout his long career, including the night he was too tired to do a show, and the time when he did the show with 13 cameras. Today we're going to take a look at one of his strangest concept shows: The 360° Rotation Episode.

At the beginning of the show on December 9, 1986 there was something a little off about Late Night. The image seemed to be slightly askew, and there was a little bit of black in the corner. No doubt, viewers were checking the knobs of their televisions to make sure there wasn't something wrong with the picture, but before long, Dave put his audience at ease and let them know there there was no need to adjust their sets, with a long, bombastic introduction. "On August 15, 1932," Dave begins, "CBS experimented with a television transmission called Worldwide Review. We've had network, cable, color, stereo and tonight: another experiment. Thanks to the technological geniuses at RCA, we bring you the 360° image rotation television program. During our program, the picture will rotate once entirely, as I imagine most of you do at home. You think it's annoying now, just wait about 10 minutes. I'll tell you more about this noble, bold experiment, but first George Miller is with us tonight, Peter Ustinov, and… this is actually giving me vertigo."

There are several times throughout the evening where Dave is clearly thrown by the effect of the rotating screen. The movement is subtle; with the picture rotating 15° every 15 minutes, including commercials. As Dave transitions from center stage to the desk it's all fun and games. He acts as though it's a struggle to get there, like a mountain climber scaling an steep incline. But once he sits down, with the picture skewed less than 45°, Dave can't seem to get his bearings. He keeps shifting, trying to make himself look "right" in the monitor. The further and further the image rotates though, he goes through the Four Stages of Letterman Concept Shows: 1. Amused by it, 2. Annoyed by it, 3. Angry and Openly Mocking It, 4. Mostly Ignoring It. By the time we get to the "Dumb Ads" segment, which is the same routine Leno would make famous with his Monday "Headlines" bit, Dave is Stage 3.

When the show returns from commercial the image is now completely vertical. A loud siren goes off and we hear the voice of a stoic female announcer who intones: "We have received 90 degrees. Please no flash photos." Shortly after this exciting moment, Dave is joined by his first guest, English actor, writer, and director Peter Ustinov. Ustinov tells stories about meeting with Gorbachev, his Ronald Reagan impression, and a mean review he wrote as a child of a classmate's art. Though the picture keeps on spinning, and Ustinov makes the occasional reference to being almost completely upside-down, the show begins to resemble a normal talk show, or as much as one can that is being broadcast in such a strange fashion.

Suddenly, the conversation is interrupted by our announcer woman once again, somehow even louder. "We have achieved 180 degrees. The current temperature is 44 degrees. The barometric pressure is 30.10, falling, and the wind at Peterborough Airport is from the NW at 6 knots." Now that the image is completely upside-down, it's time for the show to say good by to Mr. Ustinov and jump into the only section that is planned to utilize the potential of the 360° Rotation: show mascot and general oddball, Larry "Bud" Melman, is going to dance on the ceiling, in a set built upside-down (which appears normal now that the image has been flipped. Larry dances, or more accurately, does a weird trot around a chandelier, hitting his head against a chair that's nailed to the floor, knocking his top hat off, instantly ruining the illusion. The tempo increases until Larry is just running around the chandelier and then, as quickly as it started, it's over and Dave moves on to the Top Ten List.

Today when Dave reads a Top Ten list, it's early in the night to keep people tuned in, but this is 1986, so here it happens half an hour in. And when it's over, instead of some 3D graphic, we get the Late Night Thrill Cam (a camera that quickly runs on rails above the audience, all the way to Dave's desk), followed by a cannon that shoots fake snow from the backdrop in the window behind Dave. The future sounds like a bit of a downgrade to me.

From here on out, the show is pretty much business as usual. Comedian and long-time friend of Letterman, George Miller, showed up and did a little panel with Dave. Mark Bauman from Hammacher-Schlemmer (which is basically a retail/mail-order Sharper Image) shows up and showcases some unusual Christmas gifts one could get, that Dave announces as being far too expensive and makes fun of mercilessly. When testing out the "Face-Down Lounger," a padded board that allows one to lie face down on the floor for $300, Dave asks why one couldn't do this without the device, to which Bauman responds, "Yes, but that puts a lot of pressure on your organs!" Without missing a beat, Letterman shoots back "Did I hear someone say 'pressure on your organs?' Where do I sign up for that, Mark?"

When the show has finished its complete rotation of 360 degrees and the announcer lets everyone know that "everyone involved with tonight's experiment will receive a lovely plaque," Paul announces that he has a song prepared as a tribute to the adventure we've shared this evening. In his traditional, lounge-lizard style, he croons: "An incredible journey / inside your TV. / Was it all too real / Or just some nutty fantasy? / Our feet in the clouds, our head on the ground, around the world with ease / what a fabulous feeling, 360 degrees!"

The tradition of the crazy-theme-Late-Night-show has been continued by many of today's hosts, but one detail that I love about this one of Dave's is that it aired on a Tuesday at 12:35. This could have been hyped all week and saved for a Friday night where it might reach the most people, but instead it was just thrown out there in the middle of the week. And that's the thing that's most striking about the early Letterman episodes: they're so full of ideas. They never stop trying to create something new and each one brings several different things to the table. 33 years is a long time to be on TV, but when one considers just how much stuff Letterman has crammed into those years, it's really quite staggering. Thanks for making TV fun, Dave.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries "Ramsey Has a Time Machine" has a very self-explanatory title.

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