Because CBS’ “Late Show with David Letterman” has been on the air since 1993, it’s easy for one to think there’s nothing new to be learned about the program. You might be surprised by the wealth of detail that can be gleaned from people who work behind the scenes.
The writing staff of the long-running program took to the stage at the New York outpost of The Paley Center for Media Friday evening, part of the New York Comedy Festival. Keith Olbermann moderated a talk with 14 different scribes for the Letterman show, including head writer Matt Roberts and longtime hand Bill Scheft, who has been with Letterman’s staff since 1991.
The crew sounded an early note of melancholy, as the show’s staff is likely to find itself in need of new employment next year. David Letterman has already announced he will step down in 2015, after which CBS will replace him with Stephen Colbert. Scheft said the end seems both far and near simultaneously: “It seems like a long way off. It seems like tomorrow.” Only after the annual holiday episode of “The Late Show,” when Darlene Love usually comes in to sing holiday tunes, will the inevitable seem close at hand, he said. “That’s a real iconic moment,” he said, and staffers realize this one will be the last that will take place during Letterman’s tenure.
We thought it might be interesting to present their thoughts about the program in a format familiar to those who watch it. And so, without further adieu, Ladies and Gentlemen, here are, in our humble estimation, the Top Ten Things You Didn’t Know About ‘The Late Show with David Letterman,’ Courtesy of the People Who Write The Show.”
10) For some reason, Letterman loves talking about CBS newsman Bob Schieffer. One writer says he has a DVR at home crammed with broadcasts of “Face the Nation.”
9) The writers seem torn between playing to the audience with jokes about Donald Trump and the Kardashian family and humor that everyone on staff thinks is funny but gets silence from the studio crowd. “If Dave is tickled by something you’ve done, it doesn’t matter what the audience thinks,” said Jill Goodwin, one of the show’s writers.
8) Letterman has begun to salt some of his monologues with jokes from older opening segments, and the incongruity can be very funny.
7) The writers estimated they churn out between 300 and 400 different jokes for each night’s Top Ten segment. Clearly, most of their work never gets on air.
6) The writers will often write scripts with the stage direction, “Dave goes on a rant,” and let Letterman simply carry a sketch with top-of-mind reaction.
5) It is indeed possible to get hired as a writer for “The Late Show” by writing a letter to the staff. Roberts said “The Late Show” is the only one of the various late-night institutions that does not require writer aspirants to use an agent to reach out. People can simply call the show and ask for the proper forms to get started, he said – and executives will give the same consideration to amateurs they give to veterans.
4) When a joke inadvertently includes a sponsor in a joke, the staff may be asked to make some quick changes. A fast-food chain named in one bit may be changed to Hardee’s, the writers said, because that burger outlet is not an advertiser. The staff once had to take Ford out of a bit and instead use Citroen.
3) Ultimately, it is Letterman who sells the jokes and will often take material that is passable and make it great. “A lot of it is Dave feeling in the moment,” said Roberts.
2) The show has quietly returned to using the humor that made “Late Night,” Letterman’s much-ballyhooed post-Carson program on NBC, a critical favorite. In the last few years, said Scheft, staffers with whom the audience is familiar will interrupt Letterman, and announcer Alan Kalter has been used in bits portraying various fictional sideline ventures – stuff that used to help Letterman create what Olbermann called “anti-television television” when he first came on the scene.
And, the Number One Thing You Didn’t Know About “The Late Show with David Letterman, Courtesy of the People Who Write The Show…
1) When Letterman resumed doing “Late Show” on September 17, 2001 – after the 9/11 tragedy – the writers had very little to do with the creation of a moment that has become a hallmark of the host’s tenure on the air. Letterman did a monologue that night that essentially told viewers it was OK to try to return to normal, despite the horrific circumstances. “That was entirely him,” said Scheft. “We didn’t do a single thing.”