Have A Clear Mission: Late Night With David Letterman

There is a terrific book about the early days of Late Night by Jason Zinoman. So, I don’t need to go into all of the nuts and bolts. It’s really good. I recommend it! I also highly recommend Bill Carter’s book “The Late Shift,” as a primer about how the world of Late Night was invented by Dave (while the Carson tradition was carried on by Jay). Interestingly enough, I was told that when James Corden got the Late Late Show job, one of the first calls he made was to Bill Carter, saying “The only things I know about having a Late Night show are from your book.”

Finally, I can’t recommend highly enough the recent Marc Maron WTF interview with Dave. If anyone ever asks me what he was like, I’d refer them to this.

And now.. As Marc would say, “Let’s do this, people!”

THE STORY

I’d been working on Late Night for all of one week when Chris Elliot snuck up behind me and whispered in my ear: “You suck. No one thinks you’re funny. You should quit now.” I went home and cried for an hour. Then I went back on Monday and asked Merrill Markoe, who had created Late Night with Dave, how I was doing.

“The thing you have to remember is, the name of this show is ‘Dave’s Attitude Problem.’ People tune in every night to find out what the hell is bugging Dave tonight. Just write to that. You’ll be fine.”

Dave’s “attitude problem” emerged from a cultural moment in the 80s that had its roots in the disillusionment of those of us who had grown up in the 60s and 70s. We had once believed that, somehow, the “revolution” was going to rid the world of phoniness and bullshit and lies and the creaky old habits of our parents.

In the 80s, we looked around and felt the first twinges of (in the words of Pogo) “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Anger, protest and fiery rhetoric gave way to irony and sarcasm. For many of us, and I’m guessing this was true of Dave, there was an underlying uneasiness. We were supposed to be better than this. Better than our politics, better than our compromised lives… and certainly better than American TV.

THE MISSION / LEADERSHIP

There are two kinds of mission-driven organizations. The internally driven org is doing the absolute best thing it can do, living up to its own high standards. The externally-driven org works to satisfy the needs and demands of an audience. (And yes, often organizations are a bit of both.)

Late Night was internally driven. Dave, his “attitude problem,” his high standards, his disdain for the niceties and superficiality of most talk shows, his desire to just do things differently, drove his staff.

Of course, he stood in front of a live audience every night. But when the time came to figure out how to satisfy that audience, he listened to himself.

As writers and producers, we knew that we were working for that one person. I think everyone on the staff lived to please Dave. That was our mission. Yes, the show was successful. Yes, we were growing in the ratings. But you never took your eye off the fact that this show was all about Dave.

In his Marc Maron interview, Dave talks about how he went into his ill-fated morning show: “I just thought that America was waiting for the kind of show I was going to do.” In the morning, that turned out not to be true. In Late Night, it was. But Dave didn’t work to entertain a large audience. His stock in trade was a kind of transparency about the fact we were doing a show, it was what it was, and let’s just get on with it. (Dave’s fellow comic George Miller used to joke that Dave’s form of foreplay was “Let’s get on with it… Shall we?”)

There are two great lessons in Leadership that I learned while at Late Night:

  • Be demanding. People are often surprised when I tell them that you were lucky if 1 out of every 10 ideas you pitched made it onto the show. You had to keep turning this stuff out every day. Dave was insanely demanding of himself and of the show. He often joked that the show was “Good enough for American Television” (and in the 1980s, pre-Sopranos and “peak tv,” that bar was kind of low). His quest for real quality, for something fresh and new, that had never quite been done before, was incessant. It was passed down to the writers and producers.
  • As a leader, you really don’t have any idea how the people below see you. I don’t know if Dave ever would have agreed with Merrill’s “Attitude Problem” summary. I know that all kinds of assumptions were made about Dave and his behavior, many of which could not possibly have been the way he wanted to be viewed. I know that there was a character that we perceived when Dave was on camera, and that this character was not really Dave.

Years later, when I was running a programming department, a management coach suggested that I ask some of my staff to repeat some of the announcements I’d made at a recent meeting. I went around and spoke to them and was shocked at the game of “telephone” that existed between myself and my team. As a manager / leader, you really have to make an effort to make sure people understand who you are. You can never assume that you’ve been “clear” because everyone hears with their own ears.

MANAGING CREATIVES

Productivity: If you have one idea, you can have ten.

I was lucky to get one out of ten ideas on the air — and I lasted 8 years! The writers turned out 10 or so ideas a day, hundreds of ideas a month. You might ask yourself: how do you get people to do that?

You can never be too attached to any idea. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Kill Your Darlings.” Love the part of you that can keep turning out ideas, but don’t fall in love with the idea.

Turn ideas around. Every idea can be approached from many perspectives. Go the opposite way. What if the end is the beginning? If success is failure? What if the roles were reversed?

Keep your ass in the chair. Close the distractions. Tie yourself down.

Embrace boredom. Some of your best ideas come from just trying to amuse yourself.
Embrace the human. People are funny. Always. We are never funnier than when we’re doing mundane, everyday things.

Creative people should be encouraged to love their brains and support each other. Everyone has positively horrible ideas — and we often become attached to them! No problem. When you realize something isn’t going to work, take it out back and shoot it. Come back and keep working.

