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Inside the Confusing Origins of David Letterman’s Top Ten List

letterman_toptenThe following excerpt is reprinted with permission from Brian Abrams‘s new book AND NOW…An Oral History of “Late Night with David Letterman,” 1982-1983, which is currently available to purchase at Amazon Kindle Singles.

By the summer of 1985, head writer Steve O’Donnell was no longer scouring for new personnel to come up with remote concepts and “Viewer Mail” pieces. (Monologue material stayed plentiful, as staffer Gerry Mulligan continued to oversee that part of the show.) Including co-creators Merrill Markoe and David Letterman, 13 individuals populated the writers’ room, and submissions from prospective writers continued to stack high on O’Donnell’s desk. An unassuming 23-year-old Tufts University grad named Rob Burnett wangled an internship in the talent department. And, at 30 Rock, the days of finding bored New Yorkers to fill up Studio 6A’s 200 or so seats at 5 p.m. tapings were ancient history.

But of all of Late Night’s much adored ironic obsessions that transformed comedy forever and enabled a generation of writers and comedians to flourish, there is one recurring bit that to this day has multiple writers claiming credit for its creation: The “Top Ten.”

MERRILL MARKOE
CO-CREATOR, LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN (1982-87)

The “Top Ten” was started by Randy Cohen. I saw it happen.

RANDY COHEN
WRITER, LATE NIGHT (1984-90)
“THE ETHICIST,” NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE (1999-2011)

If you Google this, you’ll find that I get credit. But it’s more complicated than that. Ideas are a manifestation. It’s a social function to have an idea, that in conversations you get ideas and you draw on history, you draw on your culture. This sort of Beethoven-y individual, an isolated genius? That’s not how ideas happen. One of these mornings, I had come in and talked about this thing I had seen in Cosmo. It was the “Ten Sexiest Men Over Sixty,” and I thought this was hysterical. We were just standing around the reception area, and it did invite jokes. As I recall, it was Bob Morton who said, “Oh, we should do something like that on the show.” So I initiated the discussion and saw exactly how this would work. So I wrote it up, but it would never have happened if the other people hadn’t been sitting there, if Morty hadn’t given it a little nudge. So I suppose I had more to do with it than anyone. I think it was Matt Wickline who wrote the first one [on September 18, 1985]: “Top Ten Words That Almost Rhyme With Peas.”

KEVIN CURRAN
WRITER, LATE NIGHT (1984-89)
CO-EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, THE SIMPSONS (2002-2014)

“Top Ten Words That Almost Rhyme With Peas.” I wrote the first one. I wanted to do a really silly one.

STEVE O’DONNELL
WRITER, LATE NIGHT (1982-93); HEAD WRITER (1983-93)
HEAD WRITER, JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE! (2003-08)

I had seen a list of eligible bachelors. I don’t think it was in Cosmopolitan. That’s too cheesy. I think it was in the Daily News. And there were 10 bachelors, including [Bill] Paley, the CBS chairman who at that time was 84 years old. That amused me. There was no qualification for this, no criteria or standards. They just made a list of 10 things. There was no rational yardstick that could be brought to bear. Anyone could make these lists. I suggested doing it on a daily basis. As I recall, the first one we did was one suggested by Kevin Curran, which was “Top Ten Words That Almost Rhyme With Peas.” Whatever it was, you can at least see that the first lists were not a bunch of jokes about John Boehner and Harry Reid. They were supposed to be conceptual, this weird mixture.

BOB MORTON, aka “MORTY”
PRODUCER, LATE NIGHT (1982-87); EXECUTIVE PRODUCER (1987-93)

There’s always been disputed credit as to who created the “Top Ten” list. I had a copy of People Magazine, and I think they had done the “Top Ten Sexiest Bachelors.” It was John Kennedy Jr. or somebody. And I said to Steve, “You know, we should do our own 10 best lists.” Obviously, you have to give credit where credit is due. Steve is the one who ran with the idea and decided to give it the form that it took and kept going with it.

MERRILL MARKOE

Well, you know, there were a ton of top 10 lists around in those days. Entertainment Tonight was this new show, and they were doing one, for some reason, on a daily basis. Obviously, it was not for the same reason. So it’s completely possible that Steve and Randy both had the idea. All of us were on a search for reusable segments, and we were all picking through the same pop culture-related crap, sifting for a gem — except those of us who were devoted to picking through encyclopedias and reading the phonebook.

STEVE O’DONNELL

Randy, I remember, with the “Monkey Cam” and a couple other great innovations. By the way, I’ve heard Downey came up with the “Top Ten,” but he left in ’83. We didn’t do them until 1985. I have to rethink everything on a yearly basis. History and reality are not fixed. Morty and Randy in the reception room? It’s Rashomon, clearly something that swirls in controversy.

JIM DOWNEY
WRITER, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (1976-1980; 1984-2013)
HEAD WRITER, LATE NIGHT (1982-83)

I did a thing at [the short-lived sketch comedy series] The New Show called “The Top Five.” It was during a segment called “Weekend Tonight,” kind of a parody of Entertainment Tonight — like our version of [SNL’s] “Weekend Update.” It would be, like, “Top Five Causes of Death Among College Students on Florida Spring Break. Number 5: Drowning In Own Vomit. Number 4: Diving Into Empty Swimming Pool. Number 3: Being Used as Human Battering Ram in Raid on Fiji House.” It was that kind of thing, which was essentially the “Top Ten.” It’s an odd category to do a list of, and they’re weird things being written in that telegraph style. The reason I feel that I was at least a major influence was because Jeff Martin called me and said, “Hey, everyone loves those ‘Top Five’ things. Who does those?” I said, “Me.” And he said, “Oh, those are really great. That’s our favorite thing at Letterman.” Six months later, they started doing the “Top Ten.”

  
Late Night’s first 10 “Top Ten” lists, 1985:
September 18: “Top Ten Words That Almost Rhyme with ‘Peas’”
September 19: “Top Ten Dance Fever Judges”
September 24: “Top Ten Heaviest Kennedys”
September 25: “Top Ten Baseball Players with Funny Names”
September 26: “Top Ten Furniture Favorites”
September 30: “Top Ten Liquids”
October 1: “Top Ten Cartoon Squirrels”
October 2: “Top Ten Wiper Blades”
October 3: “Top Ten Commercial Processes”
October 8: “Top Ten Pharaohs or Tile Caulkings”

AND NOW…An Oral History of “Late Night with David Letterman,” 1982-1993 is currently available at Amazon Kindle Singles.

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