Pacing

My generation of writers for Late Night were with the show for 6-10 years. The secret to that longevity, I believe, was that our day-to-day work life was managed as “a marathon, not a sprint.” On any given day, our offices hummed with the sound of diligence. Last night’s show was far behind us, today’s show bore down with unrelenting pressure, and tomorrow’s show was coming fast and furious.

A number of floors above us, Saturday Night Live was managed to a weekly sprint. The writers worked exhausting hours getting to each live show. They did 3 shows in a row, break, and then took a hiatus during the summer. Quite a few of their writers have survived for decades.

Despite what you might believe, you don’t get funnier when you’re high or drunk. And it screws you up for the long haul. Somewhere in the mid-80s, the vials you saw backstage on shows were replaced by vitamin bottles. (For the most part.)

Know your limitations. You’re performing. You’re an athlete. Stay focused and disciplined.

INNOVATION

Out of all that discipline, real innovation emerged. At its best, not one element of the show was left unexamined for comic possibilities. From the “cold open” (before the title sequence) to the occasional “cold close” (little bits after the sign-off — I recall one cold close that had Dave and Paul climbing the spiral stairs on set to check on a lighthouse lamp, as if that were their nightly routine).

Every night was a “Minimum Viable Product.” What could we load into the show that would be new and different, given our resources? Usually, we had Dave’s opening monologue (three or four jokes, as opposed to Carson’s dozen or so), an opening comedy bit (Act One), a bit halfway through the show (Act Five). The writer’s board tracked shows three weeks into the future, with varying levels of planning.

Dave had an amazing memory for things that had been pitched to him. There’s no chance in hell you could pitch something he’d turned down a year or two ago — unless you had good reason to bring it back. And he was, as stated above, very demanding. Having sat in one or two meetings where he was being pitched, I’ve seen him dismiss ideas with a simple no — and immediately know why it was wrong. And I’ve seen him take an idea and turn it around so that it would be perfect. Like I said, he embodied the vision of the show, and we were writing to his tastes.

The writers never had a “playbook” of rules to go by. We internalized what got onto the show, what worked or didn’t, and what was rejected. That said, if I had to write some rules for innovation learned at Late Night, I’d include:

  • Can it be done? I think the first thing that we were up against was how small our budgets, our studio, and our time frame was. That said…
  • Embrace your limitations. It’s always funny to look at the audience and — with a wink or a word — say “You know this is the best we can do… go with it.” Fitting our ambitions into the hallway on the 6th floor or “under the seats” were all part of the fun of the show.
  • Borrow from the past. In the old saying, “Great Artists Steal.” Dave’s famous “Suits” (of Velcro, Suet, Rice Krispies) came directly from Steve Allen. (LOOK HIM UP, KIDS!)
  • Write For Dave. Obvious, right? Not really — the few writers who didn’t make it past the first 13-week trial period were writing some other comedy for … who knows! You always had to ask yourself “Would Dave Actually Do This?”
  • “Buy the Premise, Buy The Bit.” We didn’t write funny lines (except for the monologue) for Dave or Paul. We wrote situations that were just funny. Maybe the best single piece to capture this was George Meyer’s “Humidifier Vs. Dehumidifier” piece. I mean, it’s just funny.
  • The Mission drives innovation. Ultimately, a mission has to answer the question: Who are you serving? We were serving ourselves, driving ourselves and Dave.
  • Support each other. We were in the trenches a long time. In the end, there were a few groups / factions that were allies for each other. We couldn’t have survived with it.
  • Stick to your guns. Even if the audience didn’t laugh at some things, we’d do them over and over again, because it made us laugh. And we make tweaks or little adjustments. Eventually, the dumb repetition was funny. (See: “Uma / Oprah” for one version of this that I still find hilarious… but I might be in the minority here)
  • OR… iterate and evolve. Some of the show’s trademarks went through a lot of evolution. there was stuff we liked that we spent time iterating and evolving. The Top Ten list went through a lot of change over its first few months. (See Jason Zinoman’s book.) The evolution of the Top Ten List is a good lesson about “minimum viable product” and how to iterate.
    • The first top ten lists were a parody of the notion of top ten lists you’d see everywhere, from “Best Movies of the Year” to “The World’s Sexiest Men.” The early lists contain things like “Words that rhyme with Peas,” or “Names of Hotel Meeting Rooms.” Then, one day we were doing “New Slogans for the NBA.” And most of the entries were funny jokes in their own right. Which raised the bar: Why doesn’t the list come with ten solid jokes?
      • Not that every list HAD ten solid jokes. In fact, as I remember it, we kind of knew that we were going to bat .600 or .700 most of the time. The actual ordering of the list became a kind of craft. The original Top Ten was done in a chyron overlay, using two boards, 5 items to each. Numbers 10 and 9 had to be good. 8 and 7 were “good enough” but 6 had to be better because the screen was going to go blank to accommodate the next 5. Number 5 had to be good, because you were starting over. 4 and 3 were “good enough” but 2 was probably the best. If you watch the old shows, Dave does number 2, there’s a good laugh, and he throws away #1, and the band comes in.
      • The point of this digression is that we learned how to evolve the list. It was a simple trial that grew and came to become one of the defining features of the show.

Recently, a producer friend and I expressed our utter disdain for Awards Shows. Why didn’t someone just take them out, rip them up, and start over? So we’re working on it. Looking over the above, it occurs to me: We should find a young host with a real attitude problem.

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